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I teach in Oregon City and online videochat. I work with all ages and levels and a variety of styles. I specialize in creative exploration, the psychology of music, and conscious music practices. Visit the lessons page to learn more.

Sunday, January 14, 2018

My new Strum & Sing group class

Over my career, I've taught a variety of group classes covering a range of topics from general blues-rock/jam to classical ensembles to music-theory-and-cognition. Most of my students were school-age kids.

Now, I'm starting a new adult-focused (but younger students welcome too) beginning Strum & Sing class. Here's the flyer:

A new, more flexible approach to beginning guitar

The focus of the class will be students keeping a good rhythm while playing simple chord progressions and singing songs. Depending on each student's preference, any option that works will be fine including power chords, single-note bass-lines, small bits of chords, open-tuned bar or slide chords, various strummable instruments, or even muted percussion strumming. This addresses one of the biggest challenges of a group class: how to work with both absolute beginners and more experienced students playing together.

Unlike the way most teachers do this, I'm going to focus on the flexibility of some basic music theory contexts. We'll learn songs using common letter counting such as 1, 4, 5 which could be A, D, E or C, F, G, and so on.

The main emphasis: that there's no one right way to play any song. We can adapt and adjust to fit what works for our level and context. So, we'll explore multiple approaches so that each student can find a comfortable way to fit with the group and learn to be flexible musicians going forward.

For those in Portland, contact me if interested in joining the class. For consideration of the pros and cons of classes versus private lessons (versus other learning approaches like watching online videos etc.), see my old article on comparing learning options.

The rest of this article gets into some initial thoughts about the folk-song / pop-song focus of this new class…

My love/hate relationship with folk and pop songs

For years, I resented the way most people (audiences, students, and other teachers alike) were so into what I saw as superficial pop songs. In the enormous world of music, there's so much depth, interest, innovation, virtuosity, expression, and meaning. Why spend our limited time on mediocre, corny, or superficial stuff?

But I wanted to know what others out there were teaching and I taught students songs they requested to learn. Over time, I gained deep appreciation for some pop music. I also switched my focus (both personally and in my teaching) from performance (emphasizing learning music to perform in concert for an audience) toward a participatory focus (playing music with others, not for a passive audience). Even when old time folks songs aren't the most artistically inspiring (though there are many exceptions that are wonderful), I've found meaning in enabling everyone to join in. For such open participation, familiarity with songs helps a lot and can outweigh questions of choosing the best songs.

Still, I've found myself begrudgingly teaching music I didn't love because it happened to be the easiest route I knew to get someone going as a beginner. Besides, I also emphasize the value of learning from any song, liked or disliked. A curious student can always ask themselves, "why do I find this song annoying?" and learn as much as by studying why they love another song…

But now, in preparation for this group class, I finally decided to get over those excuses and do a better job at finding the best song choices in folk and pop song stuff.

Song database in progress

Over the past year, I've been putting together a big database of songs organized by the simplicity of their chord progressions. The eventual dream will be to cross reference "works" entries in MusicBrainz and add tags for all sorts of things relevant to learning. Ideally, I could quickly search for songs with certain features that I rate highly and thus choose the best options for students at each level. If I structure this well enough, I can publish the database under a free/libre/open license and make it a collaborative project for people around the world to contribute to. That's a ways off, but I already have many notes that help me in my teaching.

Class plans

So, my plan for the class is to structure it by my 6 Parts of a Balanced Music Practice including writing our own new songs. But for the main items of what songs to learn, I will use the new database. We will start with 1-chord songs, then move to 2-chord, then 3-chord songs with repeated progressions, then more complex 3- or 4-chord songs etc. At each step, we'll choose one song to learn fully but the list will make it easy for students to dabble with others and reinforce their ear training.

Students ready for more advanced playing will be asked to try singing harmony or playing more complex variations of accompaniment patterns or rhythms.

Most of all, I look forward to singing a few songs I sincerely love so I don't have to make excuses about mediocre choices.

I plan to write up more details as the class develops.

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