JAM Teaching Philosophy

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.

Music Theory

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.

Tune Selection

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
Johnson Boys
Fly Around My  Pretty Little Miss
Amazing Grace
Will the Circle  Be Unbroken

G – Cripple Creek
John Henry
Sourwood  Mountain
Pig in a Pen
Turkey in the  Straw
Buffalo Gals

A – Boil dem  Cabbage Down
Little Liza  Jane
Cripple Creek
Shortenin’  Bread
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.

Tuning Party

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:

  1. HAVE FUN!
  2. Model Repetition, Patience and Persistence
  3. 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
  4. Demonstrate how scales show up in tunes (“Three Blind Mice”)
  5. 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)
  6. Sing  tunes with chord changes or finger and string (oral tablature) while students play
  7. Build in some class rituals…take breaks with rhythm games or ‘joke of the week’
  8. Persistence, Patience and Repetition
  9. Ask beginners questions…”what seems easiest, hardest?” They will tell you what they need help with.
  10. Pick  representative of group (a “brave volunteer”)—someone struggling with basics—to model for class as they figure things out.
  11. 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…”
  12. Model Patience, Repetition and Persistence
  13. In  teaching, model how you learn now and what strategies helped you as a beginner.
  14. Within  a class, offer opportunities for whole group play, cooperative groupings to work on trouble spots and individual performance.
  15. 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!
  16. Allow  more advanced students opportunities to perform at their level.
  17. 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.
  18. Remember,  music is big.  Help students  appreciate none of us get it all.
  19. Provide  incentives to reward success
  20. Be  aware of body mechanics and posture so that students do not develop habits  which will cause problems later.
  21. Listen  to recordings (or have guests!) to demonstrate techniques and styles
  22. Encourage playing musically—for the music, not showing off for applause
  23. Model  Repetition, Persistence and Patience
  24. HAVE  FUN!