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Should a guitar student use a chord book to learn chord forms and are we missing the basic spiritual connection to teaching music?

July 19, 2018

 

A Berklee summer sessions student came to me for a private lesson asking for help with her ensemble charts. She did not know  any forms for most of the chords in the tunes. The charts required a lot of Min 7 flat 5, Dom 7 flat 9 flat 13 , Ma7 9 #11 which worked through several key centers. It was clear she had never played anything that required these chords and had no idea what they sounded like, how to build them, or how to make music out of them.  I assumed she had probably done really well in her placement audition (to be placed in two high level ensembles) but the person auditioning did not go into depth regarding her chordal knowledge. She really wanted to stay in the higher level ensembles and try to meet the challenge. This presented a dilemma of two problems to me.

 

1.If she is struggling in an ensemble which requires learning so much new information and will clearly be unable to play well, She will miss out on the most important aspect of ensemble playing which is  the pure fun of listening, and reacting in musical conversation with her peers.  If the instructor is unwilling to introduce less challenging material ( we are required to turn on a dime here in order to meet the needs of every student-they pay a lot of money for the experience) and the student insists on staying in the ensemble to try to meet the challenge, it is the job of her private guitar instructor (me), her chord lab teacher and theory teacher to help get her up to speed. Can it be done in 5 weeks? I would say no. We can give her all the information and some experience to apply it , but learning applied harmony theory on the fretboard takes considerably more time for even the most gifted student.

 

2. The amount of work required to get her up to speed can take a year or more and I can send her home with plenty to keep her busy...

 If I supply her with chord diagrams for every single chord on each of the charts, she will at least be able to make some sounds that are in the right key when playing those tunes. If I also present it to her in an organized way  categorizing at least two forms of each chord with roots on the 5th string and roots on the 6th string, she will hopefully have enough point of reference for memorizing some chord forms and be able to transpose to every key. This should provide her with enough information to at least get through the tunes. Then there is the issue of groove, feel and tone. Sometimes just learning a few challenging tunes can get the whole ball rolling.

If I explain the applied theory of building chord forms with all available tensions using any combination of  6 strings on the guitar (2,3,4,5,and 6 note inversions) well, it's going to take a while and the lesson is only a half hour long once a week.

 

The quick applicable answer to the problem is buy a book of chord diagrams to memorize, make her own chord book of chord shapes which she finds most useable for each application. Play through challenging charts every day to familiarize herself with not only getting her fingers to fall into place in time but also hearing and recognizing the sound of each.

I suggested this to her and she said her chord lab teacher advised against buying a chord book.

When I was 16 I found myself in a similar situation and I found that memorizing at least  3 forms of each chord I ran across was an effective way to get through challenging music. (I think it was a Mickey Baker book). With a good sense of rhythm, this got me into higher level bands.  This in no way hindered my eventually learning and applying chordal harmony theory to the logic of the fretboard.

Unlike piano, there are as many as six different ways to play the same note on guitar. Although it provides really interesting tonal and structural possibilities, it is really daunting for a young player to figure out the logic.

I am all for shortcuts that allow for playing music.

I would prefer to see this student in one ensemble that is less challenging to theory knowledge so she can learn the finer points of group playing without the stress of intellectualizing the moment or the physical technical challenge. 

Plus an additional more challenging second ensemble which gives her opportunity to apply new theoretical concepts and information.

Without the simplified, pure in the moment, joy of music,I think the learning process is lessened, potentially even negated.

The spiritual side of music is why we actually do it. (This should be evident especially considering the current  lack of financial opportunities in the business). Academia walks a fine line of potentially destroying that for many students. I think the Berklee 5 week summer program generally does a good job with it but I would like to see an addition to the curriculum that allows for the most basic vibrational connection to the unnameable aspect of ourselves that drives us to play music. So that there is a concrete point of reference to why we are teaching all these challenging new concepts and techniques.

A class that involves a somewhat meditative approach to working with drones and simple repetitive rhythms specifically for creating a musical "headspace" comes to mind. Simple, unchallenging, just a connection to an integral aspect of ourselves and our deepest relationship to pure music. I'd like to teach that class.

 

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