My 7th graders are learning how to play guitar in general music. I love teaching guitar. And let me tell you, I was a soprano and a vocal performance/music ed major and I would never have guessed that teaching guitar would bring me so much joy. I love seeing their faces light up with delight when they start playing the songs they recognize. I have been known to get pretty excited during class and have on occasion been seen jumping up and down in my high heels playing Don’t Stop Believing with my kiddos. I’m sure I look ridiculous but I have a lot of fun. It’s just so empowering for them. The guitar is an instrument that is completely accessible and relevant to these kids; Something they can bring with them to a party and FINALLY be the cool kid playing a riff or some tunes that everyone knows.
I start them in the beginning by teaching the easy chords- playing the bottom three strings for E minor and one finger G, C and G7. They have already been fully rocking to We Will Rock You, Chasing Cars, Paperback Writer, Eleanor Rigby, and today we played I Got a Feeling, by Black Eyed Peas. Today I introduced the full chords. I used to expect all of my students to play the full chords (G, C, E minor). I insisted they play the chords correctly and would assess them accordingly. But, this always presented challenges for some students who struggled with fine motor skills. I also had some kids who could play songs perfectly in time with the smaller chords and would just be completely lost playing the bigger ones. Eventually I began to ask myself if this expectation was reasonable.
Over the last few years I began to alter my expectations. Here’s why - I keep going back to my ultimate goal: to provide a high quality music education that promotes lifelong learning, performing and support of the fine arts. When I break this down, I can figure out what is important and what’s not. This is the 7th grade general music class and many of them might not continue on with music in school after this class (although I am always working on getting more retention with these kids). So if this is their last school music opportunity, what should they leave my class knowing? Is it important that they can play in time with a steady beat? Yes. Is it important that they know how to play a variety of chords? Also yes. Is it important that they are introduced and encouraged to play the full chords? Definitely. Do they have to play the full chords? I say no….
My expectation shifted and now I am able to put the responsibility of individual goal setting on the students. I show them their options - Full C or three string C, full E minor or three string E minor, etc., and then THEY get to choose. What I have found is that students are more likely to try knowing they can fall back on the easier chords if they need to. They also appreciate the autonomy in their own learning (particularly middle school students!) These kids do not get to make a whole lot of choices throughout their day and they crave some sort of feeling of control. Give it to them! They are also super proud of themselves when they go the extra mile and challenge themselves to play more difficult chords.
It’s been a nice change in the way to approach guitar. Everyone is assessed by the same standard (playing in time, steady beat, accurate chord changes) but now they get to have some choice as to how they get there. Everyone plays at their own level and less and less students feel frustrated. And, it makes rocking out to I've Got a Feeling way more fun!
Ask yourself: what is important for the students to learn (standard), and can you give the students choices as to how to get there?