Good teaching is a fine art and no two teachers, as artists, approach their craft exactly the same way. Most often it is the teacher who genuinely cares about their students and connects with them in a positive way that is most effective and keeps the kids coming back each semester. Our teachers come from different backgrounds with differing levels of music training and approaches to teaching. They are as often selected based on their love and dedication to traditional music as for formal training in music or education. It is essential they have a natural sense of humor and patience to help children learn.
Beyond the natural aptitude a musician brings to teaching, as with any craft, it is important that teachers take seriously the role they accept and consistently work to develop and hone the skills they need to be effective. Our foremost concern as we help communities develop JAM programs is that we give traditional musicians support to develop effective teaching skills. Many of our students may be classified as “at risk”, and we hold as our highest responsibility that these children, who may come to us with low self-esteem and a history of social and academic challenges are given the chance to be successful. Their success depends on effective teaching that demands thoughtful attention to addressing different learning styles, aptitude and interest.
The concept of the transmission of a traditional art form in group classes may at first glance appear contradictory. In truth, however, through the years, most players have learned at group jams with specialized individual instruction from players from within that group setting. With JAM we realized early on that teaching “traditional” music within a classroom setting to students who have not grown up hearing it presents special challenges. We strive to develop teaching methods that protect old time music as an oral tradition respectful of local and regional stylistic differences. We must also engage students of different learning aptitudes, interests and learning styles. We advocate that programs involve students with a wide array of local musicians (both past and current) through recordings, guest artist performances and field trips. Our hope is that we give the students basic learning tools to allow them to begin mastering the mechanics of playing, and, that through introducing them to local musicians, the history of music in their region and the current traditional music ‘scene’, they eventually become part of the music community and continue lifelong learning and enjoyment ‘the old time ‘ way.
In our experience, the most effective teachers are open to trying different strategies and enjoy sharing their insights and challenges with other teachers to continually grow in their teaching skills. JAM encourages and supports this growth. Through teacher sharing events held bi-annually beginning in 2004 we have facilitated discussions of over 75 traditional musicians who teach in JAM affiliated programs in 3 states. We, individually and collectively continue to evolve and grow. The ideas presented below have been distilled from the insights of those who have participated in our workshops and are offered, not as a mandate, but rather in the context of providing food for thought.
Teaching by Ear
An important distinguishing aspect of traditional Appalachian music is its history as an oral art form—tunes are passed primarily by ear and modeling rather than from a printed page. This ‘by ear’ transmission is what accounts for regional style as opposed to a more predictable art form. In keeping with this tradition, most JAM teachers agree that it is important that JAM students are taught foremost by ear and by modeling. Teachers are encouraged to prepare practice tapes or CDs for students with the current tune played at an appropriately slow tempo so that students have an auditory reference at home. (Although some teachers post their tunes to the web, many mountain children do not have access to high speed internet at home.) As many students are ‘visual’ learners most teachers also prepare and teach the reading of tablature or standard musical notation which they send home for practice. The introduction of written formats takes time and teachers need to be aware of the impatience of children in wanting to ‘play’ so we encourage that the reading skills be incorporated into a varied class that also include time on the instrument. Teachers need to be aware that the presence of a written format may encourage a belief that because a tune was written down in one way, that is the ‘right’ way to play the tune. Beginning students learn very simple versions, essentially “bones” of tunes. As they progress, we hope they will be able to identify the more subtle nuances of tunes from different players or regions. To that end, exposing children to recordings of different versions of a tune they are learning can be fun and illustrate to the kids that they are becoming part of a tradition where they, themselves can be creative and ultimately develop their own versions. Many beginner students like to rely on visual references but these may best be used as an adjunct to allow the child to see/hear the ‘bones’ of a tune while encouraging the student to play without total reliance on the written format.
Although not in keeping with the traditional transmission of Appalachian music many teachers believe that a rudimentary knowledge of music theory and the language of music is an asset to students. Many teachers introduce students to the concepts of intervals, scales, keys, how chords are developed and standard chord patterns recurring in traditional tunes. If a program has access to a computer lab, good interactive web sites can be helpful in teaching music theory and developing ear recognition of intervals and chords. This training helps students learn tunes much more quickly by ear. Kids often view this computer time as being as fun as computer games. (see www.regionaljam.org under Instruction/Music Theory for links to good web sites.) A section on simple music theory is included as part of the Teacher Resource Guide as is a list of suggested musical terms to introduce to students.
Competencies for Student Mastery/ Passports
Because we must work together with the same kids we have developed a core of basic competencies and goals on which we generally agree. This is an evolving process and we continue to brainstorm and learn from each other in developing “best” teaching practices. Through a series of regional JAM teacher sharing workshops 2008 – 2010, 65 traditional musicians/teachers shared their ideas about the core skills they felt were important for JAM students to develop. These skills clustered in 4 areas: The Basics (such things as labeling the parts of the instrument, naming strings, tuning, demonstrating basic care, positive attitude, good practice habits etc); Fundamentals of Music (skills are specific to instruments); Developing Musicianship and Stylistic Identity (such things as kicking off and ending tunes, recognizing common tunes, distinguishing between old time and bluegrass, identifying regional musicians etc); and, Joining the Community (playing at community jam, attending a fiddlers convention or JAM camp, playing in a stringband etc.).
Initiated during SY 2010 -2011, student passports were developed to monitor and document student achievements related to the above competencies. These student friendly booklets can be kept by the teacher throughout the semester or entrusted to students to keep in their instrument cases. Although passports are printed, teachers may change competencies by covering the pre-printed skill with a standard file folder label and writing in a replacement skill they prefer. (Ex – not every teacher teaches scales). Students receive a stamp in their passport when they have demonstrated they can do/have done the stated requirement. Each teacher finds their own way to utilize the passport – some monitor every few weeks on an announced schedule, others make (mental) notes when they see a student succeeding in a target area in the routine of the class. They then ask a student to stay a few minutes after class so that they can stamp the passport appropriately.
Teachers keep a summary monitoring sheet for each student in the class so that administrators can appropriately group students for the next program cycle, and so that passports can be replaced (with appropriate stamps) should a student misplace theirs. The summary sheet can be an effective tool for a teacher in evaluating their own success/effectiveness in teaching the skills they feel are important as well as providing feedback to a student on their progress and areas for needed improvement.
Although utilization of the passports and core skills monitoring is not mandated by JAM we strongly recommend that affiliate programs have learning objectives and some mechanism for documenting student achievements. (For monitoring sheets on competencies, see JAM Operations Guide; passports are available from Regional JAM office)
Accommodating Students of Different Skill Level
One challenge of any classroom learning setting lies in accommodating different skill levels and rates in learning. JAM programs generally limit class size to 10 students and offer 2 levels of class: Level 1 is for complete beginners; Level 2 is for a broad range of advancing students. A Level 3 for the most advanced players can be developed for programs meeting twice a week (Scheduling suggestions are available in the JAM Operations Guide).
When teachers maintain a roster of their students and periodically evaluate them based on meeting the competencies outlined above, it is possible to more objectively cluster children in ‘levels’ each semester. By looking at the actual accomplishments of students, the line of demarcation between levels can shift depending on the student pool each semester.
Another means for determining level could be a monitoring system through which students earn ‘key cards’. To earn a key card, a student must be able to play the major scale and 2 tunes in that key. In a given year we typically teach tunes in 2 keys (ex. D and G) first semester and add a third key (A) second semester. By introducing different keys in different semesters, students who have already completed one semester are challenged with new material to learn alongside the newcomers. The ‘key card’ level system is less fluid but provides students with absolute benchmarks to achieve before advancing to the next level. Most students will spend at least a year in a Level 1 class. Advancing students and quick learners can assist the newcomers or those struggling with a tune.
Although this has not been implemented, we have discussed ‘standardizing’ several tunes for our key cards and/or passports so that all students throughout the region have a core repertoire on which we can draw for whole group performances.
A particular challenge for JAM programs is to find tunes (and keys) that are suitable for beginners on each instrument. Good tune choices include those with 2 or 3 chords (that avoid really quick chord changes) and those tunes with minimal string crossings for lead instruments. We advocate having students sing the tunes to get them into their heads before trying to put them on their instruments, so fiddle tunes with words are recommended. Many sites to find lyrics are available under “Instruction – Tunes/Lyrics” on the Regional JAM website. Students can also be pretty creative in making up words when needed, and the lyric writing activity may help to an even greater degree to get a melody into a student’s head.
Some players have strong preferences for the key in which a tune is taught or played. For example, Cripple Creek is most often taught in A by old time fiddlers, but bluegrass banjo teachers want to teach it in G. Teachers must communicate respectfully and frequently to make sure that students can play together at the end of semester concert.
A survey of 65 JAM teachers over 2 1/2 years indicated that the most commonly taught tunes for beginners included:
D – Angeline the Baker
My Home’s Across the Blue Ridge Mountains
Fly Around My Pretty Little Miss
Will the Circle Be Unbroken
G – Cripple Creek
Pig in a Pen
Turkey in the Straw
A – Boil dem Cabbage Down
Little Liza Jane
Old Joe Clark
Skip to My Lou
Within each class (both Level 1 and 2) teachers may teach different but complimentary versions of tunes. More advanced students will learn a more embellished version of a tune to which a beginner may play the basic ‘bones’. In playing rhythm (guitar, mandolin, banjo, bass), students of varying accomplishment can play a single chord (at the right time), change chords or add bass runs. Once their rhythm playing ability is sufficient, students learn to pick “leads”.
A good list of 2 chord songs/tunes is included in the JAM Teacher Resource Guide. Once a student can change between 2 chords in good rhythm, many teachers give them several other songs/ tunes to practice using the same changes – before moving on to new chord shapes. Not only does this cement the fluency in the two chords, it boosts student confidence and demonstrates the practicality of what they are learning. It also keeps more advanced students engaged while the slower learners get more time working with the chords. Covering a song currently popular on the radio (from any musical genre) is fun and shows them that skills are transferrable to any kind of music.
Regardless of who tunes the instruments, JAM, Inc feels that it is important that students be in good tune during their instructional time. Not only does this make it possible for students to hear when they are playing correctly together in class, it helps them develop a good sense of pitch that is required before they can tune their own instrument. Teachers need to decide how they handle this. As students arrive, the teacher can simply tune each instrument. Many teachers include tuning in basic class routines. Even just 10 minutes of structured listening and tuning can move students quickly along to independence in this arena.
Have students settle quickly into their seats – the incentive can be they get to name a string, get it in tune and then model it for other students in the same order in which they were ‘ready’ for class to begin. Play a string from an in-tune instrument and then have the student play the string on their instrument. The class listens and decides if the student is ‘sharp’ or ‘flat’ and either the teacher or student makes the needed adjustment. This procedure is followed (quickly) as students around the circle play the same string and the class passes judgement and corrections are made. Only 10 minutes should be reserved for this (teacher or competent student/peer helper will need to make some quick tuning adjustments to keep things moving) so that the class does not get bogged down. By the fourth or fifth week, students will begin to be able to tune independently. Tuning should be checked collectively at the start of every class.
Some programs have instituted a ‘tuning party’ as a fun and efficient way to introduce students to lots of area musicians (and vice versa) and give students a jump start on learning to tune their instrument. The goal is to have one volunteer per two students to teach them how to tune their instrument with and/or without a tuner. On the day of the tuning party, the instructor of each instrument meets with their class and volunteers (who they have helped recruit) and demonstrates tuning. The teacher points out tricks to remember the intervals and names of strings. (A sample script for a teacher is included in the Teacher Resource Guide) The group then breaks into pairs or threes to practice the skills. Ideally there are enough volunteers that the teacher can be a roving consultant within the room. Volunteers should be encouraged to come early to help change strings on needy instruments. (This very time consuming job needs to be done annually and the day there are lots of volunteers at hand is a great day to tend to this.)
At a predetermined time, everyone puts up instruments and meets in a central area for pizza and (perhaps) some impromptu music of both students and visiting guests.
Overall Teaching Strategies
In the fall of 2004 with the financial help of the National Endowment for the Arts, we offered our first ‘teacher sharing’ event for traditional musicians. We brought together about 30 teachers of traditional music to share teaching strategies they had developed in their years of teaching experience. In preparation for the workshop we mailed out a survey to a larger cross section of traditional players/teachers to glean their insights on teaching traditional music. A summary of these general ‘best teaching practices’ from both our survey and workshop follows:
- HAVE FUN!
- Model Repetition, Patience and Persistence
- Start with simple, familiar tunes (“Twinkle, Twinkle Little Star”, “Happy Birthday”) so that students realize they can put into music what’s in their heads
- Demonstrate how scales show up in tunes (“Three Blind Mice”)
- Sing the tunes together to get the melodies into the student’s heads. If you can’t find the words, have students make some up! (see www.regionaljam.org under Instruction/Tunes-Lyrics for numerous websites which provide lyrics to traditional tunes and songs)
- Sing tunes with chord changes or finger and string (oral tablature) while students play
- Build in some class rituals…take breaks with rhythm games or ‘joke of the week’
- Persistence, Patience and Repetition
- Ask beginners questions…”what seems easiest, hardest?” They will tell you what they need help with.
- Pick representative of group (a “brave volunteer”)—someone struggling with basics—to model for class as they figure things out.
- Empower students by getting self out of ‘expert’ role. Make up stories if need be. “ I had a student once who had this same problem. They figured out that if they did…”
- Model Patience, Repetition and Persistence
- In teaching, model how you learn now and what strategies helped you as a beginner.
- Within a class, offer opportunities for whole group play, cooperative groupings to work on trouble spots and individual performance.
- Encourage mastery by whole group at slow steady tempos before raising group playing speed. Introduce metronome as the world’s best individual back up band!
- Allow more advanced students opportunities to perform at their level.
- Be aware of different learning styles. Some students must hear tune as they play, some must watch it played and some must see shape or design of notes or tablature.
- Remember, music is big. Help students appreciate none of us get it all.
- Provide incentives to reward success
- Be aware of body mechanics and posture so that students do not develop habits which will cause problems later.
- Listen to recordings (or have guests!) to demonstrate techniques and styles
- Encourage playing musically—for the music, not showing off for applause
- Model Repetition, Persistence and Patience
- HAVE FUN!