Beware the Song Machine

Along with learning things in the same spirit in which they were created, I believe in teaching things the way I learned them (while of course allowing for different learning styles). When working in pop music (i.e., anything that is not classical or jazz), this has some counter-intuitive implications.

Most guitar teachers (and those piano teachers who teach in pop/rock styles) learn the drill pretty quickly: student wants to learn Song X, teacher transcribes Song X after having spent a few minutes working it out by ear. Student goes home, dabbles with Song X, brings in Song Y, and the cycle continues.

Some teachers are especially enthusiastic about creating professional transcriptions for their students. They spend their own time outside of the lesson working out every detail of the recording.

This works - to a point. The student is learning songs. However, the teacher is actually the one learning the instrument. How's that for counter-intuitive?

Randy Pausch, in The Last Lecture, talks about the "head fake," in which students think they are learning one thing but are actually gaining something deeper. In this case, the teacher has set up his own head fake. He thinks he is teaching the student, but in reality, through the process of working out a song by ear, assimilating it, transcribing it, and then teaching it, the teacher is the one who gets the benefit. The student just gets the by-product!

Through the process of working out song after song, the teacher's musical ear gets ever sharper, his transcription skills get quicker, and his facility on the instrument increases. This, my friends, is how you actually learn how to play an instrument: by teaching yourself songs. That's how the teachers themselves learned (and continue to hone their abilities).

Yet, instead of teaching the student how to figure out songs, the teacher functions as the student's Song Machine: bring in a recording and the Song Machine will spit out a transcription, teaching the student nothing but the superficial details of how to play the song. This is the opposite of teaching something the way you learned it.

This whole idea dawned on me when I started getting annoyed at a couple of students who were bringing in songs each week, but never following through by learning them well. I felt taken for granted because they weren't even mastering the songs I was giving them. "I ain't yer Song Machine," I grumbled to myself. "I never had anyone to work out songs for me."

Hey! Wait! That was not a grievance: that was my secret weapon. I'd always been my own Song Machine. And after many years of playing and teaching, it's become a well-oiled machine.

At first, a student doesn't have the skills to work out a song by ear, so we usually start with a few simple songs. But right from the beginning, I'm going to show how those songs were built. As I model the protocol for figuring out a song, I will also explain what I'm doing and why, and get the student doing the heavy lifting as soon as possible. Teach a musician to fish, if you will. 

I hate just being the Song Machine for my students. There's no depth to it. The student gets the song, but the Song Machine gets to keep all the quarters.