July 1, 2010

Tim's Camp Rock!

At Theatre E3 this year, I've been working with one of my classes on rock and roll, and how to play instruments in a band. I've been wanting to do this for a long time now but could never quite figure out how to do it. I think I've figured out some sort of system now.

All of the kids love the idea of making rock bands, but most lack the actual skills necessary to put the components together. I had to have some way to simplify the entire process so that I could teach a basic skillset across the whole board. Here's what I came up with:

First off, I chose six different songs that they could pick from. The songs all shared the same chord progression, using I, IV, and V chords and nothing else. The songs were:

"Hound Dog" by Elvis Presley
"Blue Suede Shoes" by Elvis Presley
"All Shook Up" by Elvis Presley
"Good Golly Miss Molly" by Little Richard
"Tutti Frutti" by Little Richard
"Johnny B. Goode" by Chuck Berry

In addition to using only I, IV, and V chords, these songs (with the exception of "All Shook Up") use a blues progression as their primary harmonic progression. I transposed all of the songs to the key of G Major so that the only chords they had to learn were G, C, and D.

I took the opportunity to teach the class about chord charts and how to read tablature. Kids who had some preexisting guitar experience were able to pick up the three chords easily, and others set about diligently learning them. For kids who just could not move between the chords fast enough, I taught them the three bass notes necessary to play the chords and basic bass-guitar technique. Because I only have one bass guitar, some of the electric guitarists also picked these three notes.

The kids who have basic experience playing piano naturally gravitated towards it. For kids who have trouble inverting their chords, they move them around the keyboard in root position. For others, I taught the nearest inversions to use and they were allowed to choose whether to use left hand, right hand, or both.

For drums, a student loaned his snare drum, and I brought in a plastic bucket to act as a bass drum. Drummers are expected to play the snare drum on off-beats (beats 2 and 4). To help facilitate this, the kids can use one hand on the "bass drum" and one on the snare, alternating between the two. Because many people have an easier time finding the strong beats (1 and 3), this gives them something to do on every beat and keeps the tempo steady.

From my time at Birch Creek Music Camp in Wisconsin, and from my friends' Tartufi's Saturday Morning Rock Out!, I took the idea of having the kids play along with adults in order to learn from imitation and have the support of stronger musicians. I play along with the kids, filling in on instruments that need someone, or else playing piano with whoever is at the keyboard. One of the interns at the camp (Caleb), will be playing drums in the performance, and I'll have an adult guitarist as well.

The kids all learn at different rates, and some will not be ready in time. I expected this, but am really surprised by how many of them have picked up the instruments quickly, and look forward to coming in and playing. Some have gravitated to specific instruments, with many of the girls enjoying the power of the bass guitar and one particular girl sitting in on others' sessions in order to play drums when they need someone to pound the skins.

Overall, what I feel they've gained is a sense of empowerment and a greater ability to work in an ensemble. Looking at the pictures after today's classes I noticed their extreme concentration on the task at hand. Most of all they're having fun, and it makes me wish I had the equipment to let them all work the entire day. As it is, I have to cycle through each group and groups get no longer than ten minutes on the equipment. Over the course of the week though, each group gets about a half hour of time with me and during the off time they can review lyrics, song form, and performance ideas.

Now I can't wait to hear from the parents who are getting badgered by kids to buy them instruments.

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