Support music education in schools.

Over the years, as our schools have seen their budgets slashed again and again, music education, once a healthy part of an all-around curriculum, has suffered more than most subjects. Very few school systems assign the same importance to music education that they did in the past. But according to MENC The National Association for Music Education, “Research reveals strong correlations between quality music education in school and academic achievement.”

MENC, one of the largest arts education organizations in the world, and which recently celebrated its centennial, is a great resource for people interested in increasing music education in public schools.

NAMM Foundation is also dedicated to supporting school music education.

Here is an excerpt from NAMM Foundation’s brochure:

    “Doing Well and Doing Good by Doing Art,” a study by
    James Catterall (I-Group Books, 2009), explores the
    relationships between arts involvement, academic
    achievement and citizenship. Using 12 years of data
    collected by the National Educational Longitudinal Survey
    (NELS) where students were studied for the same 12-year
    period, Catterall’s study looks at the effect of education,
    visual and performing arts on the achievement and values
    of young adults and compares students at arts-rich
    schools to students in arts-poor schools. Students who
    were highly involved with the arts outperformed their
    less-involved peers, even within low socioeconomic
    groups; low-income students with high arts involvement
    performed better than the average study (at all income
    levels) in the NELS sample. There is also a halo effect for
    arts-rich schools; even students who are not personally
    involved in the arts benefit. These students are more
    likely to attend four-year colleges, progress to higher
    education faster and get better grades.

Ear Training

Professional musicians will tell you that the most important skill you need as a musician is a good ear. If you think about how you learned to talk, you learned it by ear–first from your parents and then from everybody else. Only after you could speak fluently were you taught to read and write. Most of the world’s great musicians learned music the same way.

But this not usually the way music is taught here in the US. (A notable exception to this is the Suzuki Method, which does stress learning by ear before learning to read.)

When I was six years old I started taking piano lessons. I dutifully played my assignments out of the John Thompson piano book, but it just wasn’t very much fun. As soon as my parents would let me, I quit. Unfortunately for a lot of kids, it’s still like this today.

That might have been the end of my musical career except for what happened to me when I was a little older. I was like 12 or so, and back then we used to go visit our relatives up in Connecticut every summer–lots of cousins, aunts, uncles and friends, all in this one small rural town.

One summer, my cousin Mark Janetatos, who’s a couple years younger than I am, all of a sudden (it seemed) was able to play the guitar amazingly well. He could play and sing lots of the songs you would hear on the radio. I was shocked. Shocked and amazed and extremely jealous. I would sit in front of him and ask him to play different things until he finally got sick of it and put the guitar in its case.

All I could think about was playing guitar, but I knew that I couldn’t. I was hooked for life and I didn’t even know it. When I asked him how he learned to play he said he just played by ear. He said it as if it were obvious. Well, it sure wasn’t obvious to me. I asked my mom about it. She is a highly skilled violinist and pianist in the classical tradition. Instead of helping me understand this mysterious way of playing music, she kind of dismissed his (obviously) superior aural skills. She said that good musicians don’t play by ear, good musicians read music.

I KNEW she was wrong. I knew that to me at least, the most important skill was playing by ear, and if you could also read, well that was just the icing on the cake. But being able to hear something and then play it–THAT was what I wanted to be able to do!

So I did. It took me a long time, and I often got very frustrated, but I was determined to learn to play guitar like my cousin. So I started on the long path that I’m still on. Every time I would get something right, I knew it and it made me want to keep going. So to make a long story short, it led me to becoming a professional musician and teacher.

Recently I found a very good website with an ear training tool that will run in your web browser. I’ve seen lots of online ear trainers but this is by far the best one. It was designed by the author of the blog IWasDoingAllRight. His name is Rick and I’m very grateful that he made this ear training tool.

Here it is.

Who my beginning students are.

In the past, most of my beginning guitar students were young children, but since I moved away from organized music programs and started my private practice, most of my beginning students have been young adults.

With children, the primary focus is on teaching the fundamentals of music, and music reading is a high priority. There are many excellent method books and there is a large body of standard repertoire available. Kids study guitar pretty much like any of their classes at school, including doing homework (practicing).

With many adults this approach just won’t fly. Adults have lots of different reasons for wanting to learn guitar and to ignore this fact and try to treat them all the same will turn you into their former teacher pretty quickly. Whatever their reasons for wanting to learn guitar, for the most part my young adult students all have a list of songs they want to learn. Most don’t care at all about reading or the fundamentals of music–they just want to play their songs. That’s OK with me, since although they may not want to learn to sight read music, I’m pretty good at sneaking the fundamentals in anyway.

I really enjoy getting to know my students as people and as musicians, and I have not lost my sense of wonder when a student brings me a recording that I’ve never heard before, that they’re obviously in love with, and I see how much it means to them. Their passion is contagious, and even though not all of their music is to my taste, that’s fine. I treat all of their music with respect. I patiently transcribe and figure out how to play the song they want to learn, then I teach it to them. It’s a very rewarding thing to be able to pass along knowledge to someone like this. In some ways it’s harder teaching adults because, as you can see, unlike with the kids, I have homework too.

One thing that can be difficult for an adult beginner to learn to do is to practice on their own. Many people initially underestimate how important daily practice is to their success as guitar players. Playing guitar is not like playing Guitar Hero–you sometimes have to just knuckle down and work at it. The real fun comes later. It’s the old delayed gratification thing.

Another challenge that some people face when beginning to learn guitar is that they see their temporary inability to play fluently as a personal failure. They feel frustrated that they can’t play like their role models right away. My approach to solving this is that I try to set up an emotional space where patience is the primary mood. I try to help people understand that small steps are a good thing and I encourage them to enjoy their progress, rather than on focusing on sounding exactly like their role models so soon. At the end of each lesson, I show them specifically where they have improved, and I make suggestions for practicing. I’m always aware of not overwhelming people with things that are too difficult, unless I know that they particularly enjoy that kind of challenge.

Music is tremendously rewarding for people and contributes to their sense of well-being. I’m grateful for the opportunity to help them grow as musicians and people.