We volunteered you to do a session for ALW so you can show people how to play guitar’, they said, sweetly. Mmmm: my turn to stand on my hindlegs and do the teaching bit. In the spirit of ‘can do’, I naturally said ‘Yes’ before my brain had an opportunity to think in any more depth. (I’ve also undergone the psychometric assessment experience as part of ALW, more of which in later posts, but I’ll be interested to see if a tendency to overthink things figures in the feedback.) Apart from a term as an Artist in Residence many years ago, teaching calligraphy to secondary school children, my teaching experience is pretty sketchy. I’ve trained people to use bespoke software – making sure I write them task-focused user guides that are heavily illustrated with screen grabs – but I usually have a pretty good idea what they will use the software for, and their daily context (not least as I’ve often been the man that wrote the specification for the programmers.) But something as free-form as ‘teach them to play guitar’ – that’s pretty open-ended …

So I went back to first principles. Without a meaningful audience profile – had anyone tried before, did anyone read music or understand basic music theory – aim simple and general. In 45 minutes, you can’t teach the history of the instrument, how to tune it, how to read music, harmony, scales, modes, chord voicings and all the rest. A single 45 minute session also doesn’t afford you the luxury of hinting at content in later lessons: I might be doing this for ASK, but I didn’t have the – highly effective – luxuries of pre-work of follow-through activities to make whatever I could impart have more impact. Hunched over my coffee table with a laptop and a copy of PowerPoint on a Sunday afternoon, I had a pressing realisation that learning design – and especially learning design that incorporated best practice in learning transfer – also wasn’t something I was going to master in 45 minutes. (Even if I understood the principles fairly clearly, there was the important factor of only having till whenever I needed to cook dinner to design my ‘course’ and tutor materials. Practise makes perfect, but how perfect could I get in three and a half hours?)

I thought, as any guitarist of at least a certain age might, of Bert Weedon, whose Play In A Day: Guide to Modern Guitar Playing remains in print after 54 years. Bert may seem irredeemably old-fashioned nowadays, but sound principles (no pun intended) are sound principles, and his web page of Tips & Hints – which I wish now I’d seen last week! – provides a lot of valuable advice. There was one stumbling block there, however: Bert – quite rightly – expects that you learn to read music. (I agree, with a twang of guilt: in music terms, I have a reading age of about 7.) In 45 minutes, with no follow-through, that was a non-starter. But I still needed a plan and a structure, so I concentrated on the following:

  • The anatomy of a guitar: neck, body, frets (and why it has them), nut, bridge, soundhole …
  • How to hold it: the wrong posture and hold not only makes playing more difficult, it can make it painful – knowing how to sit, where to position the guitar and the right angles of arms and wrists was all going to be the right habit to instil from the beginning
  • Chord-boxes: if I was going to skip ‘normal’ music annotation, I’d have to skip tablature too – although I explained the principles, and why some guitar players prefer ‘tab’ – it translates the notes into positions on the fingerboard. (Unlike a piano, you can play the same note in several places on a guitar – but unless you have fingers three feet long, and double-jointed hands, you need to think about where). Chord-boxes meant I could get people making a sound quickly – even a first lesson needed to involve actually making sound to keep engagement and interactivity going
  • Three chords: E major, F# major, B major – and wrestling with ‘which finger on which string’, and with barre chords (playing all the strings at the same fret with one finger – and explaining that this hurts initially, and takes a lot of practice). I could also explain some chords can be played in more than one way, some less challenging than others. And I could introduce a joke – the punk fanzine classic “Here’s three chords, now start a band!” – to counter aching wrists and sore fingers with a moment of levity and humour
  • A fourth chord: A major (easier than the previous two, to keep the ‘daunting’ factor down)
  • How to hold a plectrum: just like how to hold the guitar, the right plectrum hold saves a lot of discomfort and tendon-related issues – and helps to create a better sound. I could also explain the different materials and thicknesses that are used, and how they affect tone
  • Rhythm: a simple four beats to the bar, with a passing nod to explaining tempo, count, waltz-time – and a passing joke about guitarists typically encountering many thousands of bars over their lifetime
  • A song: combining four chords, a steady rhythm, chord changes at the end – and middle – of bars, something that everyone would recognise. (And a joke about punk rock having passed, and this being their era of brand positioning – if you haven’t guessed the song, see the video clip at the end of the posting.)

I also brought an acoustic guitar for everyone, so every participant could have hands-on experience (and tuned them, to spare myself another topic). Learning should, I understand, be interactive and fun, and trying to play a chord is more fun than watching someone else try.

As it turned out, both times I ran the session we had great fun and everyone enjoyed it. There were struggles I hadn’t anticipated – huge hands struggle to fret only one string at a time, small hands struggle to reach round the neck, and long fingernails on the left-hand don’t really work at all – as well as the ones I had (‘this really hurts your wrist at first, doesn’t it?’). 45 minutes is no time at all, but some chords were fairly cleanly struck and everyone made at least some sound – more than I’d perhaps hoped.

And everyone drew much the same lesson – that playing the guitar is harder than it looks, and takes purposeful practice. (I did manage to throw in a joke about Malcolm Gladwell and how 10,000 hours wasn’t practical for an Adult Learning Week session, but I hope that rather large figure didn’t wind up being too daunting.)

As for me, I drew a lesson too: that good teaching demands a whole raft of skills – careful shepherding of content into manageable pieces, relating them intelligibly to each other, maintaining learners’ enthusiasm, allowing time to intervene to correct mistakes or misunderstanding, making sure learners arrive suitably prepared and leave with things that they can practice and build on (and an awful lot more).

Out of good manners – and in response to a request – I played a piece at the end of the first session and blushingly accepted a ripple of applause. My own learning was that it was my playing they appreciated and not my teaching. Respect where it’s due, and my apologies to all my previous teachers for underestimating quite what was involved in helping me to learn anything at all!

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