Why I Teach Guitar

About 26 years ago I was asked to take my first guitar student. I had been in and out of the guitar shop for six years leading to this. I struggled to teach myself guitar for 5 years and had one year of classical guitar training (I was a rocker at heart but they only offered classical at the university).4181823128_a8b4b9c806

The kid they wanted me to teach was considered to be difficult by the guitar teachers at the shop. They said he was tone deaf and had no rhythm. They thought that these traits were a permanent part of the kid, unchangeable, and not things that could ever improve. I didn’t know any better than them. I was a 19 year old who never taught anyone anything (at least not intentionally).

I worked with the kid for about a year, and gradually I noticed his rhythm and his ability to hear differences between notes improving. At the time, I didn’t realize the influence this would have in my life. I began to realize that anyone, with a desire to do something, could eventually do it. In retrospect, I think the other guitar teachers, by branding the kid with the traits mentioned above were actually working hard to cover their own shortcomings as teachers.

Since then, I’ve taught hundreds of kids and adults and I learn something new every day. Every guitarist plays and learns differently, is motivated by different music, and different parts of the music, and brings me new challenges. There is no right or wrong way to play beyond the basics that keep our wrists free of tendinitis or carpal tunnel and our bodies free of stress. Listen to what your teachers say because they most likely have your best interests in mind, but remember, anyone who tells you they know the only right way to play is a fool.

Finally, one of the things that I’ve grown to feel strongly about is the idea of student-centered teaching. Each guitarist who has come to me over the past 26 years has had his or her own vision of how the music should sound, what music is good, what aspects of the guitar are most important.

From shredders to folk guitarists to classical guitarists to straight ahead rockers, they all knew what music they wanted to play. Most of the time, this vision was radically different from my own, and if I had tried to force mine on any of them, their learning experiences would have suffered, and worse, they might have abandoned music altogether!  It’s easiest and far more motivating when you’re learning what you want to learn. We should use the music the students love as a bridge to the musical concepts they need us to teach and we should help them to find their own voices in the music so it becomes a greater affirmation of who they are!


Critical Pedagogy for Music Education

Critical Pedagogy is a way we can fix our world. Paulo Freire, in his work, Pedagogy of the Oppressed lays down the framework for this educational philosophy designed to give oppressed people the tools to understand their oppression and take constructive action to end it. Though I believe critical pedagogy can be applied in any form of teaching and there is more work to be done in critical pedagogy, I have collected dozens of resources in a livebinder, specifically geared toward Critical Pedagogy for Music Education.

Below is embedded my video introduction to the livebinder (in which I go off script and “um” quite a bit) as well as the loose script I used to make it.

*–start script–*
This is an introduction to a livebinder I created to collect dozens of resources relating to Critical Pedagogy for music education. I’ve broken the livebinder into 5 categories, each represented by a tab at the top of the livebinder page.

The first, which I called “introduction” simply contains this introductory video. If you’re viewing this video on youtube, the link to the livebinder will freire be below in the video description.

The second category is called “what is critical pedagogy.” The main page that I link to under this tab is the wikipedia page, which give a good overview of what critical pedagogy is.

Critical pedagogy is an educational philosophy that was created by Paulo Freire, a Brazilian educator, who’s book, Pedagogy of the oppressed, I placed under the first tab. Though the book, written in 1969, was available through the 70’s, it wasn’t until the 80s that this educational philosophy was expanded and really brought to the United States by Henry Giroux, whose work I also have links to in the binder.

Critical pedagogy is basically the critical reflection about the values that inform our teaching while we help students to be able to critically self-reflect on the knowledge and values they find in the classroom and to recognize connections between their problems and experiences and the social contexts in which they live. Giroux says, it’s [an] “educational movement, guided by passion and principle, to help students develop consciousness of freedom, recognize authoritarian tendencies, and connect knowledge to power and the ability to take constructive action” (Giroux, 2010).

In America we still have a straight, white, middle class male hegemony. Our school systems were originally built on this as a tool to enculturate our population, and since our educational system was adopted in 1852, it’s served this purpose pretty well. I say adopted, not created, because it was based on the 18th century Prussian system, created by the king to provide “not only the skills needed in an early industrialized world (reading, writing and arithmetic), but also a strict education in ethics, duty, discipline and obedience” (Prussian Education System on Wikipedia). Kids who don’t fit the description of white middle class, many kids of color, kids that aren’t neurotypical, kids from different cultures, are often made to feel inferior and inadequate. Critical pedagogy should correct this problem.

Originally intended to be used to teach adults in Brazil to read, the ideas of critical pedagogy that Freire developed have since been used to teach oppressed people all over the world. The reason I think it’s important to multicultural education in the music classroom is because music has been a source of resistance for centuries! This brings me to my next tab in the binder which is called “Music as Resistance.”

In this tab I have placed a number of articles and videos describing how music like African American slave songs, south American protest songs, Irish songs, punk rock, and reggae have all been important in changing things in the world for the better. It’s also important to remember, especially with the modern genres, there are many sub-genres that develop, some dark and negative – it’s important to understand where the music is coming from. Much of this music will be valuable in your curriculum.

This brings me to the next tab, “Critical Pedagogy for Music Education.” In this tab I draw heavily on the work of Frank Abrahams who developed the ideas of Critical Pedagogy for Music Education. Abrahams draws on the work of critical theorist Jurgen Habermas, sociologist and philosopher Pierre Bourdieu, and critical pedagogs bell hooks, Henry Giroux, and Paulo Freire to develop his system that begins with four questions: Who am I? Who are my students? What might they become? and What might we become together. He challenges the traditional structure of the classroom which has a definite heirarchy, with the students right at the bottom. He instead seeks to validate the students by acknowledging and honoring what they already know, what they’ve learned outside the classroom, the richness of knowledge that they bring with them. Freire called the traditional teaching method “the banking method” in which the teachers are to deposit knowledge into the students who are seen as empty vesels. Abrahams then uses the knowledge of the students as the bridge to the curriculum we as music educators need to teach.

Finally, there’s a hidden benefit beyond bringing our students closer to real liberation. Abrahams found in his studies with sixth graders in critical pedigogy in music education that when they “were interviewed four months after they completed their music course. Results showed that they were able to discuss the concepts presented, remember the musical content, and had overall positive feelings about their experiences in the general music class. Furthermore, they were able to meet benchmarks for students in grades 5–8 as articulated in the National Standards for Arts Education” (Abrahams, 2009?).

By the end of 6th grade, through critical pedagogy these students had hit all the benchmarks they needed to hit by 8th grade!

My last tab is called “Other Resources.” It’s not specific to music or critical pedagogy, but it’s a collection of interesting supporting materials regarding education, social justice, ethnomusicology, and sociomusicology.

I fully endorse critical pedagogy for music education. The resources I’ve placed in my livebinder will take some time so examine, so I’ve placed the most immediately helpful pages first under each tab. Explore, enjoy, and thank you!

*–end script–*

The Prussian Education System

John Taylor Gatto, Against School, Originally published in Harper’s Magazine

Giroux, H. A. (2010). Lessons From Paulo Freire. Chronicle of Higher Education, Vol. 57, Issue 9

My Critical Pedagogy for Music Education Livebinder

Racism on the Radio

Yesterday morning, I was listening to a somewhat local classic rock station – something that I rarely do for many reasons. The number one reason is that morning radio is always terrible. It’s a black hole of sad, tasteless, humorless talk (though they think they’re funny…) mixed with music that is at least 15 or so years old and was on the top 40 charts (which doesn’t mean it’s good! I’ll get back to this one later.). I realized some things while suffering through this ordeal.
First of all, the DJs are total idiots. They relayed a news story about a man with “dark, pock-marked skin” who robbed the CVS pharmacy of prescription painkillers at gunpoint. A story about a broken man who, when caught, will spend time in jail paying for his crime instead of being healed of the affliction that would cause a person to commit the crime. The DJs, who are both white, proceeded to use the story to be funny… They failed. The two turned on their best caricature voices of black gangsters and with the remarkably unfunny radio play that followed they accomplished two things. First, they made me want to destroy my radio. Second, they perpetrated a negative stereotype that erroneously places black culture beneath white culture. Granted, they are so stupid, they could never understand that, and if you ever called them racist, I imagine they would argue that you were just overreacting, they’re complete idiots…
The fact remains that in our society, there is rampant oppression, and episodes like this only serve to strengthen it while downplaying its importance. I don’t believe, however, that it’s only people of color, people of different religions, women, or the LGBT community that are oppressed. Though that is just about everyone (!), I think it’s a little bigger than that, and without realizing it, the white men on the radio are also oppressed. Because they enjoy more benefits from the system of oppression itself, they allow themselves to be used as tools to carry out this oppression.
pedoppOur schools are part of the problem. The system we have in place right now perpetrates the same oppression and racism. We need a critical pedagogy to address the oppression directly, not just for those of us who are oppressed, but also for the perceived oppressor. As an oppressed class, the “oppressor” needs to be freed as well or the seeds of oppression won’t die.
To learn more about critical pedagogy, Paulo Freire is a great place to start. His book, Pedagogy of the Oppressed is a brilliant work which “attempts to help students question and challenge domination, and the beliefs and practices that dominate.”