By Jason Yeary
Teaching kids to play guitar is a powerful means of promoting life-long learning in music. Playing the guitar provides students with a fun, engaging way of developing both melodic and chordal accompaniment skills.
I’d like to discuss the chordal side of guitar playing. Traditionally, elementary music teachers have been limited in how they teach chordal accompaniment to only using mallet instruments (i.e. Orff ensemble instruments: xylophones, metallophones, and glockenspiel), but using guitar gives these teachers an additional approach for chordal instruction. I can imagine an inexperienced guitarist saying, “But playing chords on guitar is so hard!” Undoubtedly, memorizing and applying a variety of chords on guitar has its challenges, but alternative approaches to instruction can make it much easier and more enjoyable! As all teachers know, giving students tasks in which they can easily be successful promotes future success.
Introducing Moveable Shapes
I’d like to introduce a fun, innovative approach to teaching guitar chords from Sound Innovations for Elementary Class Guitar: moveable shapes. After students learn basic, open-position chords, they can move these finger shapes around the fingerboard to create new and wonderful sounds. Let’s look at an example: moving the E major chord. Before this moving approach can be applied, students must be able to play an open-position E major chord with confidence, sounding all notes clearly. Next, demonstrate how to move the chord shape to other fret positions on the fingerboard using the same string set (see excerpt below). The excerpt shows how to use the E chord shape and move it to play a version of A and B major chords. Although the chords that can be created using this method do not strictly adhere to the rules of traditional Western harmony, it produces some beautiful and interesting sounds. Allow students individual practice time for switching between the E, A, and B chords. Wow—now your students can play I, IV, and V chords in the key of E major! Guide students to performing a chordal accompaniment for a folk song with I, IV, and V chords. Finally, encourage students to sing while they perform the guitar chords.
Composing with Moveable Chords
Now let’s talk about composing with the moveable E major chord shape. The oversimplified process of composition that I use in my classroom is explore, decide, and practice. Students experiment with new musical ideas and then decide what they like. The “decide” step usually takes the most time as it may include editing, notating, and writing lyrics. Lastly, they’ll practice their composition to prepare for performance. First, allow your students ample time to experiment with moving the E major chord shape. Encourage them to find other spots on the fingerboard where this shape produces desirable sounds. Then guide students to create an order for their new chord progression. Help students to write down their chord progression in the most pragmatic way. It could be labeling the chords with traditional letters (A chord, for example) or by simply using fret numbers (fret 7, for example). Students do not necessarily need to know that using the E major shape with the index finger on fret 9 creates a C major 7 over E chord. Of course, trained musicians appreciate the importance of understanding and applying music theory, but such is not the case for young children to create meaningful compositions. Allow students plenty of time to practice and perfect their composition before performing. Lastly, there are many instructional sub-topics that could be addressed during this lesson like formal structure and writing lyrics. Feel free to put kids in small groups to create a composition. Whatever you do, have fun with it! Creating can be a meaningful, transcendental experience for kids that develops confidence, joyousness, and a love of music. If you’re looking for improvisational and compositional strategies for guitar instruction in the classroom, Sound Innovations for Elementary Class Guitar is for you!
Guitarist, clinician, and teacher Jason Yeary holds undergraduate (B.M.) and graduate (M.A.) degrees from Middle Tennessee State University, achieving an Outstanding Achievement Award from the MTSU School of Music. He has also completed additional graduate work at Eastern Kentucky University and undergone training in the Orff Schülwerk. Yeary has performed across the United States as a guitarist in jazz, country, and rock groups and performed on numerous recordings. He has served as a clinician for universities and school districts in Tennessee and Kentucky. A former elementary music teacher in Nashville, TN, Yeary currently teaches elementary music in Lexington, KY.