Learning by Doing: Teaching Guitar

One of the truest statements I’ve ever heard is “if you want to learn something, teach it.”  Much of my teaching career has been built upon that premise, and it’s stretched my mind and talents far beyond what I thought I was capable of achieving.

A young education major at the local liberal arts college once told me that it’s unethical to learn on the job when teaching.  As I recall, I laughed in his face, and said, “Kid, the only way to learn how to teach is by learning on the job.”  No one knows everything, especially educators (why do you think we became teachers?).

That’s certainly been the case with teaching guitar.  I’d always struggled to wrap my mind (and hands) around string instruments, and while I picked up bass (one note at a time is much easier than six), I assumed I’d never be able to play guitar.  Indeed, I’m still not very good at playing guitar, and would not consider myself a “guitar player.”

What I discovered is that as I taught guitar lessons—often fumblingly so initially—I was learning to play guitar.

Starting a few years ago, parents began approaching me about teaching their kids guitar.  I can’t remember who was the first, but I do know I needed the money and was willing to give it a try.  I always tell parents what I told those parents back then:  I’m not a guitar player, but I can teach some of the basics and get your child started.

Indeed, I had one parent approach me a couple of years ago about giving lessons to her son.  The young man was already taking guitar lessons with a very accomplished local strings player, a guy I somewhat know from the local music scene and who can play multiple string instruments.  I told her, “I’d love to teach your son, but I have to tell you, his current teacher is way better and more qualified than me for guitar.”

She replied, “I appreciate that, but I have four kids, and you’re here.”  That taught me a valuable lesson:  proximity and convenience often matter more than experience and sheer talent.

Indeed, in The Before Times, in the Long, Long Ago, before The Age of The Virus, I taught quite a few guitar students.  One of them rapidly outpaced my meager abilities on the instrument, but I think my initial guidance helped set him on the path to explore the instrument more deeply.

Currently, I only have two guitar students, and those two also spend part of their lessons working on piano, with the goal to use those instruments to accompany themselves vocally.  When I teach purely guitar, though, I focus on a combination of rhythm guitar (common chords, strumming patterns, and the like) and classical (reading music—a skill few guitarists possess, but which is hugely important; playing melodically, etc.).

That said, on Wednesday my Middle School students and I found ourselves in a peculiar predicament:  due to AP testing very close to the Music Room, we could not do our usual jamming on drums, amplified instruments, and mic’d vocals.  Instead, I cleared our school’s stage (which also doubles as my classroom at times), arranged some folding chairs in a circle, and handed out acoustic guitars.

One of my dedicated high school guitarists, a sophomore, recently used his birthday money to restring many of the school’s old acoustic and electric guitars.  These instruments have accumulated over the years from various parents donating them, often as a result of a child playing guitar for five minutes and never touching it again.  That student’s incredible generosity—a result of his love of music—now gives more students the chance to learn.

Anyway, the Middle School kids had a blast with—and some hurt fingers from—playing guitar.  A few of my students knew the basic chords we worked on already, so I enlisted them to help show their classmates the fingerings.  We also had fun making up lyrics set against our simple chord progressions.

I also had some fun joking around with the students about the mildly painful nature of playing guitar for the first time.  Experienced players, of course, develop callouses from hours of practice, but newcomers must struggle with indentions in and blisters on their fingers.  I told the students they’d go home and grossly misrepresent that day’s activity:  “Mr. Cook forced me to spend an hour pressing my fingers down against a tight metal wire on a wooden board!”

All in all, it was a fun morning, and I was impressed with how quickly the students picked up the different chord formations (in both sections of the class we did Em, G, E, and A, and in one class we also worked in Am, D, and C).  I’m not sure if I won any new converts to the guitar, but the kids had fun and tried something new.

After all, that’s kind of what teaching—and learning on the job—is all about.

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