Feb 02

Let’s play some Blues

In a repressed society, artists fulfil a sense of harking back to instant gratification, or immediate expression, by doing things that function on the edge of society, or outside of what is conventionally accepted.
―Bat for Lashes
Instant gratification is like instant coffee, only it won’t keep you up all night.
―Jarod Kintz

The importance of instant gratification must never be underestimated, even as we shun the pitfalls. As a guitar student, I know I “both impressed and vexed” my teacher by practicing, and to a fair degree learning material he thought a year or more down the road, instead of what he assigned me (he told me so in so many words). As a guitar teacher in a music store there was also an economically practical reason to get kids “playing something” as quickly as possible, namely to keep them coming back every week, and their parents smiling. This week’s ukulele lesson will apply some of the approaches I came up with way back then, while hitting today’s (Ontario, Canada’s) curriculum expectations for the age group. 

Today they’ll hear some Blues, play some Blues and with any luck begin to feel their own Blues… in 12 bar cycles of 4/4 time! 

Musical content

I’ll use technology—the ‘TuxUkulele’ track introduced last lesson [video]— to walk them through counting and time signature. They’re already good at the counting part and today I’ll teach a 4/4 conducting pattern, showing patterns of other time signatures in the process. 

Image, conducting patternImage, conducting patternImage, conducting pattern

Conducting Patterns
3:4     4:4     6:8

We don’t have computers with our ukes at present, and I won’t subject them to a lecture with a software demo. I’ll always start with a hello and a review and teaser, but then we’ll get the instruments out and begin strumming and playing notes. 

I’m walking back one step from last week. My goal for today is to do a blues “vamp” on the Bb chord, and a “lick” (also “riff” and yes, “motif”) with a triplet feel over top of it.

With ukes in hand…

  1. [TuxGuitar (*.tg) file] Teach vamp… with and without “swing feel”
    image, notation and tab for lessonimage, notation and tab for lesson
  2. Teach lick… Swing feel makes no difference. Why? Bends and slides cool, ambiguous major/minor 3rd
    image, notation and tab for lessonimage, notation and tab for lesson
  3. [TuxGuitar (*.tg) file] Teach scale and fingering…
    Hand position… keep thumb behind, hand cupped; hammer on
    “Blues Major” and “Pentatonic Major” are different… how?

    image, notation and tab for lesson
    Fingering

    image, notation and tab for lesson

  4. [TuxGuitar (*.tg) file] Teach scale and fingering…
    Hand position… keep thumb behind, hand cupped, pinky hovers over frets
    “Blues Minor” and “Pentatonic Minor” are different… how?

    image, notation and tab for lesson
    Fingering

    image, notation and tab for lesson

Those are nearby, convenient Bb major and minor pentatonic scale patterns that form a perfect segue into ‘TuxUkulele.’

On the SMART board

(keep this short, unless everyone has a computer with TuxGuitar on it)

  1. Launch TuxGuitar, then open ukelele template
  2. Add swing; tempo <= 60; key Bb 
    • Opportunity to show conducting pattern  
  3. Show scale; play 1st position pattern (2 notes/string) for and with the learners 
  4. Show notes;
  5. Show chord symbols;
    • Opportunity to use conducting pattern  
  6. Repeat for lick (if time and engagement allow)

Back in the real world

  1. turn off software (or use purely as metronome)
  2. listening time
    • Robert Johnson Crossroad Blues [Show lyrics]
    • Charlie Patton 34 Blues [Show lyrics]
    • Howlin’ Wolf Killing Floor [Show lyrics] Is this still “swing feel?” (“straight 8ths”)
  3. Identify lyric pattern, 2+1 form
  4. play, student conductors, etc.
  5. Easy Tux Blues, (using tritone relationship) [TuxGuitar (*.tg) file]

§

Resources

How to read music – Tim Hansen [TEDEd Lesson]

 

Jan 14

The Blues and human dignity

Dignity and respect. Self-esteem, “worthy” of being treated well, honoured for contributing fully. How can we convey those things? How can we teach them? Is there an opportunity here for a picture that’s worth a thousand words?

I’ll attempt to walk the class through a visual encounter with dignity, the role of the Blues before and after emancipation, the Robert Johnson “Crossroads” legend … and write some Blues. Musically, we’ll reinforce our counting, continue driving home the 12-bar form, figure out I-IV-V in additional keys. We’ll master some new chords—and write some Blues around the 2+1 structure of a traditional Blues lyric.
Photo, Dana Gluckstein. Indigenous DignityPhoto, Dana Gluckstein.Photo, Dana Gluckstein. Indigenous Dignity

I’ll ask what they already know about dignity, and whether the people in photos have it … how do they know?


Dignity
: Being treated with respect, regardless of the situation, and having a sense of self-esteem e.g., having a sense of self-worth; being accepted as one is, regardless of age, health status, etc.; being appreciated for life accomplishments; being respected for continuing role and contributions to family, friends, community and society; being treated as a worthy human being and a full member of society.
OHRC


The last image I’ll show is Robert Johnson. What’s he wearing, how’s he sitting, what’s he got to be so proud of? What if the suit, hat, guitar and a few more clothes—enough to fill one suitcase—are all he owns, and he carries it by bus and hitchhiking from town to town along dirt roads? 

We’ll stand and do some “dignity awareness studies.” We’ve already beat our chests with the swing video; this will be introduced in similar fashion. These can be posturing and funny at the start (it’s likely somewhat related to rock star posing) but I need to bring back seriousness and wrap it up … ultimately the point is to try to feel increased confidence and self worth associated with feeling dignity and recognizing that of others. 

But wait, there’s one more association to make. I’ll promise to tell them the Legend of the Crossroads after a movie clip. We’ll watch the first 3:20 of Does it Swing? An Introduction to Swing Jazz for Young People (Part 1), to where it talks about slavery and the blues. (I’ll stop it before Basin Street Blues which will watch if there’s time at the end, and learn next visit.) We’ll reflect on that briefly and then take out the ukuleles to learn some Robert Johnson tunes. 

Robert Johnson and the Crossroads Blues

The learners will…

  • Hear Cross Road Blues [or this one] and the Robert Johnson legend. [Here’s a movie trailer.]
    • Lyrics
    • Who’s Willie Brown?
      [Trigger alert: Willie was lynched by a white mob in the Omaha Race Riots of 1919.]
  • Learn the chords F Bb & C and joining Blues lick (these are the chords for Sweet Home Chicago and Ramblin’ On My Mind) and Eb (for Crossroad Blues and Come On in My Kitchen). 
    1. Come On in My Kitchen (Compare with Stones’ You Got To Move)
    2. Sweet Home Chicago
    3. Ramblin’ On My Mind
  • Identify the 2 + 1 pattern of Blues lyric.
  • Perform call and response style imitation and improvisation

§

Tux Guitar files/chord diagrams, lesson sundries. Bb Blues for ukulele

  • How to set up TuxGuitar as TuxUkulele
    360p Video  or   720p Video
  • Full chart [TuxGuitar] [PDF]
  • Just standard notation [PDF]
  • Just tab [PDF]

For more links and resources please see this concept map

Unit Concept Map

Ontario Curriculum connections, content, rationale, resources
Please see this concept map

Photos

DIGNITY for the Seventh Generation Coming

Dana Gluckstein, Photographer & Activist [Museum Collection]
See also: Archbishop Desmond Tutu on “Dignity”

Complete Recordings

Robert Johnson – The King of Delta Blues

  1. Kind Hearted Woman Blues
  2. I Believe I’ll Dust My Broom
  3. Sweet Home Chicago
  4. Ramblin’ On My Mind
  5. When You Got a Good Friend
  6. Come On in My Kitchen Compare: Stones’ You Gotta Move
  7. Terraplane Blues
  8. Phonograph Blues
  9. 32-20 Blues
  10. They’re Red Hot
  11. Dead Shrimp Blues
  12. Cross Road Blues
  13. Walkin’ Blues
  14. Last Fair Deal Gone Down
  15. Preachin’ Blues
  16. If I Had Possession Over Judgement Day
  17. Stones in My Passway
  18. I’m a Steady Rollin’ Man
  19. From Four Till Late
  20. Hellhound on My Trail
  21. Little Queen of Spades
  22. Malted Milk
  23. Drunken Hearted Man
  24. Me and the Devil Blues
  25. Stop Breakin’ Down Blues
  26. Traveling Riverside Blues
  27. Honeymoon Blues
  28. Love In Vain Blues
  29. Kind Hearted Woman Blues
  30. I Believe I’ll Dust My Broom
  31. Sweet Home Chicago
  32. Ramblin’ On My Mind
  33. When You Got a Good Friend
  34. Come On in My Kitchen Compare: Stones’ You Gotta Move
  35. Terraplane Blues
  36. Phonograph Blues
  37. 32-20 Blues
  38. They’re Red Hot
  39. Dead Shrimp Blues
  40. Cross Road Blues
  41. Walkin’ Blues
  42. Last Fair Deal Gone Down
  43. Preachin’ Blues
  44. If I Had Possession Over Judgement Day
  45. Stones in My Passway
  46. I’m a Steady Rollin’ Man
  47. From Four Till Late
  48. Hellhound on My Trail
  49. Little Queen of Spades
  50. Malted Milk
  51. Drunken Hearted Man
  52. Me and the Devil Blues
  53. Stop Breakin’ Down Blues
  54. Traveling Riverside Blues
  55. Honeymoon Blues
  56. Love In Vain Blues
  57. Milkcow’s Calf Blues
Nov 11

Music Unit—defining dignity, teaching empathy and the Blues

By the end of Grades 7 & 8, students will:

C1. Creating and Performing: apply the creative process (see pages 19–22) to create and perform music for a variety of purposes, using the elements and techniques of music;
C2. Reflecting, Responding, and Analysing: apply the critical analysis process (see pages 23–28) to communicate their feelings, ideas, and understandings in response to a variety of music and musical experiences;
C3. Exploring Forms and Cultural Contexts: demonstrate an understanding of a variety of musical genres and styles from the past and present, and their sociocultural and historical contexts.

In this unit students gain musical skills and language while learning to write and perform the Blues. It’s written by and for a guitarist with background in theory and performance, but in a way, I hope, that can be adopted by any instrumentalist, or even by the less musically inclined teacher with support from local musicians.

Musical outcomes:

  • Learners will encounter and engage with elements of music
    • duration, tempo markings
    • pitch
    • dynamics and other expressive controls
    • timbre
    • texture/harmony
    • form

The expectations encourage students to explore issues related to personal identity and community concerns as they interact with increasingly complex and/or challenging media; to critically analyse and evaluate perspectives in works of dance, drama, music, and visual art; to use inquiry and research skills to extend their interpretive and creative abilities; and to use the arts to explore and comment on topics of relevance that matter in their daily lives. Issues of social justice are often highly engaging for students at this age.

Exploration and communication of multiple perspectives and points of view should be emphasized. The arts curriculum for Grades 7 and 8 is designed to engage students in tasks that they see as meaningful and motivate them to learn about and create art works out of interest as well as to meet curriculum expectations. In addition to the materials provided for instruction, students should have access to a wide range of themes, materials, and activities that are relevant to their personal experiences and interests as creators, artists, and critically literate viewers.

— Ontario MoE (2009, pg 131)

Social justice outcomes:

  • Choose a topic based on a personal story involving fairness, equity and/or social justice
  • Write Blues lyrics
  • Compose and perform music in the Blues form

The introduction is based entirely on what I know. My own musical education was, for the most part, highly Eurocentric. Fortunately my musical upbringing was much less so. By the time I was 11 my parents had exposed me to music as diverse as Miriam Makeba, Ravi Shankar, Wendy Carlos’s Switched On Bach, and Charles Ives.

I take the learners through an admittedly superficial and brief history of the guitar and “standard” notation, what it might have been like to be a musician 400 years ago—Who did musicians work for? What kind of music did they write?—and I play some Western European music.

Cultural Relevance

To be culturally competent and relevant, based on the demographics of my design, I’ll include parallels to South Indian classical music, the Persian origin of the ‘tar’ in ‘guitar’ and influence of the instrument of the same name, the African roots and history of the Blues as a response of an oppressed people to slavery and subjugation.

I teach blues licks, and I teach that if you can say it, you can play it. This practice strategy has parallels in many African and Middle Eastern cultures and reaches the level of a science in South Indian (Carnatic) music’s solkattu and tala system. The Blues and Jazz contain many examples of “scat” singing, which I use in a couple ways to introduce and reinforce the practice.

Structure

Day 1

The unit starts with a small concert by me. I set up my nylon string and an electric, with my amp and array of effects pedals in plain view to arouse curiosity. One of my petals is a Roland loop station, which contains pre-recorded accompaniment I will use in my performance. I have a Smart board behind me and my laptop in reach for accompanying visuals. I’ll play short representative pieces from Baroque, Classical and contemporary periods. I’ll show slides of the music notation and the period and say something about each piece. The acoustic pieces—a chaconne, a minuet, some studies and a performance piece—are chosen to highlight a progression from a context of music purposed for religious services and dance, sponsored by the Church and aristocracy, to one of concerts and freelance performers expressing themselves and making statements.

I use Steve Howe’s Mood For a Day to segue into the modern era by asking the class to guess what century it’s from, and whether it’s another dance, study or a performance piece. The Roland Loop Station comes with pre-recorded demos that include a 12 bar blues. I’ll say a few words about the blues, its form, the blues scale and “licks” then jam to demo . I totally show off and shred some blues licks, but make a point of following the form and scale I described. 

I’ve customized the lesson by storing a backing track from a song I know for certain, having visited the classroom where I’ll be doing this, is something we all know — Under Pressure by Freddie Mercury and David Bowie. I prepared it using a MIDI file and a Roland Fantom-S keyboard too large to include in today’s setup.  It’s important not to run out of time before showing the ukulele blues video

The school has ukuleles. The goal of the first, introductory lesson is to situate the music they listen to in historical and cultural context and to inspire and motivate the class to want to learn to play Blues and compose some blues of their own. 

Day 2

Slavery, Dignity and The Blues: Use the Smart board and laptop to show some of Dana Gluckstein‘s photos showing the dignity of indigenous people, including Africans. Of each picture, ask the class if the subject has dignity, why do they think so, and what does dignity look like.

End this short segment by showing the picture of Robert Johnson. Remind the learners about the era and Jim Crow. Tell the Legend of the Crossroads. The purpose of this introduction is to plant seeds for the personal stories of fairness they’ll soon turn into Blues lyrics. 

Distribute pre-tuned ukuleles and demonstrate how to hold them. From this point on we begin to see wide differences in talent, experience and musical motivation emerge, which is a challenging piece of every group musical learning experience. Some kids can learn a I IV V pattern their first time with a ukulele, others may be struggling to curl their fingers and press a string behind a fret. 

With the 12 bar blues form displayed, I attempt to show the fingering for 3 chords and split the class into three groups, each one holding their fingers in place over one of them. As everyone counts I conduct, pointing at each group when it’s their turn to play. The V chord group is also known as the “turnaround” group. We can have some fun improvising turnaround rhythms, and begin using “say it then play it” strategies that they’ll use for as long as they remain involved in playing music.

Day 3 and beyond

We’ll watch Does it Swing? An Introduction to Swing Jazz for Young People part 1link, using points in the video to focus learning strategies to continue learning the ukulele and the Blues, for example, call & response, and I’ll use short activities to tie these directly to the musical elements (tempo markings, pitch, dynamics, timbre, texture, form, etc.) required by the curriculum. We continue exploring the social conditions that accompanied the rise of the Blues, it’s evolution through jazz and ongoing influence on every form of music, ever since.

Lesson Resources…

… are stored in a concept map found here. This map can actually be shared with students, who may wish to provide their own suggestions. If there’s interest and the situation permits we may want to use the cmap cloud (and/or provided/available collaboration support).

CMapTools for Learning Design

This map is organized as a concept map, reading top to bottom and left to right. I accept and promote a formal definition of “concept map” as a structured mind map, detailed here. I like the CMapTools software better than several other mapping tools I’ve used for this process because it looks and works identically in a browser, can be shared via a free cloud repository, and significantly: because I can attach many resources to a single node. 

Beyond learning the buttons, this is the first time I’ve actually used CMapTools. At the time of writing the introductory lesson is reasonably well laid out… I’ll play the pieces in order from left to right, and the things I want to show and tell about each, including direct links to things like the sheet music and images from the period, form sub-concept-like columns underneath. The power of CMapTools can be gleaned by looking at the outline dialog. You’ll also see how to develop concepts into propositions using linking words and phrases. Seeing the outline of my partially developed map not only helped me set up my activities more logically, it helped me better understand the rather powerful tool set this definition of concept map brings to the practice of mind mapping. (My linking phrases, especially near the top of the map, need some work!)

I’m comfortable with the delivery and familiar enough with the material that this kind of map, with the links to content, is all I need. But I think it would be easy to make very precise daily lesson plans from such a sketch. I’ll simply drag the nodes around each activity or resource into more clear-cut columns.

§

Reference:
Ministry of Education (2009), Ontario Curriculum 1-8 The Arts [PDF]
Blues Kids of America