Collaborative instrumental teaching

Two young, talented piano students and two teachers from two different institutions did a pilot study on collaborative teaching in the instrumental pedagogical context: dialogue, student centred strategies and generosity turned out to be key elements of this promising pedagogical approach.

Outcome Benefitting teachers and students

The two teachers tested out collaborative teaching models with two of their piano students. The aim was to support the students in their transition from a pedagogical setting suited to children in one school to a typically academic one inside the Paganini Conservatory, focused on qualitative results. Furthermore, the project aimed to develop the students’ skills in a performance-oriented perspective.

Key elements to make collaborative teaching effective in an instrumental setting turned out to be:

  • COMMUNICATION between teachers, teachers and students, teachers and families
  • MEDIATION: always getting the message through that there are several possibilities and solutions; nothing is absolutely right or absolutely wrong
  • SELF- ASSESSMENT AND INDEPENDENCE are stimulated by different requests and a wide range of approaches; the collaborative teaching setting tends to develop higher individual responsibility and self-analysis
  • DEVELOPMENT OF AN ARTISTIC IDENTITY: exposure to different musical solutions expands the awareness of artistic options and leads to individual choices
  • EMOTIONAL ADVANTAGES: the habit of having more than one teacher creates the feeling of a strong support structure in the student, who becomes more confident
  • TEACHERS’ BENEFITS: through the continuous comparison of ideas and strategies, teachers can widen their knowledge and strengthen the effectiveness of their pedagogical action, both in a mentoring scheme or by merging their expertise with their peers’. Moreover, the need to refresh our mindset and deepen certain pedagogical aspects could arise from methodological comparison.

Description Two students - two teachers

The project has involved two teachers from two different institutions and two very talented young musicians. Both students have studied for three years with Valentina Messa at the Abrami Music Association, and at age 9 and 11 they passed the entrance exam at the Paganini Conservatory, joining Anna Maria Bordin’s piano class.

Valentina Messa
Valentina Messa. Photo: Giusi Lorelli Photographer
Anna Maria Bordin
Anna Maria Bordin. Photo: Stella Mongodi.

Collaborative teaching models

This kind of collaboration is not very common in instrumental teaching contexts, especially with talented children taking their first steps along a structured musical path. Messa and Bordin found inspiration in the collaborative teaching models derived from general education standards highlighted by Cook and Friend (1995)[1]:

  1. One teaches, one observes 
  2. One teaches, one assists: the first teacher normally teaches, the other collaborates toward specific targets, which in our field could be e.g. technical aspects, practicing methodology, solving specific problems.
  3. Station teaching: following two different tracks related as far as content is concerned, so, for example, studying different repertoire with a similar methodological approach and comparable goals.
  4. Supplemental teaching: integrated teaching in which one of the two teachers works on strengthening and extending contents, repertoire and activities.
  5. Alternative or differentiated teaching: a shared teaching approach where the two teachers work on the same pieces, but deliberately use different methods.
  6. Team teaching:  a real team setting, in which every aspect of teaching is shared and integrated.

[1] Cook, L., & Friend, M. (1995). Co-teaching: Guidelines for creating effective practices. Focus on exceptional children, 28.

Key questions

Two questions arose from these models:

  • Are these models adaptable and appropriate for individual piano lessons?
  • What are the benefits and challenges of these models?

Collaborating, supporting and challenging each other

The two teachers operated freely, but always with a high level of partaking and communication. They kept a diary where they wrote down important details and activities carried out during the lessons, noted problems to discuss later on, shared proposals about repertoire and activities and planned recurring tests, like competitions or public performances. They paid great and continuous attention to discuss with the students how they perceived the collaborative teaching. To safeguard this innovative experience, the teachers also carefully considered their colleagues’ reactions and those of the educational management of their institutions to prevent misunderstandings. For all of these problematic aspects, great flexibility was necessary, and the two teachers needed to be open to discuss and even reconsider their decisions.

Testing supplemental teaching

In this collaborative teaching model, one of the two teachers integrates the work of the other by strengthening particular aspects, like technical difficulties or methodological shortcomings, and extending repertoire and musical activities.

The problems the teachers aimed to solve with one of the young students were a typical weakness of the fingers’ last phalanx, and intemperance in his studying method. He was learning Bach’s concerto in F minor at the time. One teacher worked with him on the piece as usual, with mechanical and musical aspects and with technical exercises. The student prepared six of Czerny’s studies from opus 299 with the second teacher, one every two weeks, to extend and consolidate the other teacher’s technical work, and to schedule the practice timeline as strictly as possible. Moreover, this teacher organised extra rehearsals with a second piano and private concerts to improve confidence in performances.

Benefits observed and experienced by the teachers

  • optimisation of pedagogical resources, both in terms of time and of teachers’ preferences
  • increased learning speed
  • extension of the student’s range of practical skills through his exposition to a wider range of activities,
  • development of the student’s artistic identity by comparison of the different musical advice and suggestions coming from his two teachers
  • increased stage confidence due to the extra experience achieved through more frequent performances

Critical aspects

  • The student could feel overwhelmed, as the workload was much heavier than usual.
  • The student and the teachers needed to mediate conflicting advice in terms of technical approaches and musical suggestions.
  • Inadequate communication between teachers concerning each other’s work, and unsatisfactory balance at times

Testing Alternative teaching

The second example is related to Alternative teaching with the other young student working on Chopin Fantasie Impromptu op 66. Alternative teaching is a model where two teachers are working towards the same goals and on the same repertoire. The teachers, however, use different methods and approaches deliberately, where the student will make a synthesis of the two teaching methods.

The Fantasie Impromptu op. 66 includes section A, which is technically extremely demanding because of its speed and complex articulation, while section B is quite contrasting due to timbre variety, expressive intensity and compositional features.

In section A teacher one focused on strong finger articulation with full sound and constant accentuation, repetitions of quarter notes in groups of 2 or 4 notes and rhythmic variations, as well as use of the metronome at increasing speed.

The other teacher concentrated on apparently opposite skills, like the use of the jeu perlé technique and the feeling of finger lightness. Moreover, areas of attention were mental focusing on the constant and flowing movement of the arm with a slight emphasis only at the centre of the bar.

Apparently, the first approach tends to reinforce the fingers and pay attention to articulation regularity, but without any concern about sound quality; the second one is focused on lightness, elegance and quality of the sound, but disregards the issue of finger equality.

In section B, teacher one worked on expressiveness in short phrasing, taking into account inflections and intensity of short melodic patterns, and experimenting different solutions for rubato, in general the use of agogical freedom. Teacher two, instead, focused on long phrasing, trying not to interrupt the flow of the melody, giving clues concerning long dynamic tensions and to stimulate the student to achieve a very regular gesture with his left hand and expressive without changing pulse unnecessarily in his right hand.

This could seem to be contrasting advice. However, it is precisely thanks to the balance among all of these experiences that the student is led toward a technically complete and musically substantial and significant performance.

Benefits observed and experienced by the teachers

  • maximum exposure to a wide range of approaches and study methods that can enrich a young musician’s cultural experience
  • extension of technical skills
  • development of problem solving autonomy
  • equal perception of the two teachers’ role, of course if they are able to mediate their work and explain the positive impact of difference as personal enrichment

Critical aspects

The critical issues included the risk of conflicting behaviour and lack of communication between teachers.  Both teachers need to be familiar with each other’s method, otherwise problems linked to clarity of message could arise. There is also a risk that the student get confused when having two teachers. In order to prevent this from happening, it is necessary to mediate and explain the importance of practicing in different ways.

The student did not report that he experienced receiving contrasting advice from the two teachers, even when they offered openly diverse perspectives. It seemed that he could understand the leeway between differences and conflicts, realising that conflicts do not affect information or advice, but relationships.

Work in progress…

This experience is on-going, thus there are no real conclusions, but some potentially important considerations. The teachers tested out the models described by Cook and Friend (1995) and found some of them to be more suitable for instrumental teaching than others. An interesting evaluation coming from applying the six models to instrumental collaborative teaching regards relationships, roles and hierarchy between teachers. Hence we can divide them in three groups.

  • The first (One Teaches, One Observes) is a preparatory model, useful in a preliminary stage, in a mentorship context or to establish a common background.
  • Then we have two asymmetrical models (One Teaches, One Assists and Supplemental Teaching), presenting hierarchically organised roles, with a main teacher and the other in an assistant’s position.
  • Finally, three symmetrical models (Station teaching, Alternative teaching and Team teaching), where the roles are equal, peer to peer.

The only real obstacle for collaborative teaching in instrumental education is the psychological connection to the tradition of the master/apprentice scheme. According to this ancient model, students are considered property and emanation of their master, the true demiurge of Pygmalion’s myth, which from Ovid to Bernard Shaw has fascinated humanity over the past two thousand years. As in any other field, collaborative teaching expresses its powerful benefits within the teamwork models, in which equity, collaboration and generosity are the basis for success.



  • Valentina Messa

    Piano teacher
    Institution: Conservatory Vecchi Tonelli in Modena
  • Anna Maria Bordin

    Institution: Conservatory Paganini in Genova

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