Thursday, January 8, 2009

Music Teacher’s Notebook #1

As I said in one of last month’s coming distractions’ posts, I’ve been persuaded to write about my music teaching—perhaps even something as elaborate as my “philosophy” regarding same. Actually, I didn’t know I had anything as high-falutin’ as a philosophy about music teaching, but as I’ve thought about it, there are some concepts & related “techniques” I consider important; & since blogs are pretty much about everybody putting his/her 2¢ in, I guess I shouldn’t be bashful about adding mine on this topic.

Now all these concepts fit together—not thru some grand conceptual planning, but simply because of the way I approach music myself. So one approach would be to write about them all in some big, integrated way—but I’m thinking that would make for a looong post. So being a Virgo with what’s been called a “librarian’s mind” for categorization (it’s true I probably did miss my real professional calling), I’ll try to focus on one concept or topic per post—not completely sure how often I’ll post on this subject; still debating between monthly & twice a month.

As the King of Hearts said (“very gravely”) to the White Rabbit: “Begin at the beginning, and go on till you come to the end: then stop.” What is the beginning concept? I’ve pointed out several times on this blog that you “play” an instrument, so one would think fun is pretty “fundamental” (sorry ‘bout that). Eberle, the pro music teacher in the household, says fun is the “glue” that holds everything together—because let’s face it: some parts of any learning process can be a challenge, & learning an instrument tends to bring up a lot of insecurities; turning the process to fun as much as possible helps to smooth these out. Also, with the guitar & other string instruments the absolute beginner experiences some physical discomfort: unless you play a guitar, you just don’t spend a lot of time pressing steel wire against a hard surface. Once the calluses form, you’re fine. & how soon do they develop? Depends on how much you play….

So let’s look at the fun thing from a couple of angles. Over on the Tangier Sound blog, Patrick Costello had an excellent post a little while back about how music teaching involves sharing the musical experience, not imparting wisdom. I believe this is right on, & I’ll be writing more about this in the very next Music Teacher’s Notebook post. But for now let’s just say that the most effective teachers usually enjoy their subject, & are able to transmit that enjoyment & enthusiasm to students. This doesn’t mean relating one’s various musical triumphs ad nauseum, tho students will probably be interested in hearing about how music fits into your life—as you should be interested in them telling you how it’s fitting into theirs.

So what’s fun for students? One thing I’m always happy to see as a guitar teacher is a student who wants to sing—there are a lot of advantages to this. Most people can master enough chords to play in a couple of keys a fifth apart: I go with G first, then D, because you only have to learn one more chord to play a I-IV-V progression; the I-IV-V progression in G is G, C, D; in D it’s D, G, A. This is an effective way to teach chords by moving up a fifth each time, because you only have to add one chord per new key (two chords if you’re counting dominant sevenths, but they’re typically similar in shape to the major chord). If a person can play in two keys a fifth apart, he/she can sing hundreds of songs, because one or the other will usually accommodate a person’s singing range. Of course, this means introducing the capo fairly early on, which I do with students who like to sing.

& you know, it’s a tremendous boon if a student actually likes to sing folk songs, because they have really simple progressions. I was recently offering some apology to a beginning student as I gave her the chords for “Polly Wolly Doodle” & “My Darling, Clementine”; but she was excited as could be because she sings those songs & others of their ilk with her daughters. Now that’s music to a guitar teacher’s ears.

Not everybody likes to sing, or at least feels comfortable doing it in any setting more public than their shower or their car (why people think the latter is private I can’t imagine, but they seem to). & one firm rule: I never require anyone to sing. I let them know that learning to use the guitar to accompany singing is easier than learning to use it for instrumentals, but I’m happy to teach either way—I was pretty much strictly an instrumentalist myself until fairly recently (looks like we may be re-inventing Five & Dime Jazz for 09 & beyond with a more bluesy/Americana feel—& with vocals).

Some other fun things: trading licks; simply play a short phrase & ask the student to imitate it. This is really good for teaching “slur” techniques like hammer-ons, pull-offs & slides, because students generally have a tendency to rush all of those, & it lets them “hear” the right sound & internalize it both in the ear (hearing you) & in the fingers (copying you). A bit more advanced version of this is call & response: play a lick & ask the student to respond to it, not copy it. This develops the ear & helps students realize that they too can create licks.

Never underestimate how much fun students may get from patterns you take for granted. Bass runs usually get students going, because “it sounds like I’m really playing something.” Showing students the minor pentatonic scale patterns & inviting them to play by ear while you quietly strum a 12-bar blues in the background is something students may be bashful to try at first, but something they usually enjoy once they give it a whirl. It is important for the teacher to lay back. If we’re both playing acoustics, I usually just do a simple strum with my thumb & index finger, or if the student has an electric, I tend to play an acoustic. They should be able to hear themselves, & because they’re likely to be tentative at first, you need to give them space.

Students like to play the music they love & have it “sound like music.” Since some students are much less amenable to “Polly Wolly Doodle” than others, this means coming up with arrangements of songs they find interesting that they can actually play. Especially for those who just want to play as an instrumentalist, this can be challenging, but I try to use every resource at my disposal, including my own arranging skills. For students who are into classic rock, the lessons by David Hodges on Guitar Noise are fantastic; I recommend his work.

So what isn’t fun? The same things that aren’t fun for you! Being criticized, being corrected, having someone be impatient with you, being asked as a novice to keep playing when your fingers are sore. Look, students are going to mess up—I mess up sometimes when I play the guitar, too. When they need to take a different tack something along the lines of “Let’s try this, I think it will make that easier,” is much better than “You’re doing that WRONG!” & do give beginning players regular breaks from playing because fingers do get sore.

But hey—back to Patrick Costello’s point—there’s one other really fun thing about learning an instrument (& as teachers, we should remember we’re learning, too—both more about our instrument & more about how to teach): that’s sharing the music with others. & that’ll be the theme next time around. Please check back for more!

Eberle & I demonstrating that music is fun. Hey, if you’d heard me trying to sing “Dreamer’s Holiday,” you’d have been laughing, too.

Top pic by Eberle Umbach; bottom pic by Sister Mary Beverly

1 comment:

  1. Okay John, I think I should try more singing with the guitar. I don't know why I have such issues with singing after being in choirs for years, maybe it's time to confront that. Bring on the Polly Wolly Doodle!


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