It’s ironic, but sometimes I struggle a bit to explain “what it is that I teach” in an abstract or off-the-shelf way. The reason for that, I suspect, is that I focus primarily on meeting a student exactly where [s]he is, and that means that “what I teach” is very strongly aligned with “what needs teaching”. And it’s hard to have repeatable answers for that before meeting a student in the first place!
Nonetheless, it is possible to speak broadly, and the following should give a pretty good idea of what I can cover. Just bear the above caveat in mind.
The instruments I am most comfortable with are the guitar and mandolin, played either fingerstyle or plectrum style. They are essentially the fount of my approach to date. I’m pretty fearless in taking on other instruments in similar families, most obviously banjo and ukulele, but also instrument mutts like fretless guitar and more distant lute-like instruments such as oud, cittern, etc. By way of an example, one student asked me to work with him on an heirloom bouzouki, which featured a very “between” scale length that we addressed by assembling a hybrid of mandolin and guitar techniques. (And that thing sounded great!)
As of this writing, I am not yet comfortable with arco (bowed) playing; that is on my own list of learning goals, and I’ll be happy to add it here once I’m confident enough to be able to impart it as an instructor. But not yet!
I am also very happy to work with people, usually (but not always) kids, who simply want to learn about musical ideas without instruments, or maybe without specific instruments. One can do amazing things with “found percussion”, and in fact I rather like that idea specifically because it gets people attuned to really listening to the things around them. And then there is the substantial (and often readily available) universe of assorted hand-drums, pitched tubes, and other simple “learn with whatcha got” instruments. All of it will do nicely to learn about rhythm, ensemble play, and improvisation; adding the pitched elements opens the universe up even further.
Introduction and basic mechanics
Sometimes, what people want is an introduction to the instrument. You know: what are these things, why are they there, what do they do, why do I care? How is the instrument played? What function[s] does it perform in an ensemble? How do I tune it? Where did it come from?
By basic playing mechanics I mean the most important rudiments, which might include how to hold the instrument comfortably, the functions of each hand, efficient core playing movements of the hands, and how to execute clean notes and strums. This is learning to walk, before learning to run.
Developing core playing skills
Here, we would be further developing the precision, efficiency, and repeatability of fundamental techniques, and/or expanding the library beyond the fundamentals. This is an extremely broad area; ideally, every student of music, at whatever level, always has a hand in developing, or at the very least maintaining, playing skills.
It is the natural domain of the abstract exercise. Like many instructors, I certainly have a stable of developmental exercises that I lean on as generally useful, and I love to improvise new exercises based on what someone needs. However, I also try to recognize that too heavy an emphasis can be counterproductive. The exercise is supposed to make the point, not be the point!
Some of these playing skills can be described as true hand mechanics. For example, a plectrum guitarist wants to dig deeper into the -fu of alternate picking, perhaps progressing past adjacent strings in 4-note patterns and moving in to 3-, 5-, and 7-note figures, and/or adding string skipping. A fingerstyle guitarist wants to develop a similar “home base” logic for handling irregular groupings, incorporating individual finger strums, playing a polyrhythm within the right hand, or maybe just improving clarity of tone and delivery on wound acoustic guitar strings. A mandolinist wants to build speed and get smoother transitions between single-notes, double-stops, and full chords. Someone wants to explore the flashier elements of what is called “extended technique”, such as tapping notes, pinch and slap harmonics, deliberate string noise, etc. And so on.
Other core playing skills include the what notes to play question. Basic scales and modes, understanding how scales relate to one another, hearing key intervals, dividing the octave into lower and upper tetrachords, finding notes on the neck. Recognizing the useful spatial patterns that show up on the neck. Exploring scales from other parts of the world. Altering scales and adding chromatic notes deliberately. Understanding that less can be more; that sometimes “the right note” to play is no note at all.
An approach to constructing chords
This seems to be a specialty of mine, in that it has worked famously for me, and is something that others can grasp as well. One can certainly learn chords from books and charts, and obviously most people do, but the number of possible variations is nearly limitless, making the process cumbersome and altogether too linear. I like the idea of instead understanding how to make chords out of the notes available to your hand. Based on a simple idea I first got from Hideyo Moriya of the California Guitar Trio, I started applying the thinking with a specific aim, and it simply unlocked triads and sevenths all over the neck.
Once you really grasp the approach, you can then use it quite neatly for permuting and alteration. Additional key ideas from the late mandolin master Jethro Burns and microtonal ace Neil Haverstick not only added to my general-case structure, but also helped me to understand how to access extended chords (ninths, elevenths, thirteenths) by assembling simpler components.
I am convinced that everyone already, intuitively, understands the most important things about music theory, even if they’ve never studied it at all. Your ears know what’s going on, even if you don’t have a fancy name for it. That’s why someone can play a certain sequence of chords in a room full of “tone-deaf” people, and yet everyone will know if the sequence doesn’t end the “right” way. Or, as Bobby McFerrin demonstrates so brilliantly here, most “non-musical” people still have the pentatonic scale essentially hardwired into their brains.
I think of it this way: theory doesn’t impose a reality of its own; it simply describes reality as it is. And that little distinction makes the concept a whole lot friendlier.
Myself, I’m a geek, and I love studying the abstract, so theory appeals to me on its own. That’s not true of everyone, though, and it shouldn’t have to be. Music theory is best viewed as a power tool in which by far the greatest return is on the initial investment. If you plan to be on your musical journey for a while, a little bit of practical theory will shorten the road a lot. And if you’ve learned to manufacture chords from thirds by yourself, you’re already a significant step down the path!
Improvising: making your playing interesting
Great. So let’s say your hands are in shape, they know what to do, and how to do it; you know where the notes are and how they fit into scales and chords; and you even know what notes you can play. Fantastic! And yet, many otherwise accomplished players still freeze up when asked to improvise. The irony here is that very commonly people simply don’t understand how to get out of their own way.
I encourage improvisation from the very beginning, especially ensemble improvising. It is so easy to get fixated on your own sound, mechanics, etc., that you can easily shut out the other things that are happening around you–and that creates a new unknown to be afraid of! On the other hand, deliberately training yourself, early, to listen to what others are doing around you, removes most people’s single biggest fear. (It often makes you a much better listener to your own sound, as well.)
And improv can be beautifully simple, too. Among the impossibly vast number of things that my involvement with Guitar Craft taught me is the concept of the circulation, which makes melodic ensemble improvisation available to anyone who can make a sound on the instrument. On the other end of the scale, the same idea can be tweaked to provide as much challenge as you can manage. Yes, this is a tool I like to reach for!
Geeking: tunings, division of attention, specific problems, etc.
In case you may have missed it thus far, I am an unapologetic geek, and am pretty fearless when it comes to taking on arbitrary or specific problems. (And really this shouldn’t be too surprising. The whole point of building up a skill set from fundamentals, after all, is to then be able to apply those skills to solve arbitrary problems as they arise.) So, if in doubt, try me!
In general, I am tuning-agnostic, and will be happy to work with whatever tuning a student might prefer. I’ve worked with about a dozen myself, thus far, and at this point I’m pretty confident in saying that the rudiments and skill set can be successfully and repeatably applied to any arbitrary tuning. (There are tradeoffs in any individual one, for sure, but the process of plumbing a tuning for both fundamentals and secrets is the same.)
I’ve also become a fan of the partial capo, and am happy to introduce it and discuss its applications. Having differently available open strings is useful enough on its own, but one thing I have really come to appreciate is how it shifts the string’s harmonic nodes relative to the uncapoed strings. Used deliberately, this can provide some colorful intervals unavailable to the base tuning.
I am also fascinated with fretless guitar playing, and am happy to introduce and share that practice with others. I love the sensation of watching my hands change the way they play, as if of their own accord, when there are no frets on the board. It can be a humbling experience for a fretted instrument player, and chords can be very tough. The flip side of that is that the additional discipline benefits fretted playing too, and there is just something about the visceral feel, especially with slick strings, that seems to draw me in and make me want to “play to the instrument”. Which, in its turn, makes me happy because it probably means I’m listening actively, and responding in the moment. (This is just the sort of feedback loop that can power the soul for weeks at a time.)
In general, I’m happy to work with students on specific problems of almost any kind, from the simple to the advanced. In some cases, it might even involve me working with someone who is a better player than I am; that doesn’t bother me at all. My value as a teacher–or as facilitator to someone’s own self-directed learning–does not necessarily require that I be better at a given skill, in order to help a student develop it.
The possibilities are broad, and I’m perfectly comfortable figuring out what is needed as we go. The basic strategy starts with just meeting with me, and we can proceed from there!