Thursday, January 11, 2018

Guitar Apps!

Time for something satirical, I think! This might be behind the paywall, but if you google the title, it will probably come up: These Guitar Apps Will Teach You to Shred Like Slash. Here is an excerpt:
Mastering the guitar is a classic fantasy. But if you’re wary of hiring a teacher who’ll only show you the simplest chords while reminiscing about the time he opened for Sugar Ray, consider going digital. This might be the best time in history to learn (or relearn) the instrument from home. Whether you’re a rookie or a rusty old hand, new online tools and apps could fast track you to guitar demigod status, provided you put in the practice.
Yes, it certainly was my fantasy way back in the 1960s.
Dave Isaacs, a 20-year music veteran who instructs students in Nashville and across the internet via Skype, said much has changed since he first picked up a guitar as a cash-starved teen. “To learn a song, I used to have to go to a music store, open a book and sneakily write the chords down on my palm,” he said. Now you can scour sites like for chords of more than a million songs—even indie obscurities like Ween’s “Spinal Meningitis Got Me Down”—and find countless tutorials on YouTube, all free.
But there’s a catch. Most of that information is created by amateurs, for amateurs, so your melodic rendition of that Bon Iver anthem might not ring true with the real version. “Since anyone can post anything, there are a lot of inaccuracies,” Mr. Isaacs said, warning that beginners can get lost in an online maze of data and quickly lose interest.
The article goes on to describe several online courses and apps offered by Fender and Berklee.

Now for the critique! I know I have mentioned before Crichton's Rule. I can't find the quote online, but the famous author said something like this: "If you read articles in the mass media on a topic where you have professional expertise, you will notice that about 80% of the information is wrong. Now extend that to all the other fields!" I find this to be quite true. Any time I read an article about music in the popular press, I do indeed see that it is about 80% wrong. And so it is with this piece.

The truth is, and this comes from forty years of teaching music, that the learning process is really in the hands (and ears and mind) of the student. Course materials and high quality personal instruction can certainly help, may indeed even play a crucial role, but learning happens within the student and only their energy, curiosity, initiative and capacity for concentration and work will advance them. Yes, a good instructor, or well-crafted materials can certainly save the student some time and help them to find the right path. But only the student can walk that path.

A typical experience teaching is the feeling that, like Sisyphus, you are pushing a stone up a hill, only to have it tumble down as soon as you stop. No-one in the professional music teaching business wants to say this, but it is still true. There are a few gifted students that hardly need any help at all, a few massively untalented students that nothing will help and a bunch in the middle that, with a lot of work and a bit of help, will make some progress.

Dave Isaacs lets the cat out of the bag a bit when he describes going to the music store and copying down some chords out of a book. He was showing some initiative there. But I'm sure that, a bit later in his progress, he was figuring out those chords just by listening to the recording.

I guess there are three stages or levels here. First of all you go find the information you need, chord progressions out of a book maybe (and by the way, the Ultimate Book of Chord Progressions has been in print, and available for a modest price, since the 18th century (though it seems they have put it into two volumes recently):

Or perhaps it is a music teacher in your area. In any case, you find what you need because you are motivated by some fantasy or vision. Second, you absorb the material and develop the skills necessary to play. It is the third stage that is the interesting one: you forget all that and hew your own path and this is what the really fine musicians and composers do.

They don't have an app for that...


James Daniel said...

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Dave Isaacs said...

In response to your comment, yes, in fact, I did learn by ear both before, during, and after the years of sneaking chords out of the songbook. Your statement about real learning beginning and ending with the student is one hundred percent true, but your argument attacks a straw man. It's a little silly to suggest that a motivated student can't benefit from all the resources available, whether they come from a private lesson, YouTube, or their ears. It's not a zero-sum game.

Bryan Townsend said...

Thanks for the comment, Dave. I don't think I expressed my thoughts clearly enough here. I was trying to say that it was only the motivated students that were really going to benefit from the resources available. Which I think is not far from your view? I think that in addition to motivation and access to resources the student also needs to have some natural aptitude. Without that, they aren't going to get very far. That was the point I was trying to make.

Dave Isaacs said...

Thanks so much for the reply. Yes, I completely agree. I will say that had YouTube existed when I was a teenager I would have made great use of it, and still do. But I was a highly motivated student and soaked up musical knowledge from every source I could. My best students do so now and grow from it, and the ones that don't stay right where they are. But that growth rests on learning to apply the information, and that's the grunt work that a student can only do for themselves.

Enjoying your other posts, subscribing!

Bryan Townsend said...

Thanks, Dave! God, yes, YouTube is an incredible resource. There are probably dozens of videos just showing various ways of playing the guitar part to "Save It For Later" by the English Beat to pick a song at random. You can also hear performances of virtually every classical piece there is. But like you say, at the end of the day, it is the musician slaving over the instrument that makes the progress.