Take lessons with me!

Looking for music lessons in Portland, OR (or perhaps over the internet)? I teach all ages and levels and all sorts of musical styles. Along with traditional approaches, I offer a unique emphasis on the science and psychology of music and on creative exploration. Visit the lessons page to learn more.

Lessons


LESSON DETAILS



Check out the reviews from some of my students (external Google link). Some quotes:
"Aaron Wolf remains the most brilliant music teacher I've ever taken lessons from…"
"Aaron is an incredibly talented musician, and more importantly a gifted teacher. He works hard to determine a student's needs and goals and create a lesson framework specific to those needs. He has taken what little I already knew and helped me build upon it very rapidly. I have made more progress than I thought possible…"
"…one of the best teachers I have ever had--if you take lessons with him and are reasonably motivated, he will absolutely help you succeed in your musical goals."
Gosh, I sound amazing. Based on those reviews, I'd sure take lessons with me! Of course, there are other great teachers out there too. I don't know that I'm really the best, but I do offer some unique approaches that stand out. I feel so grateful to have worked with so many appreciative students over the years. I do care deeply about teaching and am always working to do my best and continue learning and improving.

Below, I have thoroughly explained all sorts of details about my teaching philosophy and experience. Although I hope it's all interesting, you don't need to read through it all. Feel free to contact me whenever you're ready to set up a trial lesson or if you have any questions.



First, here's the generic stuff: rates, contact info

Since 1998, I have taught music lessons, primarily on guitar,  with students aged 3-75, ranging from absolute beginners to advanced professionals.

I tailor lessons to fit each student's interests, learning styles, and overall circumstances. I have a classical guitar degree but enjoy and teach a wide range of styles. Teaching is my main passion; I love sharing ideas with students and helping them grow as creative musicians.

Standard rates are $30 per half hour, $40 per 45 min. or $45 per hour.

I offer first trial lesson free, no obligation!

I teach mostly out of my home studio in NE Portland, Oregon. Lessons at students' homes in the area may be possible for an extra fee; and I also offer live video lessons over the internet.

E-mail aaron@wolftune.com or call or text (734) 707-8828 to set up a first meeting or ask any questions.



Some not-so-generic details:

Discounted (maybe even free) lesson options:


Habla español bien? Quiero mas practico con el idioma, así que enseño lecciones de guitarra en español por una tasa rebajada!

Bartering for lessons is possible, including (but not limited to):
  • Help me bring about a better world by assisting in some way with my non-profit startup: Snowdrift.coop
  • Help me develop materials for a new cognitive-science-inspired, creative-exploration-focused guitar method using exclusively Free/Libre/Open tools and licenses that encourage free sharing and adaptation by everyone. Even a beginner's perspectives could help with this project.
  • Help me with video production for various projects I want to do…
I also offer a scholarship discount to students with both financial need and exceptional dedication. And, finally, I offer existing students a free lesson for each new student they refer.
Contact me to discuss these and other options. I love teaching and want to do all I can to make it feasible for me to teach any student who will really benefit from and appreciate the lessons.



Some extra info:

Most students take weekly lessons, but I also offer every-other-week as an option. In some cases, I can do irregular lessons one-at-time, but that depends on what can fit into my schedule.

Choosing lesson length:
  • Given general set up and wrap-up time, 30-minute lessons can feel a bit rushed but can still be worthwhile. I focus on priorities, make sure assignments are clear, teach necessary ideas, and check for bad habits. A little bit of improvisation, theory, and other skills may be covered depending on priorities. 30-minute lessons can be effective as long as students practice well at home.
  • 45-minute lessons are less rushed and offer more time to monitor practice habits, review assignments, do a full warmup, and cover more questions and ideas.
  • 60-minute lessons can include time for creative projects, more improvising, listening to music and discussing it, exploring, theory, discussion of learning methods, and a more relaxed pace while still covering everything that the shorter lessons include.

Lessons other than guitar

Although guitar is my specialty, I also teach in a few other areas.

Voice: I teach vocal technique basics, creative vocal styles, expression/interpretation, and my particular expertise: vocal harmony and tuning theory.

I also teach beginning level for guitar-related instruments such as ukulele, bass guitar, Chapman Stick, and other fretted instruments.

I also offer lessons and coaching for musicians of all sorts interested in theory, perception/cognition, creativity (improvisation, composition, songwriting, general exploration), and/or music technology.



MY BACKGROUND QUALIFICATIONS

Guitar

My most formal studies have been in classical guitar, starting at age 8 and continuing through my degree in music performance from Eastern Michigan University, 2004 (magna cum laude). I have explored a number of other styles including flamenco, blues, American folksongs, pop, funk, rock, country/bluegrass, jazz, and more. Though I appreciate the value of tradition and working within an idiom, I take particular interest in musical universals and cross-cultural perspectives.

Other music pursuits

I have vocal experience in classical choirs, folk music, rock bands, and barbershop harmony. I have been involved in music technology and recording, including publishing three CDs of original compositions (mostly electronic music). I have studied and performed on the Chapman Stick since 1998, including two dedicated years as stickist in a full-time jam/rock/exploratory/everything band that was also an award-winning barbershop quartet.

Music academics

I have extensively studied music theory, ethnomusicology, composition, and songwriting. Overall, I have found the greatest insights into music through studying the science of music perception and cognition. I'm also interested in the economic, cultural, and political issues surrounding music (such as institutional biases and the problems with copyright restrictions on culture, among other topics). I have taught community classes in music technology, music theory, and music perception.

Teaching Experience

Among the many students I have taught, several studied with me for many years. I had the privilege to work with one student from her start in 3rd grade (when I was still an undergraduate music student myself) through her graduating from high school. My youngest starting student began at age 3 and continued through the next 7 years to become a fluid improviser, an expressive flamenco and classical guitarist, and a creative songwriter (he continues now with another teacher, after I moved across the country from Michigan to Oregon). One of my many other long-term students went on to become a professional guitar teacher himself.

I have also coached professional musicians, providing new challenge and perspective beyond the traditional approaches with which most people are familiar.

Among other pursuits over the years, I played through or otherwise thoroughly read and reviewed over 800 books covering all sorts of guitar styles, teaching approaches, student repertoire collections, manuals for parents of music students, and so on. (Some day, I hope to take my notes and publish more thorough reviews; I've done a handful, see the "reviews" tag on the sidebar here). Overall, most publications are mediocre. Of the best options, none are perfect and each has different merits. I often use a mix of such resources in lessons, supplementing and correcting them as necessary.

I found the most meaningful insights from the literature on the psychology of music (how we perceive sound, the connections between music and language, etc). At its core, music doesn't come from instruments or sound waves. Music is made in the minds of the people experiencing it. More on that later…

With so many resources available these days, part of my job is to guide my students through an otherwise overwhelming and confusing bulk of jargon and different ideas. Working with students with many different personalities and interests, I always feel it is my duty to respect students where they are at and figure out how to provide the most positive, appropriate level of challenge to bring out their best potential. I also happily refer students to other teachers and resources when I think they will fit better for their needs.


MUSIC LESSON APPROACH

I encourage all students to explore multiple styles including classical, popular, experimental, traditional, and cross-cultural. I utilize resources from hundreds of different books, repertoire collections, software, and other media. Additionally, all my students learn to improvise, to discover patterns in musical structures, and to approach music with curiosity and creativity. Rather than teach only strict techniques, I work with students to understand music generally and the learning process specifically so they can become independent and pursue whatever directions most inspire them.

For some sense of my teaching style, see these videos of my introductions to guitar: multiple intros to guitar and intro to guitar rhythm. As I find time, I hope to record further video lessons on many other topics.


MY LESSON PHILOSOPHY

I like to start with understanding the nature of musical instruments, of sound itself, and of music generally. I help students recognize that the standard approaches are not the only options. Given that overall perspective, many students still choose to focus on traditional techniques, while others choose to start with alternative approaches or creative exploration. No matter what direction a student takes, we work to keep things in perspective.

Some music teachers have spent all their time working on technique and learning the jargon of music terminology. Such teachers know that music is expressive, emotional, and culturally meaningful; but they can't explain why. The problem is: the structural patterns taught in most music studies represent mere observations and not explanations. Form is not function. Most music students learn patterns in scales, chords, progressions, rhythms, and more without understanding how or why they work or which elements are fundamental to music universally and which are just peculiar cultural developments.

Strict teachers with a limited perspective risk falling into terrible attitudes like these:
“35 chords... some you will use, others you may never use.  Either way you must learn them all...” - Jon Buck, from the book Play Guitar in 10 Easy Lessons, 2007

“Cradling the neck between the thumb and first finger is fatal to the development of correct technique: its sole redeeming feature is to provide instant recognition of a player's incompetence.” - Vladimir Bobri, from The Segovia Technique, 1977
Here is a much healthier philosophy:
"Any musical instrument can be as hard to play as you want to make it. And if you wanted to be a person like Andrés Segovia or Merle Travis, why it would take a lifetime of training. But for most of us, playing the guitar can be about as simple as walking. Of course, remember, it took us all a couple of years to learn how to walk."
    -Pete Seeger, from the Folksinger's Guitar Guide, 1955
Note: Merle Travis (a legendary country-jazz guitarist) did precisely the sort of cradling that Vladimir Bobri dismissed as "fatal." Nonetheless, Travis fully deserves the honor of being mentioned alongside Andrés Segovia. They used very different techniques, yet both were superb virtuosos.

Pete's message is worth reiterating: Any musical instrument can be as hard to play as you want to make it. Moreover, there is no correlation between music quality and difficulty. Anyone can easily write an extremely challenging piece of music that sounds meaningless and uninspiring. It is harder to write a piece that is easy to play yet magnificently beautiful and expressive. Of course, there are also pieces that are both wonderful and difficult.

True mastery allows a musician to play whatever they like. But mastery demands incredible time and effort. While some students are deeply dedicated to music, most students have many competing interests — as well they should! I believe in keeping music in perspective (considering all the other valuable pursuits in life!). There's no need to achieve mastery in order to be musical in a meaningful way, although the life-long pursuit of improvement is an important part of the whole process.

Rote learning versus creative and conceptual learning

Some students prefer to just learn by rote and only want to be shown how to play their favorite songs just like the recording (and some teachers assume that all students are like this). Whether through mimicry of recordings, being shown step by step where to put fingers by a teacher, or through following the instructions of Western music notation, rote music learning is similar to paint-by-numbers (or, at more advanced levels, like freehand copying of existing paintings). Painting-by-numbers takes work, can be fun, and can help develop technical skills. Painting-by-numbers is a good way to study masterworks with more engagement than just looking at the finished painting. There's even room for interpretation and deviation depending on how open-minded and adventurous someone is. Rote instruction can be appropriate in many cases.

A higher level of creativity and expression is found in stylistic instruction. In painting, stylistic instruction may include tricks for painting a nature scene with mountains and clouds; or students may learn historic approaches to portraiture or other specific skills. In music, common chord progressions and scales can be taught along with common song forms. Students may then be creative in how they apply these techniques. There is infinite creative potential within any of the various genres of art and music.

There is also value in completely undirected exploration. Some of the most groundbreaking and remarkable art has come from artists who found their own direction without any traditional training. Among the most original artists are also those with traditional training who later worked to break the rules, to combine styles in novel ways, or to identify new directions for exploration.

I adjust my teaching to the goals of each student using a mix of rote instruction, stylistic instruction, free exploration, and directed challenges for testing rules and find new forms. But I also use another approach: conceptual scientific understanding.

There are universal guiding factors to music (and to visual art) that are based in physical reality and human psychology. There are physical facts about instruments (or about paint) that limit our possibilities. Listeners mentally group musical sounds in particular ways; we are susceptible to certain illusions; we are especially sensitive to certain types of sounds or images (notably the human voice and human face); we can only process a limited amount of information at once; we develop schematic expectations based on experience, and so on.

By understanding these psychological and physical factors, students can understand the world behind their rote experiences and follow purpose-driven creative directions. Instead of just following traditional rules or experimenting randomly, students with scientific understanding can thoughtfully and intentionally make music be surprising, exciting, calming, etc. Of course, scientific inquiry into our musical experiences can provide insights into the nature of our existence and our relationship to the world — a worthwhile end in itself.

How does this affect my teaching?

Compared with many other teachers I know, I somewhat less interested in the greatest-hits canon, whether classical or popular. Even when I teach classic techniques, I encourage creative interpretation from the very beginning. Though I appreciate many music styles and teach respect for tradition, I'm uncomfortable limiting instruction to fit within stylistic boxes. In the end, I want students to have broad perspectives and to appreciate music for what it means to each of them. I appreciate the writings of music teacher and author W.A. Mathieu who, in The Listening Book,  goes so far as to suggest that only around a quarter of one's time should be spent on "other people's music."

While I am sympathetic to the ideals of originality and creativity, I do not enforce such emphasis (see Nina Paley's marvelous article on the Cult of Originality for perspective). Many of my students find deep meaning in learning traditional techniques and playing music written by others. Not everyone is equally motivated by composition, improvisation, or other creative directions. I'm happy to see students progress and have fun regardless, though I still encourage all students to have broad perspective and think critically.



General philosophy

This gets a bit more abstract and tangential

For most of human history, music learning happened within the context of segregated (yet dynamically fluctuating) cultures and classes. Musicians picked up on whatever they heard and have always fused and morphed different musical traditions; but the scope of music that any one person could hear was limited. In the 21st century, however, this situation has changed dramatically. The past century brought dramatic globalization and cross-cultural interaction as well as the development of recording technology. Now, the internet has blurred all the boundaries and provided open access for anyone to be exposed to just about anything.

Even within only guitar music, navigating the extreme diversity is completely overwhelming. When asked what music one likes, the most common answer today (in my experience) is "everything." I'm not even sure how much today's kids listen to the same pop songs as their immediate friends (tell me if you know of research on this). Everyone can choose whatever they like for their portable music devices, so diversity is the new norm, both within one person's listening and from person to person.

Teachers of popular music now often emphasize the hits of American pop/rock canon since the 1960's, thinking that this is what students want to learn. But I think it is because the teachers choose these songs that the students know them, not the other way around. In my observations, most younger students become familiar with Stairway to Heaven and Smoke on the Water mostly through guitar lessons, either their own or through their friends who are guitar students.

Indeed, teachers don't just explain known music to students, they largely are responsible for introducing students to music and culture — and that is a hefty responsibility. Some teachers are so enthusiastic about their particular musical tastes that they are happy to indoctrinate their students. But I'm not one of those teachers. For better or worse, I don't embrace any particular tradition. I want to celebrate and appreciate our 21st century diverse global culture.

Yet there is something lacking about simply living with diversity. I appreciate some amount of living in a defined culture where I feel a part of a deep heritage. People today often struggle to find their cultural place, given the dizzying array of options. Below is a simplistic and imperfect historical background of how people have reacted to the developments of globalism and technology:

Modernism was a movement started in the late 19th century which actively broke with traditional culture to promote new progress in music, art, architecture, and life in general. In part a rejection of tribalism and nationalism, Modernism took an optimistic focus on achieving universal truth and happiness through democracy, science, and globalism. Modernists used novel structures based on mathematical and scientific principles, promoted experimentation, and rejected traditional cultural expectations and forms. Modernists claimed their creations to be objectively superior replacements for old traditions. They proposed to replace a divided, superstitious, prejudiced, fractured world with a utopia providing well-being to all through modern science.

Postmodernism was a reaction against modernism's presumptions. Postmodernism focuses on acknowledging the many different perspectives of our multicultural world. While modernists presumed objectivity, they were, of course, still products of their own cultural biases. Postmodernism highlighted these problems and worked to revalidate traditional cultural art and values while highlighting political problems of power and prejudice. Yet as postmodernism evolved, it moved toward complete relativism, ironic culture, and denial of all objectivity. Postmodernists today imply (often in extremely convoluted language) that everything is about symbolism, cultural constructions, power struggles, and identity. In doing so, they disregard (or at least downplay) the vast and profound universal features of human nature and common experience.

I sometimes use the ridiculous term post-postmodernity to refer to the time and intellectual place in which we live today. There is now a long history of artists and philosophers in traditional, modern, and postmodern circles; the world is more confusing and fast-paced than ever; and I am just trying to make sense of things. I remain agnostic — meaning that I don't think fallible human beings can know anything with absolute certainty, but I still accept many things with reasonable certainty.

Through scientific research, we have developed ideas that successfully predict and explain much of the world as we experience it, and these theories have led to such things as modern medicine and technology. The modernist dream of creating a more prosperous, happier world for all is not dead. If everyone can acknowledge our universal humanity, we can better surpass our us-vs-them tribal tendencies.

Yet we must also acknowledge the serious issues of cultural identity, privilege, power, and subjectivity that are important to our experience. In art and music, we can celebrate the insights from all these perspectives. We have scientific evidence of universal human appreciation for beautiful scenes with trees and flowing streams and of universal enjoyment in dancing (or at least tapping your foot) to a musical beat. Rather than coming from cultural sources, these universals are part of our basic human biology. Of course, there is also much to be said for novelty and cultural diversity. I don't want a world where everything is mixed together and distinctions are erased. I don't know all the answers, but we should understand and appreciate all these influences and influences that make up our world today.

I imagine readers now saying: "Why even deal with all this philosophy I just want to rock out!" or "I just want to make beautiful expressive music" or "I'm just trying to work on how to control my finger position!" Well, let's be practical. Anyone truly confident and happy in their task at hand, great. I spend much of my time in lessons just working on practical things or learning great classics, jamming, or singing songs. But as a teacher with the responsibility of guiding my students, I deal with these philosophical concerns. I am not comfortable being only a traditional classical guitarist or a folk singer or an experimental composer (et cetera). I am interested in exploring it all. All of this and more are within my culture today, including the philosophical ideas.

Like the postmodernists, I am concerned about cultural biases I see in society — especially in education. But I reject postmodern ideas of absolute relativism and everything as fundamentally symbolic. Though we live our experiences in cultural context, the bulk of our experience is biological. Differences are easy to see because they stick out (because of the nature of our human cognition). But common universals are just as important to understand. We could not even empathize with others at all were it not for shared common experiences.

Here are some ways that my philosophy plays out in my teaching:

I'm not one of those teachers you'll hear claiming that my instrument is somehow the best. Every instrument has different qualities, and I just happen to know the details of guitar more than other instruments. I try to keep that in perspective. But while no instrument is the best, they aren't all equal. A trumpet built with one valve upside-down and hard to reach would be an objectively worse trumpet. I happen to feel that the Chapman Stick is largely superior to the electric guitar, although they each have some pros and cons. Practically speaking, I must admit that, for better or worse, the novelty of the Chapman Stick may be more significant to the overall experience than any acoustic or physical factor.

My approach as a teacher is as a knowledgeable and thoughtful guide through this complex world of styles, techniques, cultures, and musical potentials. I challenge students to achieve based on their individual goals, interests, and abilities. I let them be in charge of their creative directions; but I direct students and make decisions when needed. I express my opinions while trying not to impose them.

Pop/folk teachers typically teach just enough theory to be functional, and they assume that the goal is to play or explore within the attitude and idiom of their particular cultural background. They may or may not use notation, and learning is often approached through lots of listening and mimicking of recordings. In contrast, classical teachers often teach a regimen of progressive learning through music notation, famous composers, and very careful, technical practice.

I understand the pros and cons of these various approaches. I don't restrict students' potential by insisting they play traditional music or with traditional techniques. On the other hand, there are known techniques that work while other approaches risk injury. I provide clear direction and strong goals when appropriate, but I encourage experimentation when healthy. If I know of resources or a teacher where a student could learn their particular goals more effectively, I will refer students to them.

The goal is to understand music and use this understanding to enrich your life. Music can communicate in powerful ways, can regulate mood and emotion, can be just a fun challenge, and can be social. Music study can provide focus, expression, physical coordination, and emotional and intellectual inspiration.


If you actually read all this philosophical ranting, you might like to read some of my other articles:
Feel free to contact me with any questions or comments.