A Funny Thing Happened on the Way to This Forum

When I was first imagining the possibilities for this blog, the plan was to include updates on opportunities that didn’t take pandemics into account – concerts, meet-ups, and classroom and studio tips that presumed collaboration and physical interaction. 

 

But something happened on the way to this forum. 

 

In the meantime, many of us have been scrambling for ways to make everything we do as ensemble directors work in an online format, hardly a feasible or sustainable option.

But if we’re honest with ourselves, we are primarily music teachers. The guitar then becomes a tool – one tool for learning that can take a variety of forms.

 

For seven years, I taught music at the International School of Berne, Switzerland. It was a small school with no band, choir or orchestra. We had a private piano instructor who taught as independent contractor. In a small, fluid and transient community like ours (including music faculty, i.e., “me”), private piano lessons offered a stable instrumental experience. 

 

However, it was impressed upon me that an MYP music education must not be performance-based. It must be broader than that. And I’d need to read up on the guidelines in order to be true to the mission of the school. So I did. And while I know that some would find the MYP arts guide stifling and rigid, I found it liberating.

I considered myself a generalist, and since instrumental skill was one of the four pillars of the MYP arts guide, I had a great time adding instruments to my playroom every year – keyboard, guitar, ukulele, steel pan, and African percussion. The woman who ran the front desk was also responsible for leading tours for prospective families. She told me she loved starting with my room because it was such an eye-popper. 

Students would run or come skipping into my classroom, wondering out loud what they’d be getting their hands on for today’s lesson. The  Cajón made a big hit; an accordion was added as a Swiss staple; one 8th grade boy fell for the melodica (“Swag!”); an autoharp came in handy (no excuse for not participating in a guitar unit if you break an arm in ski season as long as you’ve got a working finger to push the chord button); and steel pans (forget notation – just watch what I do). 

And there were ukuleles and guitars of all sizes. But that’s not all we did. As well as developing skills, and applying them to duets and trios, rounds, and pop arrangements, they learned concepts related to form, harmony, texture, and context.  They could articulate – and recognize –  the difference between polyphony and homophony. They learned about rondo form and 12-bar blues structure. They developed their creative juices, improvising on keyboard, guitar and steel pan, or turning a poem into a song. And they learned how to reflect critically on music from classical, jazz, pop and world genres. 

I managed well for seven years without a performance-based class. My students had a great time. “What are we doing today” became “What are we doing next time?”

And parents noticed. I got an email once from the mother of an 8th grade boy. Her son, who never seemed to have the knack for playing any kind of instrument, loved music class for the first time in his life when he got a chance to learn about blues history in a research project. It was part of an Interdisciplinary Unit with the English department exploring the Harlem Renaissance and jazz culture.

There are many portals to a music education. Studio lessons and ensemble-based performance classes are one approach. But they don’t serve everyone equally. And music education shouldn’t be only for the privileged or suitably inclined. The MYP curriculum offers many ways to explore and demonstrate learning.

Check out the latest entry in Academics to see how this can work for guitar teachers.

Library

I also taught music in Doha, Qatar, for a year. The school day ended at 12:30 which gave me lots of afternoon and evening time to improve my own chops. I’d brought along a method book from the states that gave me some needed focus and distraction from what was a pretty wacky international experience (insert line from Qatar notes here about staff turn-over). I review the book in this week’s method book section.

Artist Features

Whenever I ask my younger friends where they discover new music or artists, the answer is usually “Spotify.” Or “Soundcloud.” Me? I’m a music magazine junkie. I love picking up a MOJO, or Uncut, or even a NY Times arts section and discovering someone new. In my last post, it was a NY TImes piece on Tinariwen. This time out, it’s a discovery from a full-page ad in Acoustic Guitar magazine for Augustine classical guitar strings. Find out who gets the spotlight this time in Artist Features.

Product Info

Among the many items in a performing guitarist’s inventory, there is one that is often taken for granted. Check the product info page for a recommendation that could be a game changer.

 Repertoire

Last time, I featured a trio from Andrew Forrest’s online catalog. I’m going with another Forrest selection here – an arrangement of a traditional Chinese folk song, which calls for students to draw out different timbres from their instrument. Look for it in Repertoire.

Trade Publications

When most students approach a new piece, the tendency is to focus on just getting through all the notes correctly. But sometimes it’s helpful to master a piece by looking at it from a variety of angles. In the March/April issue of Acoustic Guitar magazine, Micael Chapdelaine shows how.