How do you teach a child what they need to know while keeping it interesting?

How many of you out there teach? Even if we aren't formally engaged in teaching through a music store or in our homes, we all teach once in a while. I had to chuckle at one of my students, Olivia—she's 9, and loves Taylor Swift. But she told me this week that she taught some of her friends “Ode to Joy” over the weekend, and tried to teach them “Silent Night,” but they just couldn't get it. I said, “Well, they probably weren't ready for 'Silent Night,' Liv. It's a little more challenging.”

But that got me to thinking. There's an old saying from one of the mystic religions, I can't remember which one, could be Sufi. Doesn't matter. “When the student is ready, the teacher will appear.” That's great, but I have students now, and ready or not, I gotta teach 'em stuff. So how do I know what they're ready for, and how do I get them ready for more?

The $60,000 Question
Why in the name of all that swings are we still teaching kids out of books that contain songs like “Red River Valley,” “Working Man Blues,” and “Tom Dooley”? I am probably the youngest person on the planet that remembers them, and I haven't been a kid in a very long time. Olivia came to me a few weeks ago from another teacher, and showed me the progress she had made through the book he was teaching from. Not much. But not because she's not a good student—it's because she had never heard any of the songs in the book, and had no way of connecting to them.

I told Olivia's dad to get her a Taylor Swift songbook, because she knows all those songs. But, she had a really hard time changing from chord to chord, so we had to work on that before we could start working on the Taylor Swift songs. That's okay, she had a clear goal in mind to shoot for. I started giving her chord changes to practice, always within a key center. Then I asked her if she knew “This Land is Your Land.” Bingo. Every school child knows that song, even now. So I taught her to play “This Land” in G, C, D, and A. Not only did it get her fingers moving through a song she knew by heart, and get her practicing like crazy, but it introduced an idea which might not have been teachable to her in another form. By the time we got to the key of D, she was already anticipating what the chord changes would be. This week, we played a Taylor Swift song together, and she went home feeling like a million bucks.

Do we want robots or guitar players?
I have a real problem with the way music is taught in a lot of places. Ricky Skaggs and I had a conversation about this in the interview I did with him back in July of 2009. We both attended what we called Bluegrass Bootcamp (miles and years apart, of course). We learned by watching, listening, imitating, figuring it out and soaking it up. By ear. Almost by osmosis. It seeped into our bones and became part of us. Literally. The brain creates wrinkles and nooks that never go away, and because we had immersed ourselves in it (some say steeped) it accelerated the learning process. We went from beginners to old hands in a summer.

Teaching kids to play notes in a book that have no connection to them personally, or going to the other extreme and saying, “Hey, what do you like on the radio this week? Oh, that goes like this,” but not giving them any foundation in why it goes like that, and what any of that means is an equal disservice.

With luck, beginning musicians find teachers who can explain the rules of what they're already doing. “Wow, all these songs have G, C, and D, and some of these other songs have C, F, and G, and then all those fiddle tunes have D, G, and A. I wonder what that means?” “Here, kid, this is called a key center and it works like this...” Once you get it that all key centers work the same way, you can pretty much play anything.

And that's a guitar player. If somebody says, “Okay, this is in G and there's a flat-6 in it,” you either say, “Cool,” or “Huh?” I want my students to be all over it. I want them to be able to hear when it's coming, hear what else is there, and know exactly what to do, no matter what key they're in. (For those in the “Huh?” category, a flat-6 in the key of G means there's chocolate in your peanut butter.)

Teaching kids to play notes in a book that have no connection to them personally, or going to the other extreme and saying, “Hey, what do you like on the radio this week? Oh, that goes like this,” but not giving them any foundation in why it goes like that, and what any of that means is an equal disservice. I know people who can't play a note if they don't have music in front of them. Some of them are technically brilliant, don't get me wrong, but when it comes to the real fun, like jamming or trading licks on the fly, the fish-out-of-water cliché is frighteningly appropriate.

On the other hand, not knowing what you're playing or why it makes musical sense is equally confusing, even distressing. When I found someone to teach me just the rudiments of music theory, it changed my life. It made me a better player; it made me a better songwriter. It made me happy. It's like having all the static suddenly resolve into glorious clear sound, or finding the pesky puzzle piece that lets everything else come together hidden between the couch cushions.

As I have said before in these hallowed web pages, “If you don't know any rules, go learn some so you can break 'em better.” If you're teaching somebody, find sneaky ways to teach the big important stuff by example so that your student gets the raw materials s/he needs to become a real guitar player.

Gayla Drake Paul is a guitarist, songwriter and writer, working as a soloist and with the Gayla Drake Paul Trio. Her CD, How Can I Keep From Singing, is in the Ten Essential CDs for Acoustic Guitarists at Her new CD, Trio Plus Three: The Luckiest Woman, can be purchased at

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