Heartwood Hoedown

Today I had the opportunity to teach some fiddle tunes to my student R. and his sister K. I’m not a great old-time-country player, and most of my students play rock music anyway, so I don’t teach fiddle tunes much. But I like them, and learned a few when I played in the short-lived World’s Worst, Friendliest Bluegrass Band (which is another story). So when R.’s mother told me last week that she’d like to bring R.’s sister, a violin player, to the next lesson, I was excited.

R. was less enthusiastic. He’s eleven, and has been my student for almost a year now. I’ve taken him through Nirvana’s “Come as You Are” (a great beginner’s song if you play it in Em instead of F#m), and Green Day’s “Good Riddance,” “Boulevard of Broken Dreams,” and “Holiday.” So he’s not exactly a huge country music fan.

But R. is also diplomatic, so he went along with it. We first tried a slow waltz, which was very pretty, but it had a few new chords in it (dominants mostly) that Ryan hadn’t encountered playing his punk tunes. We finally settled on a 12-bar blues song called “Stinky’s Blues.” R. substituted the A, D, and E7 chords with power chords, and I showed him a little shuffle rhythm he could strum. K. sounded great on the fiddle, and by the time mom got back at the end of the hour, we had a little hoedown going on. Mom was delighted, and K. said she had a good time too. It was hard to tell if R. had much fun, though he did seem to take some pride in showing his older sister his guitar skills.

It’s always interesting to see how parents balance their children’s desires with their own dreams of who they’d like their children to be. Many parents dream of their families playing music together, but the kids are usually not as excited about it. How hard do you push?

On the one hand, I don’t think kids should be forced to do any kind of musical activity that they really don’t want to do. Music is a form of play–it’s highly structured and requires skill and discipline to do it well, but its goal is still simple pleasure, unless you’re one of those people who thinks that learning to play the piano under duress will boost SAT scores. I personally don’t think it’s worth it. Forcing people to play music is like forcing people to smile.

On the other hand, kids often need guidance and encouragement. R. would never have played fiddle tunes with his sister had his mom not encouraged him, and I think he got something out of it.

As R. was leaving, I joked that maybe, some day, he’d fall in love with a woman who’s crazy about fiddle tunes. He’s just eleven years old, but he seemed encouraged by the idea.

A Guitar Lesson From Ray

Today I was introducing a student to the minor pentatonic scale. I was about to show the student the whole scale when I recalled the scene from Ray where an old piano player teaches the young Ray Charles to improvise using three notes. I remembered thinking, as I watched the movie, “Three is the perfect number to start with. Easy to remember, but varied enough to allow plenty of expression.”

I taught my student the three notes (the same three little Ray used), launched into a blues boogie-woogie rhythm, and two minutes later my student was telling me how fun and easy blues improvising was.

A year ago I introduced the minor pentatonic scale using the whole finger pattern–twelve notes–and students often stumbled and got frustrated before they caught on. Up until today, I would teach an octave–six notes–with good results. But after today, I’m convinced three notes is the perfect place to start.

I wonder if Ray would have stuck with the piano if his first lesson had been on reading music notation….

Teacher's Notebook Launched!

So much can happen in an hour’s guitar lesson–it seems like every day I learn something new about teaching or playing. I want this blog to be a place to share these moments with my students and anyone else who comes along.

I hope you’ll join in on the conversation if you like.