How to Teach Classroom Guitar in an Authentic Way

Every year I execute this Guitar Unit with my kids at school. It is designed to get them reading a little bit and learning some chords too. This year, I focused more on chord progressions and playing songs with the entire class than I did individual skills. We did not touch the books near as much as we would have in other years. Previously, I found that there was too much of an emphasis put on learning to read music in guitar. Even though they only need to get through four melodies, it was getting in the way of actually learning how to play the instrument. In the real world, guitar is not learned through reading notes. It is learned primarily by rote or by ear.

Let’s be honest here, no one who can play guitar now has ever learned any song by reading the notes. Nor do they have to. In this case, learning to read notation actually does hinder the authentic learning experience. The only thing that most guitar learners in authentic learning situations read that even resembles actual notation is tablature. You can find tablature literally anywhere on the internet so I had students learn, at least, the basics of how to read tablature so that they can be independent learners outside of school because if they want to learn a song from the radio, they will not seek traditional notation to learn it. Even if they could read it fluently, they just won’t. Ask me how I learn new rock songs on guitar or drums.

Every year I execute this Guitar Unit with my kids at school. It is designed to get them reading a little bit and learning some chords too. This year, I focused more on chord progressions and playing songs with the entire class than I did individual skills. We did not touch the books near as much as we would have in other years. Previously, I found that there was too much of an emphasis put on learning to read music in guitar. Even though they only need to get through four melodies, it was getting in the way of actually learning how to play the instrument. In the real world, guitar is not learned through reading notes. It is learned primarily by rote or by ear.

How to Teach Classroom Guitar Authentically


I can hear it now: “but shouldn’t we be teaching them how to read traditional notation because it is something that they aren’t exposed to?” and “reading notation is important and you get more gigs if you can learn to read notation.”

To the first question I say, no, not on guitar anyway. When learners are excited about learning the guitar, reading notes is not what they have in mind. Anyone can learn one song on the guitar with easy chords in about five minutes, BY ROTE. What a great way to hook your kids on the first day and in an extremely authentic way! Have you ever heard of sound-before-symbol? This is what was meant by it. Essentially it means learning the sounds, functions, and ways of playing before even thinking about notation. Improvising is huge if you follow the sound-before-symbol mantra. Think about this, a baby doesn’t learn to read first. They learn to experiment with the language and its sounds first, then forms words, then coherent sentences, then they go to school to learn the written aspects of the language. Not only are they expected to read already written stories they are also expected to write and compose their own stories on a regular basis, thus these “improvisation” skills are practiced regularly with their primary language.

If you want your students to learn to read notation, recorder is much better at this because learning the instrument through notation is much more authentic for that instrument. It has been traditionally learned this way for many years.

To the second statement I say, not necessarily true. In the world of rock and popular music ensemble playing, a good ear, and the ability to improvise or fake it is a much more coveted skill-set than being able to read music. Yes, in the country world, forms of traditional notation are combined with short hand notation for the Nashville Number System but this can easily be learned after years of by-ear, and by-rote playing. There is some proof that suggests that by-ear learning in the beginning aids in the understanding of written notation. Consider this quote:

Reading music notation and making music by ear are but two distinct performance skills among others. Although these two skills often are cast as opposite approaches to music making, much evidence suggests that they actually are related. In fact, playing by ear may be the most foundational of musical skills, contributing to the ability to sight-read, improvise, play from memory, and perform rehearsed music (McPherson & Gabrielsson, 2002). Providing students with ample ear playing experience prior to introducing them to notation has yet to become the norm in formal instrumental education, despite music educators (e.g., Gordon, 2003; Mainwaring, 1951; Suzuki, 1986). In the best of cases, a preexisting ear-based fluency on their instruments allows musicians to understand the symbols of music notation like the reading of written verbal language (Mills & McPherson, 2006). Instead of the symbols prompting the mechanized recall of a fingering or movement on an instrument, it brings to mind a sound that already has been linked cognitively to the action needed.

(Woody, 2010, p. 103)

Ever wonder why guitar players can improvise so well and just follow along? It is because they do it ALL THE TIME. They don’t have notation getting in the way of actual music making. They have the opportunity to be creative, to actually listen to the music, to actually develop their ear quite quickly. If you are never given the opportunity to improvise, you will never be able to improvise. The only way to learn to improvise and take risks is to improvise and take risks.

“When asked whether he could read music, jazz great Louis Armstrong is said to have replied, ‘Yes, but not enough to hurt my playing.'”

(Woody, 2012, p. 83)

So, even though I designed the guitar unit knowing all of this I still found that I had been focusing on the notation too much. If I were to redesign the entire unit, I would start with chord progressions and class songs instead of notation. They learn the notes as they learn by rote and by ear. The kids had much more fun with it when I backed off from notation. I began letting them learn the instrument in the way it has traditionally been learned for decades. So, if you find your guitar or ukulele players are a bit unmotivated, take away their sheet music and just play music instead.

Happy Musicking!

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