Tuesday, March 3, 2009

Why I Love Teaching

  1. I feel lucky to be able to make a living through music. Not everyone gets to follow their passion in life, but here I am!
  2. I love my students. They are interesting people with a variety of backgrounds and musical interests.
  3. My guitar students inspire me. How many adults purposely put themselves in the position of trying to do something they can't do? Yet that's what my guitar students do every week.
  4. I learn as much or more from teaching as my students do. Explaining how to do something to another person helps me understand how to do it better.
  5. I like figuring out how another person's mind works. When I can get inside a student's thinking process, I'm able to explain things more clearly, and they understand more.
  6. I love seeing the light go on in someone else's head when they begin to "get it."
  7. My students help me become a better musician. Some of them are darned good! And fast! And I have to prepare new material to keep them busy.
  8. It's fulfilling to help other people reach their creative goals. Nothing can make me "kvell" like seeing one of my students singing and playing a song that we've worked on together in lessons.
  9. My students expose me to music I would never hear otherwise.
  10. Teaching has made me aware of how much I know, and at the same time, how much I don't know. I've learned that I don't have to have all the answers, but if I can create a climate that encourages creativity, exploration, and musicality, I feel like I've succeeded.

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Thursday, February 12, 2009

No More Crows and Canaries


I can't count the number of times someone has said to me "I can't carry a tune in a bucket." Inevitably, when I probe a little more, I find out that someone has told them they can't sing.

It might be a teacher who asked them to mouth the words at the school concert, or separated the whole class into "Canaries" and "Crows." It might be a spouse, a parent, or a sibling who told them to shut up every time they opened their mouth.

For some reason we think it's okay to tell someone they can't sing, and as far as I'm concerned, that's just wrong. Think about the logic here: would we ever tell someone that they'll never be a great orator, so they might as well not even try to speak? I don't think so. Singing and speaking are equally natural human activities, and yet we somehow think of singing as a special talent that only some are blessed with.

Singing is a skill, made up of subskills, and like any skill, it can be learned. Some people, for whatever reason, are quicker at picking up the skills. But even people who have considerable challenges matching pitch and rhythm can improve over time. I've seen singers go from having a very hard time staying in one key, to being able to carry a tune with conviction and confidence. Over the years I've led workshops and worked one-on-one with many singers, and I've yet to meet a person who can't improve. And the more you do it, the better you get at it.

So, I've said it before, but let me repeat: we need more places where people can sing together for the fun and joy of it. No more crows and canaries, people, let's get singing!

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Sunday, October 5, 2008

Rise Up Singing in Guelph

This weekend I had the pleasure of visiting with my friends Jane Lewis and Sam Turton in Guelph. Sam and Jane are musicians who, besides performing and writing songs, also spend a lot of time fostering community music in Guelph. Their organization "Rise Up Singing" offers music workshops that help people learn music in a supportive, inclusive environment. I was there to teach a guitar workshop, but over the weekend we had some lively conversations about community music. One of their missions is encouraging people to sing more, and seeing them in action affirmed once again the power of singing in a group.

I met up with Jane and Sam on Friday night at a local Guelph cafe where they facilitate a weekly public sing-along.For two hours they led an enthusiastic group of cafe patrons in singing together from a large book that they've compiled of familiar, singable songs (complete with an index!). The book includes everything from "I Still Haven't Found What I'm Looking For" by U2 to the traditional gospel favourite "I'll Fly Away." Every table had a few books strewn on it, and song requests were passed up to the front for Jane and Sam to choose from. We sang songs by The Beatles, CSNY, Sting, Johnnie Nash, Carole King, Leonard Cohen, and more, plus a bunch of traditional favourites.

It was a very fun evening, and as I sat there belting out "Our House" with a group of people I didn't know, I noticed that most of the singers didn't fit the general profile of died-in-the-wool music-loving folkies. They seemed more like "normal" people who had somehow stumbled onto this weekly event. And they were having an awfully good time. It reminded me that, unlike me, most people don't have opportunities to sing in a group.

It didn't used to be like that, of course. Singing used to be woven into the fabric of our lives, accompanying work, play, worship, love, celebration, birth, and death-- in short, everything we did could or would have been cause for singing. In North America we've largely become separated from singing as part of our community life, and we've swallowed the idea that singing is something that's best left to "experts." Early on we learn that we either have "talent," or we don't, and if we don't, we had better keep our mouth shut.

The notion that singing is something you either can or can't do is actually a pretty strange idea that runs contrary to everything we know about music and creativity. Music is a skill that can be learned. Like any other skill, some people are naturally more talented, and some people have the advantage of being exposed to more music making at an early age, but I have yet to meet anyone that absolutely can't learn to sing.

And singing in a group is a fantastic way to improve your singing. Not only does it help you learn to listen (which is one of the most important musical skills you can have), it also helps you build confidence in your own voice and allows you a space to try new things without feeling exposed.

Music gatherings like Sam and Jane's sing-along in Guelph provide a low-pressure, inclusive opportunity for people to experience the joy of singing in a group. So here's to Sam and Jane, and Rise up Singing. I'm glad to know they are out there, creating community through music.

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Wednesday, July 16, 2008

Learning Guitar = Living On the Edge?

Last week I taught a one-week guitar course at Haliburton School of the Arts.

I had eleven adult students, with a wide variety of experience. Some had never played guitar before at all, some had a little bit of experience, and others had decades of playing under their belts. All week they worked away at learning how to make chords, how to play bass runs, how to keep time and play together, how to fingerpick and how to sing a bunch of folk, country, and blues songs. It was a challenging and exhilarating week for me.

And almost a week later, I am left with a feeling of deep respect and awe for my students. Signing up for a class like this means you are purposely putting yourself in the position of trying to do something you don't know how to do. How often do we as adults put ourselves in that position? I would venture that most of us find a certain comfort zone in our lives, where we rarely risk looking stupid. We gain training, take jobs, develop expertise, and stick with it. Once we are adults, do we ever openly admit to having no clue as to what we're doing?

And yet, most of the people in this class had no clue what they were doing at least part of the time. That's why they were in the class, after all. So they spent a lot of the week, out there at the edge of their comfort zone, trying to play "boom-chuck." They were patient, open, and they all made big strides over the week. It was a joy, as well as a very humbling experience, to spend time with them and help them on their musical path.

One of my students was zoom, author of a blog called knitnut, and this morning I turned on my computer to find this very fine post on her blog. I was already in the middle of writing this piece, but she put it better than I ever could. Thanks zoom! And thanks to all of my Haliburton students for living on the edge.

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Monday, June 30, 2008

On Freight Train

"Freight Train" is one of those songs that every acoustic guitar player learns at some point. I learned it as a kid when I was taking guitar lessons, but I don't think I truly appreciated it until I became a guitar teacher myself. Now, it's one of the first tunes I will teach to a student who wants to learn how to fingerpick a melody. The beauty of "Freight Train" is that it's deceptively simple. You can play it completely straight -- with no syncopation or fancy licks, which is what makes it so perfect for teaching fingerstyle guitar. And it's great for learning how to syncopate and interpret a melody in different ways. Somehow even though I hear it almost every week, I never get tired of it.



I once saw Libba Cotton, the author of "Freight Train," perform a concert at Harbourfront Centre in Toronto. She must have been at least 92. She had recently fallen and broken her ankle, so she performed the entire concert with her foot in a cast, propped up on a chair in front of her. She was one of the most down-to-earth, personable performers I have ever seen. I feel lucky to have seen that concert.

Today I learned "Freight Train" has been inducted into the Library of Congress as one of the most important recordings ever.

Congratulations to Libba Cotton, and here's to one of the seminal folk songs of our time, "Freight Train."

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