I was recently privileged to teach guitar lessons to a very young girl named Andrea - she was five years old, and the youngest student, by far, that I’d ever worked with. I’ve taught a boatload of lessons in my day including working with musicians from primary grades through the college and university ranks, as well as serious pro players at Line 6, but never a five year old. I soon realized that my challenges were not only going to be in working with Andrea in terms of lesson planning etc., but she was quite small in stature. How would she hold her guitar? Where would she sit? What would she understand? Well, whatever was on my mind at the time didn’t really matter, the lesson was upon us – time to get going.
A quick and easy option for me was to suggest that Andrea and I work out of a beginning level guitar book. That sounded like a fantastic idea – right? After all, we were standing at the front desk where the books were being displayed - brilliant. I leaned over, grabbed a book, and proceeded to show it to Andrea and her mother. They both looked at me with big bright eyes, expressing a mild degree of stress and confusion when Maria, Andrea’s mom exclaimed: “Andrea can’t read, she’s too young, (awkward pause). This book won’t work.” My jaw dropped. Brendon, who was working at the sales desk was equally surprised to hear about this challenge – he later told me that his jaw dropped upon hearing that our new student couldn’t read. I think I kept my cool on the outside, but I was equally, if not more stressed and confused, on the inside. I had never taught a student that couldn’t read. This was a first for me. I’m 50 years old for crying out loud, I should know how to handle this. I had to think fast. And so, with my head swirling about with a bunch of “what should I do scenarios,” the three of us proceeded to walk, in a single file line, back to my teaching studio.
Improvising and navigating through different learning styles and abilities on the fly is one of my strengths. I love it. But, this was different. There are entire schools, researchers, and philosophies dedicated to teaching music to very young children. Only one problem, I’ve never studied any of them. I’ve heard of the Suzuki method, but other then that, nada, zippo, nothing. I had to think fast. Then it dawned on me. I had just viewed a Ted Talk featuring Victor Wooten in which he spoke of the natural resting place of music, where it comes from, what it is, and what it’s not.
I had already spent quite a bit of time reflecting on that Ted talk. I had also participated in a discussion on the topic at our Tuesday morning Line 6 guitar class. As it turned out, those ideas were going to be pivotal for this guitar lesson. I knew, at that moment that this lesson would have to be taught from my heart, not my mind. My standard go to academic approach would have to be shelved – kicked to the curb. Time to let it flow, let the joy of music, and the love for new adventures and challenges take root. Let them take their own path, their own timing. It was time to let myself go forward with confidence and joy. And so I did, for the first time in my life, proceed without a safety net, no map, no directions, no method book, just my heart and 50 years of life experience. I was a bit nervous, but ready and excited to move forward. I was in the same place as Andrea. Neither one of us had any idea of what to expect.
It takes about 30 seconds to walk from the front desk back to my teaching studio. Lucky for me, that’s all the time that I needed. Suddenly the words “Twinkle Twinkle Little Star” flashed into my head. Andrea is the perfect age for that song. It had only been a week or two since Peg, one of my adult students had asked to learn songs to sing and play to her nieces and nephews. Twinkle Twinkle was the first song that we worked on so it was fresh on my mind.
Andrea and her mom’s eyes both lit up like Christmas trees when I said that we’d be working on “Twinkle Twinkle Little Star.” They were so excited. You’d think that they had won the musical lottery – that’s how much positive energy they exuded. In their minds and hearts they had won the musical lottery – so awesome to see and feel that energy. I pulled out a piece of paper and wrote down the first phrase of Twinkle Twinkle. I used tablature notation, and made sure to use large numbers. Tablature is a process for documenting guitar music that doesn’t require musicians to know how to read modern musical notation i.e. reading notes on the five line staff, or on the grand staff etc. I made a crude drawing of each of the six strings of the guitar and wrote down numbers indicating each fret where Andrea would need to place her fingers. The numbers alone don’t indicate rhythm, or right hand fingerings, but the melody is certainly there.
Although Andrea didn’t have any issues with the melody, there were still a few other important issues for us to work out. Andrea’s mom purchased a small guitar that Andrea could hold in her lap. They also brought in a very small chair from home that was comfortable. I have a feeling that Andrea spent more time on her moms lap then on her chair because she didn’t seem to be comfortable in her chair during our lessons. So, on her mom’s lap she sat!! No big deal because the fact is that something very unexpected and profound arose from their seating position. I was pleasantly surprised and happy to feel two times the energy, two times the joy and an overall incredible execution of musical expression that could only have come from two people, mother and daughter participating as one. Cool idea they that two of them came up with and musically and emotionally powerful to boot. I don’t think the outcome was in their minds when they decided to sit that way, but they sure felt it when Andrea performed.
There was no way for me not to have fun and experience lots of joy when I was working with Andrea and her mom. I was transforming from being an academic to being a fun and happy person, musician and teacher. I never lost sight of Victor Wooten’s talk. I was not only in charge of making, or breaking this five year olds love for music, but for her love and respect for her future music teachers as well. It was a lot of responsibility on my shoulders to nurture her through her first experience with learning a musical instrument.
In terms of our lessons, we spent the first couple of weeks getting Andrea comfortable with reading tablature. By the third week she understood enough of the tablature to be able to play all of Twinkle Twinkle Little Star. I made sure to sing every time she played so she could hear the lyrics and the melody in her head and feel them in her heart. I’m a horrible singer, but it got the job done. Kids that age don’t judge – Andrea seemed to enjoy my singing – it was all a part of expressing our joy together. We were singing, and playing guitars and laughing. I was beginning to understand and internalize what Victor Wooten spoke of in his Ted Talk.
We didn’t spend a single second on music theory, reading music, or interpreting time signatures. We didn’t work with a metronome. Although all of those skills and techniques are very important at some point in a musician’s development, it was not at all important to us. It was such a huge breakthrough for me. I’ve spent many years in academia. This was a great release and lesson for me on getting to the root, and to the heart of the music, learning to wade through all of the academic and music related minutia – I was learning how to use my heart – not just my mind.
My next great challenge was how to work with Andrea on rhythm and her emotional, and musical expression. I needed to do all of that without introducing any music theory. The first thing that came to my mind was “stall.” I needed some time to figure this out. Happy Birthday. Perfect, I’ll sketch that song out in Tablature and consider it a great way to continue working with Andrea on how to read tab and learn notes on the top three strings, not note names - just pitches, timbres and hand positions etc. I was also betting that she could sing the words and the melody to Happy Birthday in her sleep.
Great idea for sure, Andrea and her mom had a similar reaction to learning that song as they did with Twinkle Twinkle. I sketched out the first phrase to Happy Birthday and away we went. I was still gently nudging Andrea to memorize her songs. I flipped her music pages over periodically to test her memory. That seemed like a good idea but I noticed that Andrea was a bit taken back from time to time so I eventually stopped doing it. I knew that there wasn’t any real reason to have her memorize the songs if it made here anxious, or nervous. None of us wanted that so I stopped suggesting or pushing. We completed all of the phrases for Happy Birthday and Andrea was off and running with two songs!
Week four. Andrea came back and was eager and excited to play both songs for me while sitting in her moms lap. I took out the music for her and asked which song she would like to play first. Andrea looked at me with great confidence and said “I don’t need the music, please flip the page over.” She was basically saying, “I’ve go this, I don’t need any charts!” It was awesome. I was shocked and yet so happy and amazed. She proceeded to play the melodies for both Twinkle Twinkle and Happy Birthday and from memory – wow!!
Week five. So… now she had the melodies from memory, but what to do with the rhythm – hum? Then it came to me. “Hey Andrea,” I exclaimed. How about singing while you play? Why don’t you sing Twinkle Twinkle. Even better how about us singing together while you play the melody. Without hesitation she began to play and sing and I guess it was the singing that pulled the melody along because she played perfectly in time and with great expression– I was absolutely blown away and astounded. I guess it makes sense that her singing tied the whole thing together. She did the same thing with Happy Birthday. She couldn’t play the song on the guitar as a standalone exercise but when she added the singing then it all came together – incredible.
There was one more important hurdle. Andrea was playing with a very hard attack. She was playing the notes in a very short, and rather rigid fashion. I wasn’t going to use those terms with her so I decided to ask Andrea to let the notes at the end of each phrase ring just a wee bit longer – let them breath and enjoy listening to them. I demonstrated on my guitar and she got it. I conducted a lot for Andrea and that seemed to help her stay on track with rhythm and emotion. I explained that Twinkle Twinkle Little Star is a lullaby and can be sung and played for babies. Andrea’s eyes lit up and she and her mom said that one of their family members was expecting a baby very soon. Andrea would play this song for the new baby. It was clear that Andrea now had a perfect understanding of the purposes of that song. I asked her to play and sing it as if the baby was in the room. She knocked it out of the park!! She had the correct notes, the correct rhythm and a great sense of musical expression. Someone in her family also had a birthday coming up. She was super excited to prepare Happy Birthday for that occasion.
It’s incredible to think that all of that learning and newfound love and affection for music arose, developed and came to full fruition in just over one month. I would have to say that it was a lifetime of preparation for me to get to point where I was emotionally, and spiritually ready as a teacher and musician to be able to work with Andrea in order to have us both learn so much about ourselves, the people around us and the reason why music is such an important part of our lives. Thanks to my students for showing me what’s really important!!
Victor Wooten’s Ted Talk – Don’t Miss This!!!!