A friend recently offered to take me out to lunch if, in return, I would let him pick my brain about teaching guitar. He was feeling the tug to teach and wanted to explore how I got started. It was fun for me to recount my story – I’ll share some of that story here.
Growing up, music was the most important thing to me. I declared myself a music major when I entered a 2 year junior college in 1977. I loved every aspect of musical performance, however I was convinced that I did not want to pursue teaching. When the end of my 2 years at this school came, I was lost and confused. I didn’t what to do. I was certain I would fail if I tried to continue school so I did a 180 and hit the road. Literally.
I started a career as an over-the-road bus driver. I traveled all over the U.S. and Canada taking senior citizens on vacations and driving regular routes. I borrowed a guitar from one of my brothers during this time and started teaching myself how to play. I loved playing that guitar, but I didn’t have any aspirations to do anything with it. I totally kept my playing on the down-low. Read more…
I am currently responsible for the my own practicing, for the practicing of three of my four children, and for assigning the practicing of my more than twenty piano students. As you can imagine, I spend a lot of my time trying to figure out ways to make daily practice palatable for all of us! After all, music and music lessons are supposed to be fun, right?
Well, yes! Of course they are! To that end, I have music dollars they earn to spend at an end of year auction. I offer prizes when they reach goals on their 40 piece challenge charts. We use the iPad and time off the bench to reinforce concepts. They come to group classes and play games and have treats. I am a happy, encouraging cheerleader in their lessons. Their assignment sheets are covered with happy faces next to statements like “Watch out for those flat pinkies!” and “Remember metronome!”
Music is fun! Music lessons are fun! Practicing is fun!
Except, of course, when it’s not.
Are we doing our students and ourselves a disservice when we try to play up the fun and play down the work? I recently came across a quote that has reminded me that sometimes practicing is just plain hard work.
Eliot Butler said:
To learn is hard work. It requires discipline. And there is much drudgery. When I hear someone say that learning is fun, I wonder if that person has never learned or if he has just never had fun. There are moments of excitement in learning: these seem usually to come after long periods of hard work, but not after all long periods of hard work.
In defense of happy learning, I want to say that I love learning. I love the lightbulb that goes off when something suddenly makes sense. I love working on a phrase and finding it fit better and better in my fingers. I love the way the world seems to expand when I learn something about a subject with which I am less familiar. BUT! Getting to the fun of it absolutely does take work.
I love rehearsing with other musicians BUT I would hate it if no one was well-prepared. I love learning new music BUT I would hate it if I hadn’t learned to sightread well over years and years and years of playing my instrument. I love teaching my students BUT it sure is less pleasant when they haven’t done any work on their own.
The life lessons that are taught through music lessons are invaluable: hard work over a long period of time pays off. It’s best to be consistent in your habits to make progress long term. Learning to take a big piece of music and taking it apart to its tiniest parts to learn to perfect it teaches important lessons about how to approach a major project: one step at a time. These are just a few of the things I hope my students and my children learn from their music study.
And along the way, I’m planning for us all to have lots and lots of fun.
This is a guest post from Sam Rao, founder and CEO of Practicia.com.
Adequate home practice has been a problem for as long has music lessons have existed. Music teachers would love to crack open the black box of home practice and see how much and how their students are practicing at home. The six days between music lessons are often a complete mystery to teachers.
Parents can be strong allies but more often than not, they are too busy just trying to get through the day to effectively monitor their children’s home practice. Some parents are willing to help, but often lack the necessary musical background to be effective.
So why don’t students practice? Reasons range anywhere from simply not wanting to practice to lacking the time management skills. Also, many students don’t remember what and how their teacher asked them to practice during the week. Among students that do practice regularly, many prefer to spend all their time playing through their favorite music often ignoring technique, which would lead to the most improvement in the shortest amount of time.
How have teachers traditionally dealt with these challenges?
They have employed a variety of strategies and tools to aid their students. Some of these methods have been effective. One prominent tool is of course “the assignment book”.
Many teachers have given copious instructions in their assignment books week after week. While we would love to believe that students and parents would conscientiously open and follow all the directions given to them, we all know too well that that’s not the case. Few students and their parents ever even open the notebooks. Among the few that do, many students often don’t remember the practice directions from merely reading about them. Since most parents are not at the lessons, they are often unable to understand what the teacher expectations.
Teachers also use several motivation techniques to get their students to practice. Some hold regular recitals and performance opportunities so their students are always “under the gun” preparing for the next big event. Others use practice charts to track their students’ practice and reward them with all kinds of prizes for milestones achieved. Prizes can range from candy and trinkets to outright cash! However, the problem with self-reported practice routines is that no one knows for sure if the students practice as much as they say they did. More importantly, no one knows how they practiced. So while many of these strategies can be effective, how can we improve upon them using technology?
Enter The Cloud: a means of storing and accessing data over the Internet instead of a computer, smartphone or tablet’s hard drive. How can it help teachers? Tools like Youtube allow teachers to create video tutorials so students and parents can better understand practice instructions. Students can also record their practice sessions and upload them for their teacher to hear how they are practicing. Tools like EVERNOTE enable a teacher to enter practice instructions on their smartphone or computer, organize them, and share with students. However, these tools are just the tip of the iceberg. The cloud and mobile devices can enable us to do so much more:
What if we can use cloud technology, through mobile devices, to effortlessly assign multimedia practice instructions to students who can then access them from their own devices?
What if we could track their practice, listen to it, and even comment on it?
How about creating incentives that would automatically drive better practice habits such as time spent with the instrument, consistency, and practicing all that is assigned to them?
What if all of this could be done from the comfort of our smartphone or tablet?
What if parents would be notified via email every time we issued a new assignment or new instructions on how to practice something? Or every time their child practiced? Or every time their child reached a practice milestone?
What if students, parents and teachers could share practice accomplishments on social media?
How about dividing a studio up into “practice teams” that competed with each other for practice honors?
Practicia (pronounced Prac-TIS-ee-ah) is an app that is currently in development that will attempt to do just this and much more. Information is available at www.Practicia.com.
Some teachers might feel a bit hesitant in exploring a technology solution to the age-old problem of practice. But consider this: most students already expertly interact with these devices. Most young parents also have access to several devices and constantly check their email and text messages. Teachers may find themselves pleasantly surprised at how cloud based applications could transform practice at their studio.
Frankly, sophisticated apps like Practice+ can intimidate me. I prefer those that only have a few features that also seem extremely intuitive. Although this enhanced metronome app was quite easy to explore, the multiple features had me wondering if this would be worth my consideration for most of my students.
However…after I experimented with the recording option, it dawned on me that this could be the PERFECT app for an adult student of mine who continues to struggle with finding and sticking with a steady beat.
As I played through a piece using the “Clave” metronome set to 8th note subdivisions–there are SO many options from which to choose–I recorded my practice with the metronome and saved it with an appropriate title and then listened to the recording, all within the same app. I was close to being right on with a tendency to be slightly in front of the pulse–typical of yours truly.
Since my student struggles to know if she is on the beat, this practice metronome with a recording feature could be a dynamite tool to help her finally secure a steady, strict pulse. By listening to herself practice with the metronome she could possibly (hopefully!) self correct her wobbly adherence to the beat.
There’s an option to email recordings which could offer my student a chance to send me a sample of her practice for feedback and encouragement from me between lessons. more
Last month in Part 1, I explained how learning just 4 chord shapes that shared common tones, and using a capo could get your students up and running and able to play lots of songs in multiple keys. I promised to expand the concept to include a few more chords. So let’s get started!
In Part 1, I used the basic open position chords for G, C, D, and Em – the 1, 4, 5, and 6m chords. Let’s expand that now to include all the degrees of the major scale. The root note of each chord below, in the “basic chords” diagram, represents each degree of the major scale. The result is a “chord scale.” Just like you can assign a number to the degree in the scale, you can assign a number to the degrees in the chord scale. If you play through the chords in order from 1 through 8, you’ll hear the major scale – the root notes ARE the scale! A quick aside here, I highly recommend teaching the chord shape I use for the 5/7 chord, D/F#. There’s a huge pay-off in terms of future learning a super-valuable, movable chord shape. More on that in a future post.
Preparing solo music on your own can be a wonderful experience – it is a bit like meeting a new person and watching their personality and interests unfold over a long conversation and discovering you have just made an important new friend.
In the case of the really great pieces, feeling the layers of meaning reveal themselves to you as you get to know a new piece can be intoxicating; it has even been described as a bit like falling in love.
But how can we be sure we don’t learn mistakes as we prepare our pieces? And how can we learn a piece quickly without straining our voice?
Everyone will have his or her own answer to these questions. In my own work, I’ve found that keeping to a strict method – one that leaves actual singing to quite late in the learning process – makes all the difference. Here is a brief outline of the method I use to learn music quickly and without strain. I hope it will be of use to you too.
HOW TO LEARN YOUR MUSIC: a method for singers
1. Listen to a number of recordings to get a feel for the piece (never listen to just one recording!). Do not sing along.
2. Read the text aloud.
3. Ask yourself what the text means. Paraphrase the text and say your own version aloud to be sure you understand what you are singing about.
4. Read the text aloud again and again until you can say it without tripping up.
5. Working very slowly (nowhere near performance speed), add the rhythm to the text (you are still not singing!) phrase by phrase. I like to start at the back of the piece and work toward the beginning phrase by phrase. This way I am always working towards something I already know. This helps to make important links between sections, and avoids the ‘dropping off a cliff feeling’ when you’re not sure what comes next.
6. Say the text aloud in the correct rhythm over and over until you can do it without error. Do this at a medium tempo – speed is unimportant until much later in the learning process. Strongly resist the impulse to sing! Read more…
I thought I’d share something I call The Capo Common-Tone Chord Concept with you in this month’s article. This is something I use with great success to get new guitar students ready to play music quickly. In my role as worship director at my church it’s been an indispensable tool in getting new guitar students up and running on the worship team. The first chords most guitarists learn are G, C, D, and Em. In the key of G, these chords cover the 1 – 4 – 5 – 6m chords that are found in most folk, pop, and rock songs.
After I teach these basic chords, I usually teach my students a special voicing concept for G, C, D, and Em that is used more widely in the music they really want to play. After that, I show them how to use the capo and suddenly they’re able to play a lot of music in a lot of different keys! One of the things that used to frustrate me as a guitarist is when I would buy a piece of sheet music only to discover later that the guitar chord diagrams don’t show that actual chord voicings that are being played on the original recording of the song! That frustration worsened if the song was in a non-friendly guitar key like Ab, Bb, or B. Even if I learned how to play a Bb barre chord, it never sounded like the guitar in the original recording. I knew something else was going on that the sheet music wasn’t telling me. It was only when I discovered this common-tone chord concept that I learned what was actually happening! Here’s how the Capo Common-Tone Chord Concept works:
Place your 3rd and 4th fingers (fretting hand) on the 1st and 2nd strings at the 3rd fret as shown in the diagram below (circled in red). These two notes (D and G) are the “common tones” that will remain the same for all 4 chords.
Since the 3 & 4 fingers stay in the same place for all 4 chord shapes, the 1 & 2 fingers are the only fingers to that move. Look at the 1 & 2 fingers in the G chord. Notice how they move one string over to create the Cadd9 chord. Very simple movement!
To make the Dsus4 chord, the 1 & 2 fingers split on either side of the 2nd string (like they do in a regular D chord).
Finally, the 1 & 2 fingers land on the 5th & 4th strings to make the Em7 chord.
How to apply this concept: Let’s say your chord progression is Em – C – G – D. Try playing the common tone voicings instead of the basic chord forms. For instance, if you see a C chord in your chart, play the Cadd9 voicing instead. When you see D, play the Dsus4 instead. If you come across a C2 (Csus2), the Cadd9 is going to sound great. This approach might drive a music theory purist crazy – but to most ears all these voicing are going to sound great. Try it! In the diagram below, I show you how to easily change the G chord into a G5,a.k.a. G(no3), by removing the 1 finger. (The 5th string gets muted by the 2nd finger.) Now, move the 2nd finger over one string and your Cadd9 becomes a legitimate Csus2 because the 3rd of the chord (that was previously played at the 2nd fret of the 4th string) is now muted. I love the jangly sound of those treble strings! But wait! There’s more!Arming yourself with a capo, the guitarist’s top accessory (behind a tuner of course), enables you to use these common-tone shapes to play in at lease 5 more common keys! No more going into cardiac arrest when you’re called upon to play a song in Bb (or Ab, B, etc.)! Just slap your capo on at the 3rd fret and play your common-tone shapes! Try this experiment: Play the following chord progression using the basic open Key of G shapes - C – G – Em – D. Try playing the same progression substituting the common-tone shapes. Now put your capo at the 3rd fret and play those same shapes. You’re playing C – G – Em – D shapes, but sounding Eb – Bb – Gm – F. I’m betting both you and your students will love the sound of the common-tone chords and find the concept very, very useful, especially when transposing. When first learning this concept, it may help to write your transposed chord shapes over the existing chord names in your chart. After a while, you’ll begin to recognize them and you’ll no longer need to write them in…you’ll be able to transpose in your head! In my next post, I’ll expand this concept to include some inversions. Read more…
As you glance over at Kyle, you are surprised to see tears brimming over. Where did those come from? He is just so sensitive! Some students seem to take corrective comments in stride, but others melt with the slightest suggestion for improvement. Kyle melts…
There can be multiple reasons for a student to not respond well to correction. Each of these reasons would suggest a different approach for resolution.
fear of failure
frustration with themselves
not meeting their own expectations
lack of understanding of the problem
have a hard time trying new things
feel they are not able to please you
bad day at school
hit their emotional limit for the day
low stress tolerance
fight with parent or sibling in the car on the way to the lesson
feel out of control
not doing music lessons for themselves, but out of coercion
not used to being corrected
not used to working hard for something
do not respect you as a teacher
loyalty to a previous teacher
Questions you might ask yourself as the teacher:
Have I properly prepared the student to play this piece?
Is this piece too challenging for this student’s emotional reserves?
Does the student know what I am asking for and how to achieve it?
Does the student have the technical skills to do what I am asking?
Was I clear in my instructions?
Have I broken the skill down into small enough pieces?
Is the tempo too fast?
Is the fingering wrong?
Have I already pushed too hard for this session and it’s time to back off?
Have I given enough positive feedback to balance the negative?
Is it time for a break or time for a new piece?
What is my best guess as to what is behind this melt-down? (see list above)
Many times we can slip into a pattern of ‘the student plays and then the teacher makes corrections.’ This can be an uninspired approach if it is not a process of joint discovery and stretching for the next level. There are many creative ways to involve the student mentally and emotionally to get past a road block. One approach is to praise what you honestly can, and then, instead of immediate correction, try one or more of the following: Read more…