Guitar Lessons Lessons: My Pedagogy

(I wrote this February 22, 2011. I am taking guitar lessons again and hope that “student feeling” doesn’t come rushing back.)

As I slid into the student desk at the Continuing Education Center for the first guitar class of the semester that ole student feeling nearly came rushing back. It could have been 10th grade Spanish, college calculus, or graduate-level econometrics.   Good god, I hated those classes. I could have felt the same sweatiness, the same tight throat, the same prickliness in my chest, the same self-consciousness, the same desire to be elsewhere—but I didn’t, although I came close enough to remember that Spanish teacher and Professor Tayman.  I do recall the positive excitement of new classes but have also felt the dread of tyrannical teachers, academic anxiety, and pupil paralysis. Formal education is so often a roll of the dice.

I am a 59 year-old political science professor taking guitar classes for fun, self-improvement, and increased music understanding.  Some would call it “music appreciation” but I very much appreciate music already. I’ve attended classic operas and symphonies and have explored ragtime and drum circles.  I have several strengths and talents—playing music, however, is not among them. I once played a dulcimer and learned a baby version of “It’s a Small World” on a keyboard back in the early ‘80s. In grade school, a teacher told me that I didn’t have to sing as loud as the other kids. Even so, music has fascinated me because of its many contrasts–it can be so simple yet so complex, it can be one person humming or a huge chorus, it can be so comforting or so alarming.  I’ve learned about octaves, and the chromatic scale, at least a dozen times but understand music about as well as I understand electrons and neutrons or why Pluto is no longer considered a planet.  I can wander around with the jargon but I want to feel how music really works.

I’ve wanted to seriously play around with a guitar ever since hearing Bob Dylan and the Beatles back in 1964.  I thought a little guitar exposure will allow me to better understand how they, Joan Baez, and Bruce Springsteen have all reached in and grabbed my heart at one time or another. I thought maybe I could feel what happens when the right notes are played or a piece sounds whole and complete.

The guitar instructor is 24 years old, but that probably matters more to him than to me. He acts like most teachers, and professors. They tend to have a cold detachment, a singular focus “on the material” so that they don’t have to fully acknowledge students’ interest and needs.  Some of this acquired detachment is protective; some of it is just due the uncertainty of trying to make one’s personal knowledge comprehensible. Outside of class I would like him, but now, if we needed to take the fire escape, I will make sure he is the last one out. He, however, is nothing like Professor Tayman who I had back in the fall of 1973, my first semester in graduate school.  After his being late for office hours, Tayman offered me a chair, squeezed in between his overly full bookcase and the trash basket, and said “tell me about your paper” without saying “hello.”  He sat down at his desk and immediately began to read his mail as I started to stumble around my research project examining externalities in public education. I paused, waiting for his attention. He looked up and said “proceed.” As his eyes returned to his mail, I thought “fuck you.”  I would still want to run him over if I were to see him in the crosswalk.

Our instructor told us he first picked up the guitar when he was 11, majored in music, played in his college jazz band, and now performs at least once a week around the state. He teaches this class and gives lessons at a local music store, but I doubt he thinks of himself as a music teacher. He is a guitar player. He remembers coming home from middle school to spend several hours imitating songs from MTV and CDs; I remember coming home to write my Congressman for a copy of the Civil Rights Act of 1964 at about the same age. He probably carried his electric guitar to school even when he didn’t have practice that day, just like I carried the Congressional Record to school needlessly.  Often teachers end up exclusively pursuing a subject they became interested in, and good at, in their youth.  While we may acquire a lot of specialized knowledge, our interests are rather narrow.

No class, regardless of the teacher or the students, is really a “new” class.  We teach how we have been taught. We learned to be students long ago. We cultivate the student feeling over a lifetime of trials and errors, aspirations and frustrations, dreams and failures.  Quietly observing my students over the years, I sense that the student feeling is almost always there.  Presumably if we go to college we can cope with it. We learn how to check it, to keep it right below the surface. It might resurface while waiting in line at the Bureau of Motor Vehicles, or applying for an auto loan at the bank, or trying to figure pension benefits at the human relations office but it is classrooms and teachers that are most likely to ignite it. Adult classes, even guitar lessons just for fun, threaten to bring the student feeling back, too.

In the eight week adult class I increased my understanding of music and enjoyed the progress I made. I also quietly watched how people learn and realized I would hate the class, the instructor, and the guitar, if it were Spanish, calculus, or econometrics. Please, I pray, I hope students in my  political science classes I’ve taught for 28 years—where and I try to do a “good job” –don’t think of me this way. Some do, I imagine.

There were four other men about my age and two 40ish women in the class. The students indicate a wide range of ability and interest but I bet three students were at my ability level, one is a little better, and two might be advanced students. One of the seemingly advanced students, about my age, always was a few minutes late, wore loud pants and a bizarre shirt, and spent the class time echoing back, with a little extra zest, whatever the instructor played. He and the instructor both like Led Zeppelin, especially Jimmy Page, who I had not heard of but now know is the founder of the band and one of the top ten guitarist of all time. Another man in the class, the one who asked thoughtful questions and seemed to practice the most, wanted to improve so he could play at his church. He told the instructor “make sure my finger positions are right, I hear it is hard to unlearn bad habits.”

Guitars and their cases seemed to have personalities, too. Of course, some guitar straps were brightly colored, some were wide, some always needing adjustment. None of the guitars were “just brown” when compared with others around the room. My guitar is a Fender that a former graduate student suggested I buy about five years ago. It is slightly burgundy or mahogany, and was dusty when I caught it out again last summer.  The instructor said he know owns three guitar—two acoustic and one electric. The one he used in class was tanner than mine and seemed to have a deeper sound. Two classmates had cloth cases instead of the traditional machine gun cases.

The student feeling was evident around the room. Too little interaction and too much fidgeting with notebooks and picks raised doubts that this group was all that happy to be there.  One of the women told the class the first night that she just wanted to be able to play “Silent Night” for her kids in time for Christmas.  I overheard the other woman tell the instructor after the second class “I didn’t understand anything we did last week.”  The instructor did not change anything so maybe he didn’t hear her, although he can hear the difference between an F sharp and a G.

Another student, a retired gentleman, quit playing his guitar in class after week three. He did nothing the last class. Absolutely nothing. His guitar lay on the table in front of him and he did nothing. He must have had Spanish, econometrics, and calculus too. The last night he left immediately after class without even acknowledging the instructor. Ouch.

My long-term goal is to play a baby version of  “Amazing Grace” and “Michael, Row the Boat Ashore” and to be able to strum along with Simon and Garfunkel in the privacy of my own home. I have already done much better than the first guitar class I took about five years ago when that instructor thought he could teach guitar and banjo at the same time. One night he asked if any guitars needed tuning, so I handed him my guitar believing I had it tuned and he replied “Oh, my” after strumming it once. I thought I wanted to learn the guitar but I wasn’t into that class with my son in Iraq and all.  I had to hurry to class from my office and was often the last one there and squeezed into the back corner.  It was January and my hands were often still cold half way though class.

Music teachers, perhaps more than other teachers, often project a sternness suggesting they think their students are all prodigies who aspire to be world class. They seem to take the lack of practice and progress personally.  It is hard to imagine a yoga instructor suggesting you don’t come back until you can hold the Warrior II pose a bit longer and steadier.  Teaching really isn’t about the teacher’s performance skills; it’s about understanding the progression of human development.

The guitar looks deceptively simple, having only six strings. Back in college in the 1970s lots of guys could play, and a few were talented on the piano, too. Sometimes they talked about strumming patterns but some guys used it as a prop while singing Beatles tunes and folk songs. Just six strings with two hands working together.  But there are 20 frets—so that’s 120 places to make a note, and a mistake.  Just a three note chord could be made 120 raised to the third power different ways. And then there are quarter notes and half notes and rests and an infinite number of tunings and fingering patterns. Maybe I should have taken drum lessons.

After three weeks of guitar class I decided I was going to learn, to the best of my limited ability, to play the six different scales the instructor told us about. After days of trying to follow his notes, I remembered how to learn, how to teach myself: I remembered to make the material my own. I re-wrote the scales my way, marking some particular notes I had trouble with, and comparing the different scales. For the first time I saw that there was a simple pattern to each scale. Far less than the 120 notes raised to the third power, most scales were anchored on the same two or three frets on each of the six strings. Sometimes I had only had 12 notes to remember—and then I only needed to play one note at a time. Just a one note at a time, although it might be awfully quick and involve four fingers.  I just didn’t see it that way when I was on the verge of the student feeling.

I was seeking the simplicity of “Home on the Range” while the instructor told us about power chords, “hammering on,” “pulling off” and of famous riffs like “Smoke on the Water” and “Hotel California.”  I feared that student feeling when I tuned him out when he mentioned “seventh chords,” figuring I just didn’t need to know about them right then. I remember wondering if he knew that I was at least 500 miles away. Several weeks later when I noticed a G7 in a Dylan song, I scheduled a private lesson to learn the differences among major, minor, and seventh chords. Realizing the only difference is the G7 has an F rather than a G on the sixth string brought back memories of making peace with the quadratic equation.  I just wasn’t ready for the G7 or that equation earlier.

One night the instructor asked if anyone liked Deep Purple’s “Smoke on the Water.” I think every hand, but mine, went up. I expected to be lost.  As soon as he played it, however, I immediately recognized it. It is considered one of the top guitar riffs and is supposedly easy to learn since a simple version only has four notes on the top string (E)—an open note, the 3rd fret, the fifth fret, and the sixth fret. The instructor passed out a simple version that even I could follow.  The next day, I played these four notes until my fingers burned and my shoulders cramped. I googled “Smoke and the Water” and learned it was written with equipment borrowed from the Rolling Stones.  I read the lyrics and chords, and listened to it on my laptop.  I was as excited as in sixth grader playing with a new puppy while procrastinating doing his arithmetic homework.  I messed around and played the same four notes on each string and at different locations. Yes, I could hear different tones. After a few days, I could play the four notes over-and-over in a way that would be recognizable to a listener.

A few classes later, I asked the instructor for a more complex version of “Smoke on the Water” and he replied “just play each of the four notes as an F shaped power chord.” I felt that student feeling stirring. I flashbacked to college calculus when the math professor told me “just use the chain rule to differentiate that equation—it is a lot cleaner.” I then remembered when a timid student asked me about the difference between “national” and “federal” and I told her to go read Federalist Paper #46.

A few weeks after the last class, I made an appointment with the instructor and asked him again for a more complex version of “Smoke on the Water.” This time he said “Oh, let me write down the notes in tablature.”  He picked up his guitar, checked a few notes, and wrote them down on official music paper. I’ve been practicing them for weeks.

I now have callouses on my left-hand finger tips and can play simple G, D, and C chords with about 90 percent effectiveness, although I usually have trouble holding down the bottom E string for the D chord. Bar chords like an F note require particular finger strength that I am unlikely to perfect at this age. I can live with that although it seemed to bug the instructor.

Because of this guitar class I have borrowed George Harrison, Bob Dylan, and, of course, Springsteen DVDs from the library and studied their finger movements and strumming.  I accessed lyrics and scores and found guitar tips and lessons on the internet.

The week before the last class I practiced every day and was very pleased I could locate key notes along each string and play the G major scale rather smoothly. I smiled and laughed to myself as I experienced my fourth finger moving down the D string with grace it had not had before. Playing the G major scale backwards may take another 2-3 weeks although “Amazing Grace” is coming along fine.

An hour before that last class, immediately before I packed my guitar carefully in its traveling case, I reviewed the notes on each string one more time.  I ensured I could transition from a B chord to C and E to F. I was eager for class.  Within a few minutes in class, however, I was fighting that student feeling. Despite being an independent adult, a professor, taking this class as a hobby, I wondered why I had registered for this course.  The instructor overloaded us once again with review after seemingly endless review of the six different scales. For variety, he wanted to mix them up so instead of just doing G major scales, we tried A, B, D and F major scales as well.  After each scale, his query “Any questions?” earned no response.  I was stressed with that student feeling. My mastery of the G major scale quickly disappeared.  While I was able to “cope” and pulled several useful points from the session, it was a lot less enjoyable and much less proficient than was possible.   I started wondering what ever happened to Nate from my political science class last semester who could not grasp the difference between “checks and balances” and “federalism.”  I guess I shouldn’t have kept asking him “do you have any questions?”

Playing in class is different than practicing at home. Just the distraction of six classmates, all strangers playing up-and-down their frets, in a sterile cold classroom can be taxing. And there is a teacher there. Even when you know no one cares enough to be watching you, it feels like everyone is. It’s the student feeling.   It is the difference between running five miles by yourself and playing on a soccer team the first time—your chest is tight, you forget where to go, and you worry about not looking foolish. Even when everyone is focused on playing, I feel the pressure of other’s eyes. Even when most students were lost in Spanish, econometrics, and calculus, I cared more about other’s views of us than in learning about tenses, probability, or asymptotic limits.

Guitar playing is different than music theory dissertating.  Guitar playing is a skill like writing, bike riding, or campaign planning. Knowing the rules of grammar, reciting the principles of physics, and recalling the fine points of campaign law are useful, and impressive, but not all that helpful in writing a speech, getting your lawnmower to work, or getting elected to office. Doing without knowing is reckless; knowing without doing is empty knowledge.

A little bit of practice made a big difference by increasing finger dexterity and endurance.  Increased familiarity brought insights about similarities of songs. Often what looked like a complicated finger pattern of a chord was practically the same chord I already knew but the different finger pattern makes it easier to play. After weeks of plucking around with the more advanced version of “Smoke on the Water” I recognized that the first note is an E minor, hence, it is in the scale of E minor just like the instructor had said a dozen times. I know he said it, and would have repeated it if we had a test, but I didn’t really understand. I didn’t know it until I played it.

After explaining to me once again that tablature goes from higher notes to lower notes, while the instructor might think “how can this guy be a college professor?” I just tried  once again and quietly smile knowing that I almost have this present hurdle figured out. Twenty year ago I would have thought “I would like to hear him explain federalism or recount the history of public education or build a deck on his house.” A decade ago I would have thought “I hope I see you around town in a couple years and hear how well you are juggling your music with raising a two year old while earning that degree in music education.”  Now, I quietly smile, and sort of giggle that I get a thrill out of picking “When the Saints Come Marching In.”

In a little less than four months, I’ve done rather well on the guitar, certainly better than I did in Spanish, calculus, and econometrics. I can play several scales and still get a kick out of trying to improve “Smoke on the Water.” I can hear the difference between an E and an E minor. I have compared the chords and tablature for at least six Christmas carols and a dozen Pete Seeger songs. One night after googling “how to change guitar strings” I ended up searching for Springsteen’s “Born to Run.”

Once again I’ve learned that learning comes in bits and pieces with a little improvement here and there.  Just as I coped with turning fractions into decimals for months that one winter of fourth grade, I have re-learned  a dozen times that chord combinations are not as different as the fingering positions it takes to play them. The difference between most three-note major chords and their minor companion is usually just one interval on one string. Each time I think “isn’t that amazing” as if it is a new realization. Soon, supposedly, I won’t even notice it.

The instructor was a nice guy. He knew his stuff.  He should have a Ph.D. in guitar.  I appreciate that he showed me his electric guitar one afternoon. He clearly loves the material and loves playing the guitar. His pedagogy rested on distributing class notes that made sense to him but never asking if they made sense to us. I guess I seldom ask my students either.

Over the span of the class, I taught myself how to tune my guitar. Before each evening’s class, however, I asked the instructor to “check my tuning” even when I was pretty sure it was in tune.  I noticed that several other students followed suit.   It was not out of disrespect or laziness that I asked.  I just wanted to tell him” to slow down,” to say “hey, I am just a beginner, I don’t want that student feeling coming back.”

One thought on “Guitar Lessons Lessons: My Pedagogy

  1. Great post! I hope you keep at playing guitar! I’ve also been trying to learn- I pick it up, I put it down, I relearn and relearn scales, maybe eventually I’ll actually get somewhere!


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