Guitars in Hands!

This was the 6th week of school and I FINALLY got guitars into the hands of students. The guitar class is part of my general elementary school lessons. These lessons are meant to be more than just a unit of study; they are meant to teach students the basics of an instrument that they might play beyond my classroom. After 5th grade, students get to choose whether to be in music or not, so this class may be their last opportunity to experience learning an instrument or creating music with their friends. On the other hand, students may go on and play an instrument or sing in the middle school, or join a band outside of school.

The beginning of the school year was not as amazing as I had hoped it would be with COVID restrictions lifted. No administration, a change in schedule, and a new mix of teachers and students have made an unsettled beginning. Because of all of the changes, I decided to begin the year with a review of the basics. My class covered rhythm and meter, musical signs and singing. I had more resistance to singing than usual, I think due to the fact that students haven’t been allowed to sing in school over 2 years! Convincing students that matching pitch and generating ideas with the singing voice was more important the perfection was a challenging task for me!

A long, long, time ago… (some of you finished this in song, others heard Star Wars theme in your head) when I first started teaching, I would pass out instruments and instruct students not to touch them or make noise until I told them to. Don’t you know this was TORTURE! Recently, I heard a podcaster/music teacher extraordinaire Tanya LeJuene from Music Teacher Coffee Talk speak about letting kids experiment with making sound. This idea of sonic discovery somehow struck a chord (most likely Em) in my soul.

Remember that students who are excited to do something are primally engaged. They listen with the utmost intensity! So, I gave them the rules for holding the guitar, making sound, and knowing when to stop.

  1. We hold the guitar in Instrument Playing Position. Left over right. This is the way musical instruments have been played for hundreds of years. We will stay with this tradition. If you are a lefty, you have an advantage since your left fingers are used to doing little movements. The rest of us will have to spend time training our hands. Yes, some very famous guitarists play(ed) the other way… that is because they didn’t have a teacher. Since guitar is a social instrument, I want you to go to your friend’s house and be able to play their guitar. Left frets, right strums.
  2. Remember to hold the guitar close to your body. Try and place the sound hole over your soul! When you play from your soul, sound will come out of the sound hole. Cheezy and accurate.
  3. Also, remember to keep the neck at an upward angle and never pointing down to the ground. Here are some examples of classical position, and folk players sitting down. You can also see that these electric guitar players often have a mix between that classical or folk tradition. Since we do not have straps you have to pick what works best for your body. That might mean you cross your leg to prop up your guitar. All of these are acceptable as long as the neck is angled upward.
  4. Today you all will play with your thumb. Play over the sound hole but, you should also experiment and see how the sound changes when you play over the bridge or the fingerboard.
  5. You can change the pitch with your left hand by placing your finger in between the fret wires and squeezing. See what happens when you move your finger toward the sound hole and pluck. Try out things! This is your time.
  6. Do not touch the tuning pegs. I will be around to tune your guitars while you are experimenting.
  7. Please, treat the instruments with respect.

Next I showed students where the guitars were stored, how to get them safely to their spot in a crowded room, and how I expected them to be returned.

When we talk of embodiment, we often talk of how the music overtook the musician like it was an out of body experience. Evidence is usually provided by the physical appearance of the musician. If ever there was a time when students embodied guitar playing, it is when they are experimenting those first few minutes. So much excitement! One student was strumming and singing Old Town Road, another was showing off by playing Smoke on the Water riff to his neighbor. Students were talking and comparing sounds and movements. It is my hope that allowing this has given them a natural understanding of how easy it is to produce a sound, how to change the sounds, how hard you have to push the string into the fingerboard to make the sound change, and that both hands have to work together to produce sounds.

For the last 10 minutes of class, I spent time teaching the open strings of the guitar. I ask them to hold their guitar facing them so they can see the strings and I show them a diagram of the guitar with the strings numbered. Just like in the picture, I have them pluck the open strings 1 through 6. Next, they go to playing position and I ask them which string is closest to their nose. Everyone says string 6. Next, I drill the string numbers and have them say them with me. The last step is to get them to understand that each string has a letter name.

Starting with string 6 the names are EADGBE. Here are some of my favorite acronyms to get them to remember: Elephants And Donkeys Grow Big Ears, or Eddy Ate Dynamite Good Bye Eddie, or Elvis Ate Drugs Good Bye Elvis. With more time, I might ask them to come up with their own. However, short on time, now I ask them to say the sentence with me as we play a few times. Next, play Donkeys, play Big, Play G, Play string 6. What is the name of string 6? Superimposing the systems of string numbers and letter names will reinforce their ability to communicate musical ideas later.

Last thing I did was to get students to play this pattern on open strings – 6, 3, 2, 1, 2, 3. This is the opening riff to Nothing Else Matters by Metallica. Seriously only about 10 seconds. When I play it for them, everyone in the room has hear the riff. I get them to play along a few times and then say it’s time to pack up. Based on how disappointed they were to clean up, I imagine our next session will be very exciting for them!