Things I Don’t Do…
Hello Troubadourians! I recently started giving guitar lessons to a friend from work. I usually don’t give private lessons—for various reasons—and certainly not to people I work with for many of the same reasons. I made an exception in this case because the young man I’m teaching, who I’ll call T for the purpose of this article, is an immensely talented singer, and I thought that if I could help him improve his guitar playing, he could better accompany himself. Since he could already play somewhat better than a beginner and had demonstrated the ability and desire to learn, I figured I could help him become more accomplished as a musician, so I made an exception. He is definitely in the ”raw talent” category—excellent voice, excellent pitch, and highly musical—but with very little understanding of the technical part of music. I knew that I didn’t want this much talent to be wasted, neglected, or damaged. Yeah, damaged. It doesn’t take much for a singer who doesn’t know their range or limits to do permanent damage to their voice.
And this is where we started… One Friday I brought my guitar to work because I had a gig afterward and didn’t have time to go home to get it. T asked if I knew “Tennessee Whiskey” by Chris Stapleton as he wanted to perform it at our company lunch. I didn’t but I said, “Give me five minutes and I’ll learn it.” I did, and we played it on the spot. He nailed it and I knew then that I had to become his mentor.
Broadening horizons… The first music that T had learned was Mexican folk and Mariachi music. He excels in singing both, but he wanted to expand into other genres. I asked him what he listens to for fun. Of all things, he listens to metal. Seriously? For my first recommendation, I had him listen to Linda Ronstadt’s version of “Blue Bayou,” where she sings the last verse in Spanish. Mind blown. That started a listening binge of her music. Then I had him listen to Roy Orbison’s original version. Mind further blown… Another binge—this time on Orbison—ensued. Recommendations to check out Bonnie Raitt, Mark Knopfler, and Los Lobos induced further bingeing. It was fun introducing him to music he’d never considered or even heard of.
Know your limits… I’m not a vocal teacher so I don’t attempt to teach anyone how to sing. I just barely manage for myself anyway. But I do know music and musicianship so I knew I could teach that in addition to guitar. The first thing I had T do was to go find someone who could help him figure out what his vocal range was and critique whatever technique he may or may not have. To my surprise, he joined a church choir where several of the members were professional vocalists and teachers and they helped him learn at least the basics of what to do and not do as a singer. We both knew this was a means to an end but it was information I didn’t know how to teach.
First Lessons… To begin our guitar odyssey, I had him play and sing a song that he was comfortable performing and watched his hands. I noticed that his strumming hand didn’t play all of the strings he was fingering with his fretting hand and that several of the chord shapes he played were stunningly wrong. Had his hands been in sync, he would have no doubt heard the discord but because only some of the strings were sounding, he believed he was playing correctly. I explained this to him and proceeded to actually play the chords he had been fingering. This was eye-opening and was a perfect place to introduce how to play simple guitar chords properly. We started with an abbreviated version of the CAGED system. Getting his fretting hand to properly finger chords was the first step. Staying relaxed and not applying excess pressure was the second. For the same reasons that I sent him to professional vocalists so that he could learn how to not injure his voice, I instructed T in how to address the guitar with his left and right hands in a way that is comfortable and to prevent injury to his hands.
A little more specific… This was also an opportunity to talk about different techniques for strumming the guitar. I believe that there are many correct ways to excite the strings—with a flatpick, with a thumb pick and fingers, with bare thumb and fingers, or with a hybrid of flatpick and fingers. There are variations within all of these techniques, some of which are better suited over another depending upon the style or genre of the music. I demonstrated the different picking styles mentioned above, and T decided he wanted to learn to use a flatpick first, so I showed him a couple of ways to hold one. You can use the normal technique of picking with the pointy end, or you can turn the pick around and use one of the rounded edges. The tones are different as is how the pick catches or slides over the strings.
Patience… Most people start music lessons at a young age and it’s easier to make time to practice when you don’t have to work for a living. It is very difficult to start learning an instrument when you are older because of not having the time. As a result, most usually lack the patience that is required to effectively learn a new skill like playing an instrument. I have found that many people, due to impatience, fail to recognize that you have to master simple things before you can execute more complicated things. They don’t want to start with simple things and become easily bored. They see me play something effortlessly and assume that because I make it look easy, it must be easy. They want to do that thing. When they discover how difficult it actually is, they become frustrated. T was willing to start with basic ideas and techniques and devote the time required to master them. That is the type of student I want to teach. Learn the basics and build off of them. It’s a work in progress but it will be worth it.
So no, I don’t give lessons to beginners. I don’t give lessons to people I work with. And I don’t give lessons to people who don’t have time or the patience to start simple and to practice. I also don’t pass up the opportunity to teach someone with true talent how to become a musician. Even if I have to do all of the things I don’t do…
Need to know? Just ask… Charlie (email@example.com)