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!