The reason I teach guitar

Photo: Z

Photo: Z

My first chance to play an instrument came in fourth grade. We all got a soprano recorder and lessons as part of music class. We learned to play classics like Hot Cross Buns and The Old Gray Mare while getting our first taste of reading music and playing in a group. Some of us caught on. Others, not so much

Not the leader of the band

In fifth grade I got to choose a band instrument to play. I chose the trumpet and started group lessons. I played my first solo, "Rain Drops Keep Falling On My Head," in sixth grade in front of the PTA. My parents paid for private lessons and I played trumpet through ninth grade—band, marching band and orchestra. 

Then, before starting high school, I gave it up. Playing the instrument was not important enough to me to continue.

Guitar picked me

At some point during my trumpet years I began playing around on my older sister's guitar. I started slowly, picking it up every once in a while, then more often, maybe every couple days. Ultimately, it got to the point where I would go to my room, shut my door, and play—for hours. Picking out songs. Trying to write songs (horribly). Learning to sing and play (at the same time) the songs I heard on the radio.

I can't begin to understand why Music speaks to a person more strongly through one instrument than another. (And how about people who play multiple instruments well? Are they just so open to hearing that any instrument works?) The recorder and the trumpet were my trial balloons. They let me launch a quiet "hello?" into the universe and opened my ears just enough to hear the conversation that Music would begin with me through the guitar.

Giving people the promise of music

So, for me, teaching guitar isn't about the guitar. It's about beginning a life long conversation with Music. The guitar is simply the translator I've been given to share what Music is saying to me.

Whether the people I help learn the guitar stick with it or choose instead piano or saxophone or drums, doesn't matter. My only goal is that more ears and more hearts are opened to what Music promises: hope, understanding and connection.

Then, the instrument doesn't matter because the spirit has already been won.

How to sing and play guitar at the same time OR hum a few bars and I'll see if I can pick it up.


Singing while playing guitar comes more naturally to some people than others. (Maybe they're the same ones who can pull off the "pat your head, rub your stomach" trick on the first try.) Most of us, though, need to train ourselves—minds and bodies—to do two (or more) things at once. The key is to take it in steps, mastering one thing until it is second nature (or close to it). Then adding the next in bite sized pieces.

Here's how I help my students get started singing and playing together. I call it Strumming & Humming.

1. Choose a song with a simple chord progression (no more than three chords) that you can sing easily. Start with something you know really well so you don't have to think too hard about the melody or the lyrics. Create a chord chart for the song by writing out the lyrics and writing the chord names above the words so you know where the chord changes and the lyrics match up. (Chances are you can find one online if you don't feel like making your own. Here's one for This Land Is Your Land by Woody Guthrie.)

2. Practice the chord changes until you can play them smoothly at a tempo that you feel is acceptable for singing along to. 

3. Now, as you strum the chords, hum the melody. Start out with a simplified version where you aren't humming every syllable of every word. This is to get your brain used to moving your hands and making sounds at the same time—and at the right times.

4. Each time you get comfortable with what you're humming add more complexity until you are humming the full melody note for note. This won't take long once you get started.

5. Now start adding words. Start with the lyrics you are most familiar with, maybe even have memorized. Slow down if you have to and if you get stuck on how the rhythm of the words match to the chord changes go back to humming the part that hangs you up.

Stick with it and you will get it. What's great is that like riding a bike, once you're mind and body have figured it out, you will never forget how to do it.

And remember, have fun!



Three ways to better practicing for beginning guitarists


It seems some people are naturally wired for practicing. They understand the value and willingly invest the time. For the rest of us it's a constant battle between knowing that practicing is the only way to get better and feeling that practicing is some kind of medieval torture. Most often, what we feel wins out over what we know so practicing takes a back seat to whatever excuse we can find.

There are, however, three simple ways to change how you feel about practicing that will give you a much better chance of doing it.

But before we dig in, a side note: The content of your lessons and of your practice sessions has a huge impact on how you feel about what you are doing. If that's not working for you, no amount of attitude adjustment will help. If you don't like your teacher's teaching style or what they are teaching, consider talking to them about it or consider making a change — but that is a topic for another time. The hints I am offering here are not about what you practice but about how you approach practicing.

Make it fun

Let's face it, there are parts of practicing that get tedious. Since we learn best when what we are learning feels fun, turn parts you don't enjoy into a game. One of my favorite toys as a kid was a paddle game with a rubber ball attached to a small wooden paddle by a rubber band. I could kill hours without even knowing it trying to paddle the ball as many times in a row as I could without missing. I got really good just by challenging myself. (If only there was a career where paddle ball was a required skill.)

The same principle can apply to your practicing. Say you are trying to learn alternate picking (picking up and down on a single string). Count how many pairs of up/down picking you can do without making a mistake. Now try to beat your record. Set a goal for each week, and keep track on a simple chart so you can see your progress. And don't forget to reward yourself when you hit your goal!

Another example would be for learning to change chords without looking. Again the idea is to challenge yourself to a game. Find a song with chords you know. Your goal will be to play the whole thing without looking and making clean changes (no buzzing, no hesitation) all the way through. Track your success from day to day or week to week. You will find that it is exciting and motivating to see your progress.

Make it short

A common excuse we all use is that we don't have time to practice. Setting aside a half hour can feel impossible with the other demands of life. Or maybe you just can't stand the thought of sitting down to practice for that length of time. Well how about 10 minutes? That's right, change your image of practicing from being long sessions to being short bursts.

There are numerous studies demonstrating that we stop learning as efficiently (or at all) past a certain amount of time. (Probably why pre-exam cramming never worked for me.) Our brains just get tired. Choose a length of time that feels right to you and go with that. Not only will you enjoy it, you will see better results.

Make it focused

This goes hand in hand with the length of your practice sessions. When sessions are too long people tend to try a bunch of things to keep from getting bored. Or when they get frustrated they jump all over to find something that is working for them. Instead, take a minute when you start to choose exactly what you want to work on. Whether its being able to maintain a consistent strumming pattern or learning a new finger picking pattern or maybe memorizing a song, choose one thing and put all your intention behind it. You're practicing will be more fulfilling and you will look forward to your next session.

We all learn differently and are motivated by different things. As a beginner, the most important goal of practicing is to learn a way that works for you. After all, the only practicing that makes a difference is the practicing you do.