Thursday, February 5, 2009

Music Teacher’s Notebook #2

For those of you who missed the first installment, from time to time here on Robert Frost’s Banjo I’ll be posting my thoughts on teaching music (mostly guitar in my case, with the odd bassist or uker or banjoist thrown in). Last time around, the topic was “fun,” which I suggested is fundamental (rim shot!) to learning an instrument; this week the topic is sharing music with others—which, coincidentally, is also fun.

I noticed early this year that excellent banjoist/guitarist/teacher Patrick Costello wrote about the importance of sharing music as a learning experience; I’m also aware from keeping up with Patrick’s blog that he recommends folks playing with others as soon as they can keep a steady rhythm. I agree with both his points, especially when we’re talking about the guitar/banjo/uke/etc. types of string instruments. While all of these instruments can be satisfying to play as a solo performer, there’s something about how they work in an ensemble that makes them really come to life.

But that’s not all: there are several very tangible benefits as far as learning goes to playing in a group setting:

1. It’s more fun than a metronome, but typically reinforces the habit of keeping a steady rhythm no matter what.
2. So much of music is about the ear. This doesn’t mean that it’s bad to be able to sight-read music or play from a chord chart. But it is true that if you’re focusing on one sense (sight) you’re doing it at the expense of another (hearing), which in this case is actually the more crucial one. Since a number of jam sessions “play off the page,” it’s good for less experienced players to try to “hear” the changes rather than see them on a chart. It’s also important to learn how to blend in with other instruments whether you’re playing by ear or from written music.
3. Music in any sort of setting beyond a solo performance is a collaborative effort, & as such there’s a real feeling of bonding amongst a group of folks who play together regularly. This may be an added bonus to some folks who started out thinking they wanted to play just for themselves.
4. Playing for family & close friends is also sharing music, even if you’re going solo. This can be a bit nervy for folks who are just getting their musical feet under them, but the lessons you learn by doing this really stick with you. Once you’ve “performed” a song, whether it’s for one other person or one hundred, your relationship to the song & to your instrument change.
5. The biggest learning experience from sharing your music—you find out how much more you enjoy the music.

So these are the benefits—are there drawbacks? The biggest drawback with a relative newcomer joining a jam session is that beginners may end up in a group where they feel completely out of their depth & get discouraged. The discouragement & impatience factors can be issues with learning any new skill. If anything, these can be more pronounced with music, because it is by definition an emotional endeavor. A student runs some of the same risks when playing songs for another person—all music teachers have heard the line, “But I played it so much better at home” more often than they can count; & if a student decides to try playing in front of more than just a significant other or close family, it can be a big letdown when things don’t go as expected.

Having noted these possible pitfalls, I’d say there are things a teacher can do to help a student avoid them. Jam sessions vary widely in skill level, & a lot of sessions are really open to having novice players. Assuming the teacher has familiarity with the local scene, he/she can suggest a session that should fit the student’s skills & interests. Of course, it’s worth remembering that chemistry is practically everything in a jam session (or a band)—if the student feels comfortable at a session that’s the most important thing, so sessions where there are overbearing personalities, judgmental or dismissive folks, or where there’s a general air of competition should be avoided like the proverbial plague. Don’t get me started on the concept of competitiveness in music & the other arts….

In addition, it’s important to get students “off the page.” I find 12-bar blues to be an excellent way of doing this. Most folks are pretty familiar with the sound, since blues underlies so much of our popular music, & of course the chord changes should be pretty manageable. There are a number of ways to go about this, ranging from you & the student strumming thru the changes to having the student play a pentatonic solo while you play the changes (or vice-versa) to one or the other of you singing a blues song while both playing the changes. Once students get used to the pattern of chord changes, they can anticipate where the changes come, & also will be able to pick up cues.

I also encourage students to get themselves a capo & learn how to use it—which means more than learning how to put the capo on the guitar neck. As an example, it means knowing how to find an easy chord pattern when a song is in Eb (for those non-guitar players out there, a notoriously difficult key on the guitar)—where to place the capo & which chords to play. It’s not that I don’t teach barre chords—I use them myself a lot in some contexts & I see them as an essential part of a player’s repertoire. But I believe flow & steady rhythm are even more essential, & until a student can get a handle on these thru open chords, there’s little point in teaching them much about barring.

As far as playing for other people goes, one thing that’s hard to understand until you’ve done it: it’s rarely as good as you “did it at home.” Some say the difference between a professional musician & an amateur musician is the amateur practices a difficult passage until he/she doesn’t make a mistake in it; a professional practices the passage until he/she can’t make a mistake in it (insofar as I’m a semi-pro kinda guy, I guess I tend to practice until it’s unlikely I’ll make a mistake….) There's a big difference between "don't" & "can't," because when you’re out of your comfort zone, Murphy’s Law tends to kick in. It’s important to share with students that these anxieties, etc. are “normal,” or typical. It’s also important to share that practice is the time for trying new things; when playing for others, it’s important to stay with more comfortable & familiar techniques. Folks enjoy hearing a song played well & simply much more than they enjoy a song played poorly while peppered with poorly executed techniques.

Out in these parts, the jam sessions aren’t as plentiful as in some places. Eberle & I decided a bit less than a year ago to start our own jam session where students could get used to playing with others, & it’s been a real joy for us. The students who participate are students second & friends first. Our aim is a laid-back atmosphere where people can “play”—playing music & joking around, telling stories, etc. At first we kept “off the page” almost all the time; lately, we’ve tried something new, which is having the chords for some of the songs on a dry erase board that anyone can look at if they need a little more guidance in following the chord changes. This is a new wrinkle, but one I think can be helpful, because in can keep people from feeling totally lost & overwhelmed. As I rule, we try to stick with songs that have just three or four chords—old blues & country, with some rock/pop songs mixed in, & that don’t have quick chord changes. Obviously some things work better than others, but how well things work "musically" is secondary. The main thing is the camaraderie & enjoyment that goes along with the process.

Which brings us back to the starting point: fun. Enjoying your music is always the key.


  1. although I don't like to travel to the land of regret, one regret I have is that I never learned to play an instrument college I played around on the flute as I won a flute in a card game, but that was it (it was great fun). unfortunately, when I was growing up my parents had no interest in encouraging playing anything other that the hi-fi...

    I expect you are a marvelous teacher! your students are most blessed....

  2. I heard Loudon Wainwright III playing his banjo on NPR last evening and thought of you.

  3. mouse: the comment about winning a flute in a card game is priceless-- the mind reels thinking of the gambling flautist...

    & thanks to you & to you, Willow, for your kind words.

  4. mouse: I thought about your comment some more-- you know, a lot of folks do learn an instrument as adults-- Eberle has relatively novice piano players in their mid to late 60s & the majority of my guitar students are women in their 30s-50s-- not the teen rocker wannabes you'd expect. I even teach uke to a woman in her 70s (she had played guitar quite well, but arthritis made that impossible, so she switched to uke). It's just a thought-- because I agree, none of us want to go to the land of regret (been there, done that).

    & thanks for following!


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