I marveled at watching some amazing group classes when I took my unit teacher training courses at different summer institutes. The classes that influenced me the most included creative group classes led by Carey Beth Hockett at the Chicago Suzuki Institute, the beautifully choreographed advanced violin group classes coached by Koen Rens at the Intermountain Suzuki Summer Institute, and an orderly and harmonious Book Two violin class of more than twenty students coached by Ed Sprunger using just a tiny metronome at the Greater Washington Suzuki Institute. Students were totally immersed in their classes and captivated by these master teachers. Unbelievably creative ideas flowed from each master teacher every moment.

The classes were all wonderful, but I could not shake two thoughts from my mind. First, would I be able to duplicate these group classes if I have a small program? Second, would I be able to form a group class when I have just two Book Two beginners, one Book Three student, and one Book Five student who just transferred to my studio? This is when the challenging idea of starting a multi-level group (MLG) class came to me several years ago, and eventually grew into offering teacher training courses in MLG.

Defining Suzuki Multi-Level Group Class

Simply put, a Suzuki MLG class consists of at least two students of different playing levels. These two students and the teacher together know at least one or two songs from Book One which will serve as the basic material to be broken down into several parts, rearranged, or augmented with additional voices or other musical ideas.

One of the smallest MLG classes I ever taught was made up of one beginner, one Book Two student, and me. We did MLG activities based only on Twinkle, Go Tell Aunt Rhody, and May Song. The Book One student got to polish these pieces while the Book Two student got to apply Book Two skills such as shifting while they reviewed the repertoire. Conducting a group class this way ensures that it isn’t divided by the book level and focused on repertoire, but instead focuses on performance and musicianship skills that can be applied across multiple book levels. In other words, all students in an MLG class are challenged in different ways that suit their individual needs.

In an MLG class, the class activity is not only playing through songs in unison as a group, expecting the students who do not play a certain song (“the non-players”) to sit or stand still and solely observe. Instead, all participants are involved in the music making, even the parents and caregivers. The desire to engage all students is a common sentiment expressed by many teachers. Maddie Garrett, a UT Austin cello student who teaches in the UT String Project, echoed this as she sought “ways to challenge all the levels without making any kids feel bored or left out.”

Basic MLG Activities

MLG teachers ensure that each group class activity will meaningfully include not only the students who are currently working on the song, but also those who do not yet play the song (“non-players”) and the students who are much more advanced to participate (“super-players”). Many MLG teaching skills can be used to create variations of the core materials by varying or embellishing the musical elements of the song.

There are many musical elements that can be altered. Form can be re-ordered in some way, or handed off back and forth by groups of students. With texture/voices, you can find good starting points in some of the ensemble literature or create your own counter voices, drones, or harmony to add to a piece. Pitch can be altered by starting on a different string or different position. Dynamics can be experimented with by changing or reversing them. Tempo can be altered by playing at different speeds, or effects like ritardando or accelerando. You can work with students on expression: try to convey different feelings by changing the character or even the tonality from major to minor. Articulations such as staccato or legato and more can be exaggerated or dialed in. There are many possibilities, so feel free to experiment and challenge your own creativity!

Ensemble techniques that are difficult to implement in a private lesson can generate great ideas for group class. These include chamber music skills, communication, and collaboration skills. Samantha Kerns, a graduate cello student at Oklahoma State University at Stillwater, found success in prompting “non-verbal applications of musicianship skills (dynamics, tempos, sound and tone) instead of getting stuck with technical wordy activities.” To list a few ensemble ideas, students can learn to wait for their turn with correct counting by playing a round. Students can take turns playing the antecedent or the consequent with one another to learn to become keen to the concept of “question and answer” phrases. With the activity of following a leader or trading phrases, the class learns to listen and watch sensitively to cueing, following others, and responding appropriately to bowing styles. By altering the musical elements like rhythm, dynamics, articulation, meter, and even trying the core Suzuki materials in different or opposite styles, a MLG class teacher is able to bring the learning focus to anything but the notes and bowings.

Topics covered in the private lessons can be deepened further in an MLG class through hands-on trial and error, observing, and listening. Because of the format of an MLG class, a tricky spot is frequently investigated with several activities, either solo or tutti. For example, the pre-twinkle students can preview the bowing of Go Tell Aunt Rhody by watching the players perform, airbowing, or bowing on their caregivers’ arm (a good Suzuki triangle activity), or standing up or sitting down when the players’ bow changes strings, building awareness of how the bowings work.

Benefits and Challenges for Teachers and Students

The first benefit that comes to my mind (and frequently as a reminder to calm my nerves when I get nervous before a class) is that MLG classes truly create a nurturing environment based on the Suzuki method and expand upon the vision of the “Mother Tongue Approach.” In an MLG class, students use their musical vocabulary and grammar learned from the private lessons to carry on a fun conversation, a debate, or even a quarrel. Through these musical dialogues, students are constantly and actively involved in music making despite their book level and therefore gain a deeper understanding of an aspect of a piece. Such a focus on studying a piece of music deeply motivates students to look at challenging spots with more problem-solving options. Parents and students are also shown the importance of review by engaging in the fun activities in MLG classes.

Another benefit of MLG classes is that they create space for experimentation. When seeing more students collaborate and toss around ideas, students experiment through trial and error and learn that it is totally normal to make a mistake in front of people. MLG classes provide a safe environment to try new things and this key idea helps students to be resilient and tenacious to face challenges for live performance.

MLG classes become the vehicle for building a stronger Suzuki community. By having regular MLG classes, students see each other playing review and preview repertoire. They become comfortable making music together and get better at team building and collaborating with each other. It is where the Suzuki Triangle gets amplified outside of each of the student’s homes and beyond the private lessons. Parents and students are offered a place to share their support and learn from each other. Students have constant chances to perform for their peers and other families, lowering the anxiety that accompanies performing in recitals and contests. Desiree Abby, a Suzuki cello teacher who recently started offering MLG classes, shared: ”The pandemic’s forced isolation left a residual of an at-arms-length environment that I wanted to break down. I wanted the studio to feel once again like a true extended cello family.” I think this sums it up pretty well. In the long run, when your students and their families know each other better, they are able to piece together a bigger picture of a student’s progress. This helps both the parents and students look beyond the idea of comparing book level and song level as the only way to assess their progress, and helps them witness other students’ progress as a model for their own.

Ultimately, offering Suzuki MLG classes has helped me become a more complete Suzuki teacher. It deepened my musical empathy, and taught me to approach students equally at their own level, rather than grouping them into a one-size-fits-all box. Desiree Abby from Canada shared, “MLG helped me redefine in my imagination the kind of flow and feel I wanted my classes to have. It reminded me to see beyond music or technique-specific skills, and pushed me to create engaging activities inclusive of different learning styles, ages, and personalities.” Teaching MLG classes helped me see my creativity for generating more ideas and my adaptability in teaching in many unpredictable conditions. This skill has helped me manifest Dr. Suzuki’s goal of Every Child Can in my studio and local communities.

Offering MLG classes can strengthen a program with a limited number of students. Dr. Jackie Skara, Assistant Professor of Music Education & Viola, Oklahoma State University at Stillwater, shared some reasons she pursued MLG classes: “I wanted to gain more tools to work with students of multiple levels and ages in the same group class, as we just do not have the enrollment to create these hyper-specific group classes. The most difficult issue is keeping all students engaged, regardless of age and level. It can be so tricky to plan activities in which older students don’t feel it is "too baby-ish" and younger students aren’t completely lost. Additionally, more advanced students may be bored and lose interest, while less advanced students could do the same (if they have no way to participate).”

MLG classes are not without their challenges, though. In addition to the standard group class difficulties of finding facilities and scheduling time, teachers may not feel secure in their ability to keep group lessons fun and interesting. Teachers may doubt whether students or parents will be convinced by the idea of meeting more often than a typical weekly lesson. From the student side of things, they might have difficulty recalling their review repertoire precisely, becoming adaptable to different ways of playing the same repertoire, feeling comfortable making mistakes in the class, and learning to be leaders, team players, and collaborators.

Myths about Group Lessons

Aside from the challenges in teaching these classes for the first time, many teachers are reluctant to teach group lessons. I have found, however, that this reluctance comes not from the difficulties of the class specifically, but from many imagined myths that can prevent teachers from attempting. Here are several that I’ve encountered.

“I don’t have enough students of the same level.” If your first experiences with group lessons are from visiting summer institutes watching master teachers giving group lessons, it could give you a false idea that in order to have group lessons, one must have enough students of the same level. But let me say this out loud: You do not need many students to start your own group lessons! Don’t set the bar too high. I started my group lessons when I only had four students who were willing to participate and I had just started my Suzuki training. Instead of waiting for the number of students to increase, start now! It’s all about building a community and bringing joy, support, and fun music-making to your students and parents. If you start offering group lessons with the existing amount of students, chances are the word will get out and it could boost the enrollment of your program.

“My students won’t come more often.” I understand that change is hard. The same advice applies when changing your diet or adding gym time to your schedule: start small! When I decided to offer group lessons, I was so afraid that the parents would think it’s troublesome and wouldn’t commit to it. So I started small by giving group lessons just once a month. Everybody needs a little practice to get used to a new schedule. I called it a “Cello Party” when every student (just four students at first) shared their favorite cookies. It was less structured. There was more conversation and students performing what they mastered in that month. I also have tried overlapping private lessons for three pre-twinklers on a weekday. Each of them got a 20-minute private instruction and in the middle of the schedule, I inserted a 30-minute pre-twinkle group lesson. Both formats turned out to be a blast.

“I don’t have the skills.” Start now so you have a chance to practice. Practice makes perfect. Plan to participate in SAA-approved group class teaching enrichment courses and learn new skills from several amazing Suzuki teacher trainers through that experience. Also, keep reading this article for many quick tips!

I often say to my teacher participants that if you can carry a conversation, you can teach an MLG class. If we teach Suzuki based on the Mother Tongue Approach, we are teaching the language of music. Private lessons provide the study of the essential skills of music, equivalent to the study of phonics, grammar, and reading. Group lessons then provide the crucial opportunity to express an individual’s intent in music language, which is equivalent to carrying a conversation, sharing a story, or giving a speech. Once you start your own MLG class, no matter how small the class is, no matter what the skill level is with each student, you will start thinking in an MLG mindset and start making it fun.

Conceptual Principles for MLG

  • Mother Tongue Approach. Review and preview are the major components of the Suzuki method. The core repertoire can be viewed as the “grammar and vocabulary” that students use to carry on a discussion or conversation with their instruments in a Suzuki MLG class. Playing through reviews in unison is not excluded in an MLG class, but is regarded as a “starting point.” Once the class demonstrates their playing with ease, an MLG class teacher will suggest a variation to challenge students at each book level as much as the students who are currently learning the song.

  • Holistic Ensemble Playing. One can always use the group class session to teach music theory and reading ensemble music. But the very unique treasure that all Suzuki students have—the visual and auditory means for empirical learning—is what a Suzuki MLG class relies on. Students can start by easily mimicking the leader (either the teacher or other students) and go on to develop the skills to improvise variations of the main repertoire themselves. This allows for a group game without dependence on reading.

  • Study Repertoire by Dissecting, Rearranging, Eliminating, and Adding. Restructure a song by either breaking it down, adding a voice, or altering a rhythmic pattern to stimulate mindful repetition. This helps refine and polish many aspects of deep learning including memorization, a certain challenging playing skill, and the understanding of the repertoire.

  • Music-Making is the Focus. An MLG class teacher does not communicate through words but predominantly through musical actions. This quote attributed to Beethoven is always a good reminder of a higher goal for MLG: “Music is the mediator between the life of senses and the life of the spirit.”

  • Suzuki Triangle. Enhancing the connection of all three parties of the Suzuki Triangle is always an underlying goal in an MLG class. Parents are involved participants.

  • Draw upon Multiple Intelligences. As I mentioned before, playing a piece together in unison can be the starting point, but not the end goal. In a well-thought-out MLG class, all senses should be challenged. Many MLG activities invite non-players and parents to participate by either miming or gesturing. These kinds of activities challenge their spatial intelligence. For example, Suzuki cello teacher Avi Friedlander challenged verbal intelligence in a Book One/Two class with “Song of the Wind.” He invited the students to brainstorm the alternative for the word “Wind” and encouraged students to move their bow circle accordingly. The words such as “tornado,” “breeze,” and “hurricane” all came up and highlighted the fun of looking into the various bow speeds and the different tone qualities one can make. Thus, the verbal challenge was transferred into a kinesthetic challenge. It was just brilliant.

A User Guide for MLG Classes

The remainder of this article offers strategies and teaching tips for running an MLG class. I hope it will help you gain some courage, knowledge and a little confidence to start your own Multi-Level-Group lessons right away.

Before the Class

Before the classes, it is crucial to set up the ground rules and the expectation for classroom behaviors clearly to ensure a successful MLG lesson. Make sure they are understood and communicated well before starting a class.

Requiring prospective students’ families to observe an MLG group lesson is one of the easiest ways to show them what it is. Not only is it invigorating to watch a group of young children making music together, but prospective families can also learn the larger range of levels of students in your program from watching a group lesson more than a private lesson. From observing how current students and parents help teachers set up, tune their own instruments, and greet each other, the prospective students see a picture of a supportive community. I require prospective families to observe at least three group classes before they are committed to starting lessons. Some teachers, such as Mark Mutter, plan eight weeks of pre-twinkle group classes before the beginning of a new school year.

It’s important to clearly demarcate the class time. Make sure that classes start promptly on time with sufficient assistance from the parents. Start and finish by taking a bow to create a calm start and as a reminder to show mutual respect. Parents are trained to help their students unpack, set up, and tune instruments. Students who are late will want to be there on time when they feel they miss some fun.

When the class begins, each student/parent should know their designated spot to make classroom setup easy and quick. Everyone, including the parents and students, are aware of the safe distance for handling and setting up their playing space. Even though most of the activities do not require much reading, having some music stands standing by can help older beginners or transferred students feel more comfortable participating. Giving them time to gradually ease into participating without the help of the music is crucial to help them feel welcome.

All parents and students should help each other. Look out for the ones who might need a hand to set up or tear down, such as helping secure a cello strap, offering rosin, or picking up a dropped shoulder rest/sponge. Finally, find an appropriate time for kids to get to know each other. Take time to learn to pronounce everyone’s name properly. Knowing people’s names is the first step in building camaraderie.

Parent Management

The following rules help with management for parents and caretakers. It is important to give parents and caretakers this information early and often so they are more comfortable in their role.

  • Parents of preschool and lower grade students should sit behind their students during the class to help them focus and prepare the instruments.

  • Do not compare song/book level. This should be emphasized over and over again during your parent education meetings.

  • No unsolicited advice should be given from parents to parents, or to students of other families.

  • Parents should be aware that group class is not a place to discipline their child. It is understandable that students get tired or upset sometimes. Teachers should not make a big scene if this happens, but should remain calm. If a student has an emotional outburst during a class, parents should usher them out of the activity with a normal voice and give them the time and space to calm down.

  • Can siblings be in the group classes? Yes, but make sure parents bring enough quiet activities to keep them occupied.

MLG Lesson Planning

When you’re preparing an MLG lesson, keep in mind these main ideas. Above all, seek to create a safe learning environment. A well-designed MLG class provides an atmosphere where students feel free to make mistakes. I often try new ideas and fail or make mistakes in front of my MLG students so they can see me as an example that it is OK to fail, and that no one is perfect. To learn, we must make mistakes.

In your preparation, set a clear goal for the lesson. It could be as simple as tonalization for the group, or it could be a certain ensemble skill such as finishing a phrase together with a ringing tone. A monthly project based on a certain core Suzuki piece or a holiday theme can be motivating. Having a clear goal helps teachers stay in control and avoid feeling overwhelmed. It also helps students feel motivated to study their repertoire and understand the essential skills deeper.

Plan ways to explicitly model activities with limited verbal description. Introduce an idea by modeling and providing listening or copying opportunities to ensure the idea is clearly understood. Be mindful of the understanding level of the class. Modeling the example for an activity helps the class focus on the teacher’s playing and helps the teacher avoid talking too much.

Often, even the best-planned activities can go off the rails, so plan on being flexible and always be ready to change gears or ditch an idea when it’s not working. “Epic fail” are the two words I use frequently in my own MLG lessons. Always plan more ideas and activities than you will need for an MLG lesson, and use a timer to gauge the amount of time and your pacing.

Be careful about how many activities you plan on undertaking in each class. We don’t want to overwhelm students. Teachers are often keen to introduce more challenging activities to keep the class stimulated and inspired. Moving on to activities before the students understand fully how to participate can deflate the spirit of the class.

Overall Structure of an MLG Lesson

Setting up a routine can help all three parties of the Suzuki Triangle know when and how to help each other in an MLG lesson. Generally, I like to start with two to three warm-up games. Having a set of warm-up activities in your teaching tool box is always a good way to start. Keep these activities simple, direct, and fun. They give students a sense of predictability and allow students time to bring their minds together.

Then, move on to core activities. Use the repertoire that all levels of students can play or have previewed correctly to dive into a focused study of a certain musical element. This is the heart of MLG classes. Some ideas are shared later in this article.

After that, arrange solo time in the middle of the class to give students a break. Students who have a polished piece to perform for the class should be assigned and informed prior to the class. I use the solo time as a breather when the class starts to appear a little fatigued or when the energy level is low.

Finally, end the class with one big activity to finish the class on a high note. This could be a fun game or a fulfilling performance that can send students home energized and excited about music.

Easy First Activities for MLG Class

I have been teaching MLG classes for several years, and I’ve witnessed all the benefits I shared with you in this article within my own studio. To avoid making it too theoretical, I am sharing with you several ideas that I think will help any Suzuki teachers get a good start. This list could be 10 times longer than I shared here. If you are interested in diving in deeper, I would suggest frequently visiting the event section on the SAA website to check for any offering of group class teaching training courses. I applaud you for getting ready to try some new Suzuki group class ideas and good luck with your Suzuki MLG teaching journey!!

Name Game for Warming Up: Twinkle Variation A

Start the game by replacing the two eighth notes of Mississippi Stop-Stop with rests. Non-players can either clap the rhythm and focus on their foot chart and posture or pluck or bow Mississippi depending on their level.

  • Book Two and up students: play the variation on one string by shifting to high positions. For cello Book Six and up, try playing in the thumb position.
  • While the whole class plays Variation A, each student takes turns to say their name out loud during the rest according to the seating order.
  • Everyone says each student’s name out loud one by one with the same order.
  • Everyone says the person’s name sitting to their left or right.
  • Change the order to alphabetical order.
  • Ask for students to volunteer to say all the names correctly.

Follow the Leader

Review a song to make sure everyone can play it. After you go through it, choose a leader in the class to decide when to stop and start. I’ll use Go Tell Aunt Rhody in D major for this example.

  • Let a non-player (A Pre-twinkle student) signal the group to play loudly or softly.
  • Choose a second non-player or parent to conduct and change tempo.
  • Twinkle students follow the bowing of Go Tell Aunt Rhody (preferably seated right across from the “super players” so it is easy for them to copy it from the advanced players) on the open D string and follow the tempo.
  • Split the class into two groups: one plays only the notes on the D string and the other only the notes on the A string.

Remove a Note or Phrase

Take away a note of a song and leave it silent. Taking the repeated notes out and substituting them with a rest for Perpetual Motion in D major is a popular group class activity. On top of this, you can scaffold the following MLG activities.

  • Let a non-player choose which note to omit first (In the case of a cello class, the options will be D, E, F-sharp, G, A, B).
  • Assign Book Three and up students to play the entire Perpetual Motion on just one string to explore with higher positions and shifting.
  • Assign parents to clap during the silence of the omitted note (or notes). Assign “super-players”(more advanced students) to play the omitted note one or two octaves higher.
  • Create a simple ostinato on D and A in higher positions to accompany the class

You can also take away an entire phrase and leave it silent, or alternate playing and stopping phrase by phrase. This activity really injects a lot of fun into the importance of counting.

  • The whole class turns with their back facing the front so they will not be able to see the teacher or each other. After the teacher indicates the tempo, all the students play assigned phrases and stay silent for the other phrase, using only listening to each other to stay together.
  • Break the class into two groups and let the “Playing” group play the chosen phrase(s) and the other, the “Silent” group only move their fingers for the silenced phrases. Continue to trade phrases, but the playing group must pay attention to the finger-only group in order to stay together. The class must stay together.
  • Choose a parent to be blindfolded to guess which group plays which phrases.
  • Non-players play or sing one of the open string pitches in the song. For example, assign the advanced students to play the cheese part (middle phrase) of Twinkle one or two octaves higher while the pre-twinkle students pluck only the open D pitch of the bread part (outer phrase) of Twinkle when it is their turn.

Opposite Game

Replace the legato with staccato (such as Long Long Ago), or reverse the soft/loud dynamics (such as in May Song).
- Let a non-player be a leader to cue the timing to switch back to the normal way of playing.
- Choose only one student to be “it,” i.e. playing the opposite version, and let another student or parent guess who it is.

Drones and Ostinato

Add a voice such as a drone or ostinato for the non-players to play along with the players.

  • Let the non-players play a drone on open G with Musette
  • Let the non-players play a G-harmonic drone with Moon over the Ruined Castle in g minor. The harmonic drone creates an airy, spooky sound.
  • Let the non-players play open D with repeated eighth note rhythm with the class playing May Song to help count the subdivision and learn to place the dotted quarter rhythm.

Rest Actions

Begin tuning by playing Mississippi rest rest on each string to check tuning and warm up their focus to follow the teacher. Then, let each student come up with an action for the rest-rest, such as tapping their head or waving their hand. This activity is inviting for all and not limited by the level of playing. The class should remember the order of four (or more) different actions to do a memory challenge.

Video Examples

In the course of preparing this article, I recorded several teaching segments from my own MLG lessons and posted them on Instagram. You can access them on my account @shuyicello.