On Playing Guitar

Brian and Bryan Jam

Photo courtesy of Alan Levine

As a sort of follow-up to my last post, I wanted to share some responses I had for a few questions one of the TALONS asked me as part of his own In-Depth Study Research.

1. How long have you been playing the guitar?

About thirteen years… I think.

2.At what age did you first start playing?

I first borrowed a friend’s guitar in the spring of 2003, I guess. So I would have been 22, or thereabouts.

3. Do you believe learning to play the guitar has benefited your life socially / physically / mentally?

Absolutely socially and mentally.

There are probably physical benefits – better hand-eye coordination or dexterity with my fingers and such – though I don’t know if these are beneficial other than in playing guitar.

As for socially, I’ve made a lot of great friends and shared a lot of interesting experiences with people I wouldn’t have found myself connected to if not for having been what can be called in some ways a musician. Beyond personalities, or senses of humour, or our unique interests, upbringings, or even the music we like, I’ve always found people who play music – whatever kind of music it is – easy to talk to, hang out with, and – naturally – play music with. I’ve played music with strangers on the street in Cuba, Croatia, and France, talked for hours about favourite guitars with friends of my parents, and spent weekends improvising with people I’d just met without so much as a word having to be spoken.

Even when I was just starting out, I’ve found that once you have enough skill to participate in communal music-making (even if it’s just plucking the same note or strumming the same chord along with a few friends), you have been allowed into some other plane of conversation with people – a conversation without words, but also a conversation without distinct points of view. In a verbal conversation, one person talks, then another, then the other again, and in doing so their unique perspectives are shared; but in music, the two ‘perspectives’ are essential components of the other, if that makes sense? My guitar solo cannot exist without the underlying chords, whose pacing and volume are reacting moment-by-moment to the energy, tones and volume of the solo. And that’s just with two people: as drums, or bass, or vocals or other instruments are added to the fray, this sense of a collective voice only becomes richer.

I think this sense of communication I’m trying to describe benefits both the social and the mental, though, because these experiences not only forge deep connections with the folks I’ve shared them with, but also have opened my mind to what it means to listen, and interact, and communicate with other people. Once you’ve experienced these sorts of things – an epic jam session, or a memorable performance, or just creating something out of nothing, even by yourself with your guitar – it is impossible to go back to having ‘un-experienced’ them; each leaves you fundamentally changed, however minimally, and changes the course you might take going into the future. I’ve left a lot of different sessions of playing with people thinking, “Why don’t I do *that* more?” And I always rededicate myself to finding more places and people to play with – it never stops.

4. What are some of the skills developed from playing guitar?

Listening is a big one, whether it’s to the people you’re playing with, or even songs you’re hearing for the first time or the millionth. It’s fun when you start to realize what’s going on ‘inside’ some of your favourite songs, and why it is you like them – a chord change, perhaps, or the way the lyrics fall across the rhythm of the song; and similarly, sometimes songs you thought were catchy fall apart when you learn how to play them, which can be disappointing, but leads you to other, more interesting music hopefully.

Beyond listening, I am also able to hear better, which is actually different than listening. I can hear subtle differences between notes and chords, can tell when things are out of tune – and even which string it is, generally – which I couldn’t do back when I began. I’m also able to distinguish what singers are saying now that I know how to breathe and sing and strum as the same time, and how the different instruments are interacting in ensembles.

5. How do these skills/benefits benefit/apply to your everyday life?

I think quite a few of these skills transfer over to everyday life, both in tangible, specific ways: I know a lot about different songs, how they are put together, and the people that made them, for instance, which finds its way into a lot of my work at school (and not just in guitar class); and my relationship with language has changed I think, as well, and I unconsciously try to make things more musical, direct, or poetic when I write or speak, perhaps.

But I think the benefit of playing music that most broadly transfers over into ‘real’ life is the sensibility that goes along with many different aspects of music. In looking over my answer to your third question, I like to think that this constructive sense of conversation or working with others influences every aspect of my life and relation to other people: everything one does with other people is an opportunity to build something – a conversation, a relationship, a professional project, or piece of art. And so because I know that these types of interactions are possible, I find myself approaching almost everything I do with the same sense of experimentation and expression.

6. Any other habits/effects that came from guitar?

The guitar is a dangerous tool for relaxation and procrastination, so not all of the habits and effects it yields are necessarily positive! I’m sure there are plenty of things I could or should have done some days than play guitar for half an hour (or three hours), and that’s not always the best thing to do. But I am glad every day that I stuck out those first few months (or years, if you ask my roommates or family members who heard me back then), until guitar became the thing I wanted to do when I got home from school or work. Once it became The Thing I wanted to do to unwind, or have fun, or challenge myself, I don’t think I could have ever gone back to being someone who doesn’t play guitar.

Hopefully you find the same soon enough.

An Open Learning Project

Letter Song by @bryanjack

Photo courtesy of Giulia Forsythe

Each spring the TALONS undertake an In-Depth Study, a five month “passion project” wherein they are asked to document their growth and learning toward personalized goals in learning a skill or craft. There are two universal goals for the In-Depth Study:

1. Know something about everything and everything about something.

In school you are usually taught about many subjects.  In this project, the goal is to learn a great deal about one field of activity, usually not available in a school setting.

2. Learn what others tell you is important and learn what you decide is important.

In school you are told what to learn and how to learn it.  In this project, you will decide in what field and with what strategies, you will become an “expert.”

Along with the Fall Retreat, spring Adventure Trip and the fall’s Eminent Person project, the In-Depth Study constitutes a significant pillar in the TALONS Program that, because it is predominantly designed and facilitated by my teaching partner, hasn’t been much documented here. Though in past years I have undertaken a couple of different learning projects that have seen their way onto my blog:

Learning Pearl Jam’s “Daughter
Part I, Part II, Part III, Part IV
Banjournal

This year, as part of Alec Couros‘ appearance in my University of Victoria #tiegrad cohort, I have the opportunity to combine a few different aspects of my course work with my classroom teaching this spring. For Alec’s EDCI 569 class (The Distributed, Blended & Open Classroom), we are tasked with engaging in our own learning projects, as well as participating in an open online course or community. And as they have in the last few years, these new academic requirements find a worthwhile conspirator in our Music Department‘s #IntroGuitar class.

I’ve taught #IntroGuitar now at our school going on five years now, but only in the last few has the course opened up to facilitate music-making, teaching, and collaboration to a wider community of open online learners. There is a perfect marriage of sorts between the type of discovery-learning that attracts people to an instrument like the guitar, and the type of ethos espoused in the MOOC movement. As Dave Cormier says, “you can choose what you do, how you participate, and only you can decide when you’ve been successful, just like real life,” teenagers have been learning guitar in this personalized and peer-to-peer fashion as long as the instrument has existed. Even my own playing has followed this path, beginning in the early days of the social web when guitar tabs seemed to have already have leveraged the constructivist potential of the read-write web in ways other communities would adopt across the last fifteen years.

But these online resources – much my early learning took place before the advent of YouTube – were only part of the course of my life with guitar, as a year into the project I moved in with another beginner with whom I was able to commiserate over barre chords and blues scales. Even better, this roommate had a friend who played in a band, and he and his friends served as early mentors who were able to rapidly advance our learning.

Since those early strumming days in Arkansas, I’ve expanded my inquiry into music by writing songs, playing with groups of friends, and a few informal performances. But as happens in the lifelong learning of a thing – and in lifelong, personalized learning in and of itself – the process of discovery and progress can only continue so long as the learner is able to continually synthesize and build on prior learning. And in recent years, I’ve been fortunate to explore successive challenges with supportive peers and mentors in a variety of settings.

I’ve collected a brief summary of these learning communities here:

DS106 Radio

In the spring of 2011, the brainchild of Jim Groom and Grant Potter began as a means of sharing course work created in Jim’s Digital Storytelling class at the University of Mary Washington, and quickly spawned and supported a community of educators / music-makers who began using the distributed web radio station to share live rehearsals, themed shows of covers, and recorded original works. And for the next couple of years, the station became a digital version of my own coffee-house open mic: I would play new songs, covers, riff on others’ material, and listen to my friends when they would take over the airwaves.

Out of this digital community have come countless opportunities to jam in face-to-face rehearsal spaces and kitchens, living rooms and campfires in the years since, including up to a few weeks ago in East Vancouver.

Unplug’d

Bryan Six Nation Guitar V2In 2011, and again in 2012, I was invited to participate at the Unplug’d Educational Summit on the edge of Algonquin Park, where I was able to meet many of my online colleagues in a natural setting, and share a host of songs – Canadian-themed and otherwise – with educators from across Canada and around the world.

At the 2012 Summit, with Jowi Taylor and Voyageur the Six String Nation guitar, serving as the weekend’s welcoming keynote, I was invited to deliver what I consider my first “real” performance for guests at the summit hotel in downtown Toronto. And over the course of the weekend I was able to share an original song I wrote that weekend – on Voyageur – with participants at the culmination of the weekend. (I’ve written a longer post about this experience here.)

The Judy and the Town Sessions

A few summers ago, I set about assembling a few former students whose band had recently lost its lead singer (to a road trip back east, nothing tragic) to act as my own supporting group to work out a few of the original songs I’d written in recent years. Having always written and played on my own – solo acoustic, with the exception of some of the DS106 Radio jams – I had begun to hear the songs I was writing in fuller resolution, with drums, bass and more guitar to fill out an emerging aesthetic in my mind’s… ear. And while the Judy and the Town sessions were cut short as more members of the band eventually joined their lead singer back in Montreal, these recordings offer a warm reminder of the potential for my quiet solo songs to take on a life of their own in the hands of others.

Georgia Straight Guitar Society

This past fall, I was fortunate to join one of my dad’s friends and a colleague from school at the annual Fall Jam hosted by the Georgia Straight Guitar Society. A weekend retreat at a 100 year old camp in serene Crescent Beach, the Jam featured musicians from all over the Lower Mainland – and beyond – and offered an opportunity to participate in songwriting circles, endless middle-of-the-night jam sessions, and a Saturday night concert, where I again tasted the joy of bringing one of my songs to life with the help of talented friends.

He not busy being born is busy dying.

This summer I will turn 34 years old, and with these minor triumphs listed above the compulsion arises to continue to raise the stakes in my musical life.

To scare myself, if only a bit.

Because along with Dylan’s line about being busy being born, I’m reminded of Brene Brown, who offers the inspiration that our vulnerabilities are often the fear that keeps us from accessing our potential. And so the next place to take my guitar playing and my decade-plus inquiry into music, by looking back at the narrative thus assembled…

…is performance.

In his final address on the Tonight Show, Conan O’brien talked about people who asked him about his secret to success “like asking someone how they got struck by a meteor,” so unique are the pathways which lead us to exceptional personal achievements. But he did add that the thing he had always tried to do was “always put myself in a situation where I had no choice but to be great,” and I’ve always thought about this when faced with the opportunity to perform.

I surely haven’t ever always been great. But when I haven’t been I have most assuredly learned a lot about how I should proceed next time, and looking ahead at a spring that has already yielded a few opportunities to hone this emerging skill, I am grateful for the push offered by my classes’ Learning Project / In-Depth Study.

First Banjournal

With the TALONS class setting out on its annual In-Depth Study, I wanted to get a little documentation going of my own efforts in learning the banjo. Having recently been given a rented (for three months) banjo from Long & McQuade in Port Coquitlam for Christmas (thanks mom and dad!), I’ve spent the last couple of weeks plucking away at the first few chords I looked up and trying to apply what I know from the guitar into my new instrument. You can see what this amounts to in the video above, as well as a few of my goals looking ahead at my relationship with the banjo:

  • To improve my fingerpicking by expanding beyond my thumb-and-index finger style.
  • Learn how to use different banjo tunings, and expand my ability and knowledge of different chords.
  • I didn’t mention this in the video, but I would also like to begin to learn different scales, and how to play lead riffs for the banjo when playing with others.

Beginning in semester II, I’ll have a daily opportunity to explore the project, and will be seeking out mentors in the spring. My parents gave me a few L&M gift certificates to invest in some banjo lessons, and in addition to getting some ‘expert’ help, I’ll be consulting with fellow guitar teacher and banjo player, Mr. Mancell. Playing on a daily basis with my guitar class should also provide a great study in seeing what I can do with my new musical acquaintance, and I’ll look to document my progress here, as well as on Youtube or Audioboo.

Learning in Public

You can view the continued installments here: Day 3, Day 6.

It’s been said and discussed often here and many places that a real shift for educators is moving from teacher to learner. Not so much moving, we still need teachers, expertise matters but until we see ourselves as learners and intentionally show are students we can’t be the educator our students need us to be. The Learning Project

I have been following Dean Shareski‘s recent drive to learn guitar as part of his work with preservice teachers in Saskatchewan, and thought I would extend my support of his Learning Project into my own instruction (of guitar) by making it a goal to learn to play the Pearl Jam song, “Daughter.

My students are working toward a performance next week, and as a challenge to them to use their class time until them to make the best performance possible, I vowed to work out the rhythm and intricacies of a song that – for the moment – is beyond my grasp as a musician, and plan to document my progress (and presentation) here, and on Youtube.

As it is pretty serendipitous that he is doing it at the exact same time, I’m amending this post to include reference to Alan Levine’s efforts to share his journey in learning how to play the harmonica. Alan points to four things he admires about the process Dean kicked off:

  • As a teacher, he is doing the same project he is asking his students to do. I cannot say how powerful this is, it is the thing Jim Groom has done all along in his digital storytelling courses (even before ds106) and was something I always respected Barbara Ganley for doing when she was teaching writing at Middlebury College. This changes the entire student/teacher dynamic.
  • Learning is happening in public. Dean is showing the example of examining what he is doing by putting it out in public. Not the final project, but the process. This ought to happen all the time.
  • The network is providing People are responding to his posts with suggestions, resources. etc.
  • Narrate the process doing this in video makes you reflect to an audience, but more importantly yourself. As you progress, the videos should chart your progress (can someone say “assessment”?)

Thanks to  @DrGarcia for connecting the dots and helping the learning continue.