For a number of years, I taught group guitar lessons at a seniors’ centre in Burlington, where I live. Each session—they typically ran 10 weeks—there would be between 20 and 30 people around the circle.
If you asked why they signed up, they’d say “I’ve always wanted to play guitar,” though pretty quickly I learned that that wasn’t the case. They’ve never wanted to play scales, or memorize the lines and spaces of a staff. They’ve never yearned to find the relative minor of a major chord. For them, that’s not what playing the guitar meant. In their minds, playing guitar meant someone—maybe on a stage, maybe next to a campfire—singing a song. And that’s what they wanted. They didn’t want to play the guitar. They wanted to sing a song.
Given this, my lessons pretty quickly didn’t look like what most guitar lessons look like. I’d start with “hold it this way” and then “put this finger here, and this one here.” I didn’t name the strings or the notes. “Hold the pick like this, and do this. Now do it ten times. Now just keep doing that.” My intention wasn’t mastery, but rather to find the shortest, quickest path to singing a song.
There are one-chord songs—“Frere Jacques,” “Make New Friends,” “Row, Row, Row Your Boat”—so we’d learn one of those. I’d sing it, we’d sing it together. I would have the brave among them sing solos, or I’d sing harmony to their lead. I’d ask people to perform duets and trios. I’d introduce them as performers. “Here, from just down the street, for one night only, let’s give a warm welcome to Ethel and Dave!”
And, unlike when I was teaching in a more traditional way, they came back the second week, and the third. I’d still have 20 or 30 at the end of the session. It got harder, and in time we did learn the names of chords, and identify chord families, and strumming patterns. Some learned leads. But through it all, we sang some songs.
I was thinking about this recently when a friend was mulling over some options about developing a cottage lot she’s owned for a number of years. The simplest would be to put in the septic and electrical and move in a trailer. (She was clear that this would only be temporary. Just for this summer. Just to see.) Another option was to build a cottage proper. A third option would be to sell the lot and find one on the waterfront and build there. I said, for me, the best path is the shortest one.
It’s not about owning a cottage. When she thinks “cottage” she doesn’t imagine hiring contractors, choosing materials, or reviewing plans. She thinks about her daughter who just turned 10, and who will only be 10 this year. She sees them together by a fire, at the beach. Doing a crossword in bed on a rainy day. That’s the song she wants to sing. The shortest path is to bang in the sceptic, the electric, and get a trailer out there.
There are many things in life like that. An academic counsellor I know, David Hanna at the York School in Toronto, doesn’t ask his students what they want to be, but rather what problems they want to solve. At the end of the day, it’s not about the job, or the cottage; the sport or the school. It’s not about the guitar. As a sometime guitar teacher, if I have any advice at all, it’s this: don’t play the guitar. Sing a song.