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Adventures in Pedagogy.

At the age of 12 and after several failed attempts at learning various musical instruments in school, my parents turned to me and said, “Look, you are not into sport - you need a hobby. Choose a musical instrument and stick with it for 5 years… any instrument you like. After 5 years, if you give it up, then so be it.” “Ok, Drums!” I said, “No!” they said. And so guitar became my instrument of choice from that point on. Within a year, I was in my first band playing bass and by the time I was 15 I had started teaching a few students, who were mostly friends, or friends of friends. I hadn’t considered teaching as being anything other than a way to earn a little extra money each week. I was still waiting at this time for when EMI or Sony phoned up, to sign the band, to tour the world. At 16, I went to study music at college, and this is where that changed. Sometime during my 2nd year at college, I had a conversation with one of the senior lecturers about taking over the running of an Adult Education guitar course, and that was a pretty big thing to be entrusted with, as 17 year old. Of course, I didn’t quite realise at the time, that part of the reason I was being entrusted with this was because the course happened to be at 10am on a Saturday morning, and none of the adult lecturers fancied getting up at that time on a weekend. But, it was this Saturday morning course, teaching a group of 6 - 10 adults, where I got the bug for pedagogy.

Pedagogy [ped-uh-goh-jee] noun

  1. the function or work of a teacher.

  2. the art or science of teaching.

I became really interested in seeing how different people learn different things, fascinated by how one person can nail strumming and rhythms but be seemingly incapable of mastering single note playing, or understanding scales. Then, at the same time, another person, starting from near enough exactly the same starting point, will be playing lead parts within a couple of months but continually struggling to play the simplest of chord changes. The big lesson I learnt from this, is that we are all the same, in that we are all different. There is no ‘right’ way to learn an instrument, only the right way for you to learn an instrument. This basic principle has been an underlying influence in my teaching to date. With this new found enthusiasm for helping people cultivate their skills, I went on to teach a second Adult Education class, then a third. I left college, started teaching peripatetically in schools and my private teaching was increasing throughout. All the while, playing in bands across the south coast of England. At one time, there were a few people I knew who would refer to me as being the hardest working musician in the county, a title I don’t particularly believe was true but looking back at it, I was playing in 6 different bands and keeping a fairly full time teaching schedule, so it may not have been totally undeserved. I was still of the opinion though, that I would give up teaching at a moments notice, when that call comes in from EMI to sign one of the bands I was in and the obvious ensuing world domination takes place, I would be out of there. A conversation I had with a sound engineer whilst recording an album for one of those bands, led to him commenting that the other guitarist in the band would ‘make it’ but I was more suited to being a teacher. Those were not his exact words but they are what I saw as the underlying sentiment of what he was saying. For years I held on to that, thinking to myself “I’ll prove him wrong, one of these days”. What I didn’t realise, until I was approaching my 30’s, was that he was, in fact, paying me a compliment. Teaching is a skill in itself, you can be the best piano player on the planet, but that doesn’t equate to you being able to impart that knowledge to someone else.

With my experience growing I was starting to find an ethos in teaching. There are many different styles in teaching, and one thing I have learnt is that some students work better with some styles than others. Some students need a rigid progression route that maps out each step on the way, this is where grade exams can be very useful, but other students find the pressure of needing to achieve a set level of ability before being allowed to continue on to the next stage a burden and ultimately damages their enjoyment of learning an instrument. If you do not enjoy learning an instrument, then you are not going to be motivated to practice, which in turn means you are unlikely to progress very far. Occasionally a teacher and a student will find it hard to work together, either due to a clash of personalities or a clash of ego. I can thankfully say, with a quiet confidence, that there have only been a couple of times in my career where this has been the case between myself and a student. These cases may have been, from my point of view at the time, because the student had unrealistic expectations of what it was they were hoping to achieve, or maybe the student had already decided how they were going to learn something, making the presence of a teacher somewhat obsolete. But equally, it may well have been my failing as a teacher at the time, to not properly understand what style of teaching they needed, to allow them to progress to their full potential. I could have been firmer, or more relaxed about it, sometimes you have to let students make the mistake before being able to teach them what the mistake was. What I have learnt, for certain, is that it is vital to understand what the student really wants to get out of learning an instrument. Throughout my time as a teacher, and the many conversations I have had with students, I think that the majority of people who decide to learn an instrument are looking for some sort of escapism. They may tell themselves that they want to get to a certain technical level or have ideas about playing in a band, they might have aspirations to play in front of people or to sing songs around the campfire, all of which are certainly achievable to any student, but the underlying root of it all is that they want a distraction from daily life, a time to be themselves, and I would guess you could say that is the same for any non-academic pursuit, be it crafting, sport, exercise or music. Many students, particularly adult students, put far too much pressure on themselves to reach a certain goal within a certain timeframe, when the point of learning an instrument is essentially to enjoy it. I am no psychologist, nor am I a therapist, but what I see in my own connection to music, as well as that of my students over the years, is that a happy musician is one who accepts where they are at, revels in the idea that there is more to learn and allows themselves to just make noise once in a while. What I do know is that if your reason for wanting to learn an instrument is to make money, or attract the opposite sex, then you are heading in entirely the wrong direction. It is also important to realise that there is no definable or technical level that you can achieve, which will take you to a point that you are able to declare you have ‘learnt’ the instrument. In music, there is always more to learn, and an important part of learning an instrument of any kind, is to enjoy that learning experience and the journey it takes you on. For many years I spent my time teaching students how to play the ‘greatest hits’ of guitar, with them wanting to be able to play like Clapton or Hendrix or bash out Greenday covers, which I am still more than happy to do now, as I myself spent a lot of my teenage years learning as much of Hendrix’s back catalogue as possible and attempting to get as ‘note perfect’ as humanly possible. Even to the extent that the first ‘proper’ electric guitar I bought was a black and white USA Fender Stratocaster, with a maple neck that I had the shop owner take off of another guitar just so that it was exactly like Hendrix’s. But both this time as a teenage obsessive and my teaching experience later in life, taught me that no matter who you are, or how much practice you put in, you will never be able to play like Jimi Hendrix! This is not because Hendrix was some sort of superhuman alien with powers beyond our mortal reach, but because he was James Marshall Hendrix, just as you are you, and I am me. His sound and the way that he played was a combination of so many factors and influences that it would be impossible to recreate it. So the question is: ‘Why try?’. My teaching style evolved from slavishly trying to get my students to recreate what has gone before to encouraging their own creativity in music. It is in improvisation, composition and songwriting where the true satisfaction of music comes. That is not to say that it is not worth learning the songs and guitar solos from the all-time greats, but just remember why you are learning them. They are giving you a vocabulary from which you can create your own voice.

So around 2005 I joined a new band, whimsically named ‘Lady Winwoods Maggot’, and left behind many other projects that I had been involved in, this involved moving to the other side of the county, and with that came the opportunity to work at the Coda music trust music school in the New Forest, Hampshire. A music school that I am still very much involved with today. A whole host of new students from young to old came through the door, each with their own experiences and desires to cultivate. As well as guitar and bass guitar I had also now been playing mandolin for a good few years and took up banjo (look out for a future blog post on my thoughts around multi-instrumentalism). It was not long before I was gaining students in both of these instruments and my interest in folk music that had started in college was growing. There is a vast repertoire of traditional folk music in the world and particularly for me from the British Isles. These songs and tunes were written long before we had recording facilities, so no-one is entirely sure exactly how they are supposed to sound. This gave me a unique opportunity to combine some of my favourite interests: music, stories and history. Had it not been for the guitar, I firmly believe my future would have led into archeology, if I wasn’t playing guitar as a teenager I was probably watching Time Team. There is a common misconception that guitarists and rock musicians in general are ‘cool’, whatever that means, the truth is, nearly all of us are nerds at heart. Several years ensued of learning folk tunes, discovering the stories behind songs, teaching at the school and playing 2 or 3 gigs each weekend with the Maggots. The next big evolution in my teaching career happened in 2009, this is where a conversation with the newly appointed CEO of the music school led us to creating what would become The Folk Orc. The idea being to gently re-imagine some of the traditional material that I had been learning for my own amusement, into arrangements that were accessible to a wide range of musicians. Simple enough for beginners to be able to learn but with enough space within them to allow more advanced players to explore their creativity and dig into more challenging parts. A little over 10 years on and The Folk Orc is still one of the most rewarding parts of my teaching calendar, and those 10 years are a story in themself.

And that is me and my adventures in pedagogy so far, 20+ years, 100’s of students that have each taught me something, as much as I have taught them anything. Notable exclusions from this memoir are the time I have spent working with people with disabilities, the more in depth story of The Folk Orc and the discovery of ‘Adult Learner Syndrome’. Each of which will have to wait for future posts. So here I am, confidently saying, that when EMI phones me up next week to offer me that record deal and world tour, I would have to think twice before I gave up my life in pedagogy. Thanks for reading this until the end, I hope you have enjoyed it. If you are interested in reading more, or in having lessons with me, then do check out my website. All the best, Chris Hopgood


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