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Queen Guitar Rhapsodies

Easy Ways To Improve Learning Without Driving Students Mad

Carlos teaching Apache children, 16 January 2014, photo by Dave Barton

Carlos teaching Apache children, 16 January 2014, photo by Dave Barton

- My day with the Apache children surprises me and makes me think again -

Last week I wrote about my day teaching at the San Carlos Secondary School on the Apache territory in Arizona, and their presentation the very next day of Beethoven’s Ode to Joy in my concert with Brad Richter in Gold Canyon. This was a considerable achievement on their part, bearing in mind that their grasp (save for one student) of the music 24 hours prior to performance was sketchy, at best. How did they do it?

For learning purposes at any stage of development this musical theme has almost no equals. It is universal: as I sit writing these words in Mexico, nearby church bells are chiming the top of the hour to the tune of Ode to Joy. It has been taken up as the European Union's anthem. There is scarcely a more instantly recognizable affirmation of humanity than this theme, unless of course you move over to the other side and consider Bob Dylan’s Blowing in the Wind or We Shall Overcome (which became a musical back-drop to the Civil Rights movement in the 1960's led by Martin Luther King) or the Beatles’ All You Need Is Love which unlike the other two offers more than just yearning, but realization itself.

Ode to Joy contains a universal message conveyed via instrumental music and through singing, the former quietly introduces it in the final movement of the 9th Symphony to the waiting singers who then deliver it with Schiller’s words at the top of their voices. Its instrumental beginning is why it so suits learning on the guitar.

There is one more reason why it is so apt to aspirant instrumentalists (not just guitar players). The theme itself contains only six notes. Six notes! What’s more they are all in the same key set at an uncomplicated rhythm in a manageable tempo. That is why the Apache children were able to master it relatively quickly, starting almost from scratch. Crucially, they did so with scarcely any reference to written notation. They relied on finger patterns and aural recollection. When they had almost nailed it, the notes were written up on a white board for all to refer to, but I noted that not a single one so much as glanced at them or used the white board as an aid to memory.

Allow me to make a list of some of the devices the children used to learn this tune of just six notes:
Tactile memory
Aural memory (assisted by recall, assuming they already knew the tune)
Note identification by name to reinforce the location of finger, fret and string
Group playing kept the rhythmic momentum moving onwards without breakdowns

Carlos teaching children in Guanajuato, Mexico,2007

Carlos teaching children in Guanajuato, Mexico,2007

Let it flow without the complication of reading notation
I am the first to advocate sight-reading as an essential feature of guitar playing. But here is the rub: a melody of six notes across three strings is indeed a considerable feat of coordination. Why complicate it with adding yet another skill: reading at an early stage of development? There is a contradiction between technical development and reading ability, the former moves ahead much faster than the latter. An insistence on reading only slows down the development of playing the guitar itself.

So here is my conclusion from watching and helping the Apache children: at early stages of development treat playing and reading from notation as separate skills. This could lead to attaching more rather than less importance to them. Better still, they will not act as a brake on developing loose-fingered uninhibited playing. For example, why should not beginners learn to play tunes and chords way up the guitar in the higher positions? The reason why this is unusual may be because reading all those staff lines above the 7th fret has yet to be introduced, hence no playing up there. What a pity!

Dedicated sight-reading exercises from day one will give it the importance it deserves and will not hold back playing skills which can flourish without recourse to notation. The more agile students are often impatient with reading notation, so why not go with the flow, and not frustrate them or drive them mad with what appears to them an unnecessary means to learning to play? Let them roam freely across the strings and frets, and then, at the right moment create clever pauses during their upward rush which we could call “reading time”. In this way, the euphoria of playing and the quieter skill of reading could be combined without getting in each other’s way. At some indeterminate point in the future, depending on the student’s inclination or skill, they will converge.

After all, playing freely and happily is what we all should aim to do. And where better to start than in the music which is all about freedom: Ode to Joy?

My other scary face-to-face experience
By the way, I must tell you what the “the other experience” was to which I referred in last week’s post regarding meeting Apaches face to face for the first time. It took place on a nearly deserted beach in the Northern Territories of Australia at the turn of the century. It was close to dusk. I was walking along a path with tall bushes either side just next to the sand towards my hotel which was just 300 hundred yards away. In the distance I saw a person approaching, the only person in sight. As he neared, I realized he was an Aborigine. It was the first Aborigine with whom I had ever come face to face. My heart beat faster and I was scared for absolutely no rational reason!

And those two experiences have remained etched deep in my mind.

24th January, Mexico

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