Finding the "IN DOOR" to Music

The following is a post from an article I wrote more than nine years ago for the Teaching Artist Journal. This fabulous publication is no more, sadly, although the group does continue to do good work in the field of arts education. I had fun reliving the story. Hope you enjoy as well. 

I’m going through a phase. It began about a year ago. An eager young face looked up at me, cradling a too-big guitar on her lap; written all over the face was “teach me.” 

I live for this: helping others in to the world of music, sharing what I have learned. We had gone over a few sounds you can make, exploring the box and the strings to see what they do. We had seen and felt how to hold it without it trying to fall off. Then I opened the method book, the one that purports to show a beginner how to play the guitar, how to read music, how to make music. For my student’s first portentous and exciting try at making a song she was given something like this: 

Now, if you don’t read music, this sequence of notes falls just barely short of incredibly, mind-numbingly boring. No melodic shape, no rhythmic interest, no lyrics, no sense of key for your ear to hold onto. Nothing. It is a very standard way for one of these books to begin and it is, to my mind, non-music. 

Having attempted to use this kind of book before, I had become accustomed to making apologies like “Well, this isn’t exactly exciting but there are some better ones later.” But this time I snapped. Why would I give this kind of material to someone who has asked to learn music?! And why is there no tool I can use that does provide something inspiring for a beginner to learn with? So, I decided the time had come to write something better myself. 

Since I have the good fortune to be teaching both lessons and classes weekly, I began to experiment with content and techniques regularly, always with a mind toward codifying them into future publishable/sharable form. On the first day of a guitar class with five elementary-age students I planned a lesson to get them playing immediately. 

I showed them some strumming patterns, very simple ones with no left hand needed at all. Then I had them play one of those patterns and stop the strings with a firm tap on the neck of the guitar, yielding a nice “whack.” I then morphed it into We Will Rock You (you know, the “Boom Boom Whack!” part at the beginning of the song). This adaptation makes a very convincing version that is wonderfully easy for a room full of kids to play on guitars. They went nuts. They played it loud and together and in time. We split the class in half to play it. We played solos. We sang “We will, we will rock you!” while playing. Still nuts. I sang the very rap-ish verses for them and showed off a little guitar riffing. More nuts. It was like dodgeball day in gym class. 

It was inspiring to me how well it worked. I had found an “in” for my students. It was a simple way that they could play something that really sounded good and that, luckily, all of them knew. (It is often not possible to find a song that every member of a group knows, yet if the song still sounds good and they can play it, score.). What they got out of it was an experience learning by sight, sound and feel; playing in an ensemble; reading music; keeping time; playing within a representative style; singing and playing at the same time; arranging; performing with confidence; and having something to share at home. 

I was giddy to have found one possible answer to a problem for which for years I had been finding mere work arounds. So the “phase” of which I spoke is truly that, a portion of a cycle of continuous refinement of my teaching methods and materials. As a teaching artist involved in teaching a very skill-oriented aspect of music, I am always cognizant of the need to balance its detailed knowledge work with the engagement and expression that make music exciting in the first place. I don’t want my students walking out of the room feeling like there’s work ahead, I want them bouncing out of the room primed to go show off what they can do with their new instrument and eager to discover more.

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