I grew up surrounded by music teachers. My mother was a piano teacher and her father, my grandfather, taught violin, guitar, and piano. They both taught students in their living quarters so my own home and my grandparent-visits were woven through with the sounds and sights of music lessons. The line up of nervous children waiting their turn, the dissonant sound of songs not quite mastered, the ritual tones of fitful tuning, the repetition and nervous laughter. If you’ve ever heard “Tuna Fish” pounded out on the piano keyboard by a well-meaning eight-year-old, well, you’ll know just what I mean.
Though I lacked the native talent of my matriarchal lineage, growing up without learning to play an instrument just wasn’t an option. I started with the piano, but my instrument of choice was guitar. I learned mostly by imitating others and through sporadic lessons. Once I’d left home my guitar stayed with me but it mostly hung out under my bed, collecting dust. Occasionally I’d feel the itch to play, pick it up and quickly put it back when I realized how rusty I’d become and how little I remembered.
Recently I decided to pick up the thread. By luck I found a very good guitar teacher, Wayne Anderson, who is a perfect match to my ambition (gentle, non-intimidating, and relaxed). We meet once a week for 30 minutes.
It didn’t take long for it to feel familiar again – the comfort of the instrument’s wooden swell on my lap, the companionship of working a pattern out in my head, and the dull ache on the fingertips of my left hand.
But what was completely unfamiliar and a delightful surprise is how guitar teaching has changed. Wayne’s approach to my lessons, as facilitated by digital tools, is a completely different animal to the way my mother and my grandfather taught.
The differences begin with the most commonplace of lesson openers – tuning the instrument. Wayne introduced me to a number of apps for my iPhone. After looking them over, I downloaded a free, easy-to-use app from Pitch Labs. Flawless, no-sweat tuning, every time.
Next up, there are no books. Gone are the color-coded Schwann’s piano books, clutched nervously in sweaty fingers with scribbled annotations in the margins as the lesson proceeds. Wayne has a laptop and printer in our small cubicle of a practice room. When we’re working on a new piece, he finds the guitar tabs or sheet music online and prints it out for me. Voila.
As we work together to figure out the piece, assess the timing, and decipher the picking technique he searches for a YouTube video of the song, as played by the songwriter. Bob Dylan, Antje Duvekot, Leonard Cohen, the Avett Brothers, and Joan Baez regularly visit my practice cubicle.
When we’re working on a particularly tricky element we make use of the recording option on my cell phone. Last week, for example, I was struggling with Travis picking. After many failed attempts, I was finally getting it. Wayne gestured to my phone, suggesting I might want to capture this, while the going was good. I propped the phone up on the music stand, pressed record, and did my bit. Back at home, practicing, if I fumbled (which I did regularly), I could just pull out my phone and hear myself picking the right way. I can also recorded Wayne playing and, and in so doing, take my teacher home with me.
On my own I’ve found countless (and I mean thousands and thousands) of excellent instructional videos. Really good guitar teachers, showing you step-by-step, how to play non-trivial songs on the guitar like Blackbird or Freight Train (seriously, do a search). Often the video production values are so good they’ll show you the right and left hand on a split screen or the musical tabbing along with playing top-to-bottom. Videos are, of course, endlessly patient. I play, stop, rewind, and fast-forward them as needed.
My teacher also makes use of software called Scorch as a teaching device. He bought the software, I have the free plug-in. Wayne will create a scorch file from a piece of sheet music and share it with me. With my plug-in, I can play the song on my laptop and control the speed, slowing it down to match my learner’s pace, and play along with it. Huge.
I haven’t even touched on the various ways to record tracks, edit sound recordings, and write music (I’m so not there yet), but even at my amateur state I can see that teaching and learning music has fundamentally changed.