Performing Music in the Classroom, Standard 2

In a section of the article "What Are We Doing in Music? Toward a Lifelong Involvement with Music," Suzanne M. Shull suggests standard correlations and the benefits of teaching the guitar and keyboard in the classroom.


National Content Standard 2


Performing on instruments, alone and with others, a varied repertoire of music.

Opportunities to use instruments in general music classes and vocal ensembles are numerous. A focus on two instruments that work very well, given the nature of today's classroom is helpful. The acoustic guitar and electric keyboard synthesizer are two of the most accessible and inexpensive instruments available for teaching. With the right materials they can be taught in large- or small-group settings, or used in learning centers. They may be used to enhance the study of a particular musical concept, or played for the sheer joy of an encounter with favorite music.

Classroom Guitar


Music educators have long been aware of the value and appeal of the acoustic guitar as a classroom instrument, and the number of teachers offering guitar courses or teaching guitar in eclectic music classes continues to grow. The acoustic guitar may very well be the most versatile, accessible, and popular of all musical instruments. It is compact and can travel easily in the family car or the school bus, needs no electricity, and can be used to play many styles of music. It can also be played in solitude at home, with a garage band, on a camping trip, or in a classroom with 35 other players. At all ability levels the guitar can be used as a harmonic or melodic instrument to improvise, compose, accompany, and arrange. Granted, good modeling is always beneficial, but even a teacher with limited skill can be effective, especially since an ever-expanding repertoire of methods and materials is available to aid in the teaching of any style of playing.

What is it about the guitar that makes it such a popular instrument? Obviously its use in popular music is attention-getting, but there seems to be something more that makes it so alluring. The way a guitar is held and the way it produces vibrations make it almost a living object – a personal friend – according to Adrian Legg, English guitarist and recording artist.¹ The social value is also an important aspect in secondary school. Most guitar repertoire can be played in ensembles, and students share songs they've learned from friends, private teachers, or over the Internet. They create melodies and harmonies for original lyrics. Peer teaching can run rampant in a guitar class!

Meanwhile, students are acquiring some of the skills recommended by the Standards. Specifically, students can sing while they play, or they can accompany singing. The guitar lends itself naturally to improvisation, which, in turn, can lead to composition as the next step in the creative process. Also, listening to harmonies and recreating them on guitar teaches arranging and playing by ear while the students gain insight on harmonic structure. Peer performances provide students with opportunities to evaluate their own playing and that of their peers, creating forums and positive possibilities for musical growth.

Interestingly, note reading is the best equalizer in a multilevel guitar class with students ranging from beginners to garage band players. Beginning students find single-note melodies physically easier to play than chords, and the garage band players have to slow down to think about the challenge of reading music. By suggesting that music reading is a skill that often separates the studio artist from the garage band musician, the teacher can present the idea that being able to read music will enhance a student's entire experience with music.

Classroom Keyboard


Technological developments in the manufacture of musical instruments have greatly enhanced keyboard teaching in lab situations. While these systems can be expensive, teachers trained to use them correctly praise their creative uses and the speed with which students learn. On the other end of the scale, inexpensive individual electronic synthesizers that can withstand continuous classroom use are also available. On these, students can use preset rhythms and sounds to help develop rhythmic accuracy, add interesting harmonies, and learn about timbre and different styles of music. They can learn to play simple melodies immediately, and, as with teaching singing and guitar, this is an excellent opportunity to have students incorporate their favorite tunes from the pop charts into the repertoire. In situations where instruction time is limited, learning to read notes may be too time-consuming, produce too little music that is satisfying to the learner, and create massive frustration. In these cases, try teaching simple melodies using letter names of the notes and basic chords.² These are skills that are fundamental to learning how to play by ear, an activity that a living room musician can enjoy for a lifetime.

Playing by ear appears only at the middle school level of the Standards, although the "outline of sequential learning" in the Standards documents indicates that students at the high school level are expected to demonstrate this skill at a higher level. This is a skill that most amateur musicians acquire without (or in spite of) the aid of formal education on an instrument. Guitar players begin early trying to figure out chord progressions, bass lines, and lead solos performed by their favorite artists. Keyboard players enjoy picking out tunes and finding chords to match. Formal instruction has often ignored this as a desirable skill, requiring students instead to respond as quickly as possible to notes on a page. Yet playing by ear may be one of the most valuable skills a music student can learn.

Teaching students to play by ear involves instruction in the fundamental components of the music. It means showing them that melodies are derived from scales and that harmonies can be built on the same scale degrees.

For students who are shy or insecure about their musical ability, the use of headsets with electronic keyboards can provide a safety zone, enabling them to practice privately until they are ready to play with others. It is gratifying for a teacher to watch young musicians start out timidly and then blossom with confidence as they share with peers something they've learned. Like guitar, keyboards offer peer teaching opportunities and can be played easily by two people sharing one instrument. The marriage of guitar and keyboard activities further extends the opportunity for students to play together.

¹Adrian Legg records for the label Red House Records. His innovative approach to playing has made him a favorite among acoustic guitar fans.
²A student from Holcomb Bridge Middle School in Atlanta was offered a job playing piano in a mall music store during the holiday season. When she drew a crowd by playing "Chariots of Fire," she had to explain to her audience that she had been taking keyboard for only three weeks and it was the only song she knew. She went on to use her keyboard skills to help with choral sightsinging, arrange Christmas carols, and play by ear.

Excerpted from Performing with Understanding: The Challenge of the National Standards for Music Education.

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Provided in partnership with NAfME


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