Monday, January 13, 2014

A Room Full of Guitars

I always seem to get a lot of comments when I write about music education, so let me share an interesting experience I had once. Way back when I was just beginning to study music formally, I think I was in first or second year undergraduate, I was hired to teach a night school guitar course. I think my father mentioned me to someone at the school board or something, though he never admitted it.

This was almost the first experience I had with teaching music and it was certainly like getting thrown in the deep end of the pool! I had only been playing for four or five years myself and was just getting started as a classical, as opposed to popular, musician. But that didn't matter as these folks just came to learn a little basic guitar.

Remember when everyone, and I mean everyone, wanted to play guitar? That was the sixties and seventies and this was around 1972. I showed up at the high school where the night school course was going to be held and the large room was absolutely full of people with guitars. There must have been sixty of them at least!

I have to tell you a bit about my father: he wasn't the musical one, it was my mother who was the musician, a fine intuitive fiddle player. My father grew up as a farmer and then worked for many years for the railroad. His cultural experience was very minimal. But he did get me this job and drove me out to this remote suburban school because I didn't have a car. In fact, he even hung around during the class. This was probably the first time, apart from hearing me practice at home, that he had seen me at work.

So, sixty guitars and people wanting to know how to play them. Well, I couldn't do anything with them until we got them all in tune. I talked a bit about how the guitar is constructed and how to tune it but then going around to everyone individually and checking on them took, oh, I don't know, at least thirty minutes--half the class! Some of these guitars had not seen the light of day in years. And the strings...

Now this was not a classical guitar course, just basic guitar, so they were mostly steel strings. I don't even remember what guitar I brought along. I was expecting maybe ten people, so I didn't even bring handouts. I think I did have one song ready to teach them and it was probably "Blowing in the Wind", an early song by Bob Dylan. Three chords: C, D and G. And if you don't care much about voice-leading you can even teach radically simplified versions of these chords to get started with.

Everyone had heard the song, so I spent maybe fifteen or twenty minutes showing how to play the three chords--meaning where to put a couple of fingers on the left hand on the frets for really simple versions of the chords. Then I taught them some of the words and voila, for the last five minutes of the class I got the whole room of sixty people all playing and singing a Bob Dylan song.

This was probably the only time I ever really impressed my father. Afterwards he said, with a note of surprise in his voice, "how did you do that? Those people didn't know how to play anything at the start and in one hour you had them all playing a song? I just don't know how you did it."

It's hard work teaching music, but here are the "tricks", if that's what they are:

  • First, you start with motivated people who really want to learn music (the others, don't bother with)
  • Second, break everything down into really simple bits and go over and over them
  • Third, be positive and optimistic: most people will actually learn how to play something in a lot less time than they thinkl
Over many, many years of teaching private lessons, which is really the only way to go with music (there was one exception, which I will get to in a minute), I have honed this a bit, but these three things are still fundamental. With a person of ordinary ability or potential I can have them reading very simple music at the end of the first lesson. At the end of the first month, they will know all the notes in first position. By three months they will be able to play a simple classical piece from memory for other people. I get them to this point by scheduling monthly "guitar nights" where everyone has to come and play. It is a great experience for new and old students.

Ok, now that exception. I was involved with a private music school once that wanted to offer small group instruction so they could offer lessons for a bargain price. I said I would try it, stipulating only that the students in a group had to be all about the same age. I ended up with five ten-year-olds and started working with them. As the group was small I as able to give each person a lot of individual attention, which is crucial.

Now here is how that played out: of the five, one dropped out in a few weeks. The other four stayed and I basically turned them into a professional guitar quartet. By the time they were fourteen or fifteen, I had them on local cable television a few times and in lots of concerts. The most interesting performance from my point of view was one they gave for a group of high school guitar teachers (which links up with my opening anecdote). As guitar professor at the university I was scheduled to give a talk on teaching classroom guitar. But I thought, instead of just babbling about it, why not show them?

So I showed up and started the talk by just chatting with the teachers (it was a small group). I asked them what they typically did and a lot of them did something like what I did with my night school class. But they spread it over a whole semester. So then I said, well, you could do something different, more like what they do in band with the guitarists each with their own part instead of everyone playing the same three chords. And then I invited in my quartet of fifteen-year-olds. Without any cue from me they came in, arranged the chairs, set up their music stands and tuned to the leader, then sat looking at me. So I just said, "go ahead" and they played a nice guitar quartet by John Duarte. Here is one of his pieces for guitar quartet, though more virtuoso than the one they played:

But you know, it is even very satisfying to play something very simple on guitar, like "Blowing in the Wind" with three chords:

I didn't mention what happened with the young guitar quartet. Two of them dropped out in their later teens to pursue other goals, but the other two stayed on and took private lessons with me at the conservatory. One went on to do a bachelor's degree at McGill and the other became a performance major at the University of Victoria and then won a Goethe scholarship to study at a masterclass in Europe. She later did a master's in arts administration.

I like to think that studying music helped them all out, even if they did not become professional musicians.

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