Teaching instruments to people with learning difficulties and "quick fix" methods (23rd June 2015)

For the last year or so I have taught a number of pupils with both physical and learning difficulties.

One student in particular has been quite awkward to cater for as their fine motor skills are not conducive to planting chords of any kind with the left hand. This is also compounded by the fact that they also find chord charts virtually impossible to follow.
Our first session together left me scratching my head and thinking that lessons were probably not viable for this student in particular. I looked online for a number of solutions and remembered a contraption used by a very musical old friend of mine called the guitar wizard - The contraption was called the guitar wizard not my friend in case you were wondering.
I'm sure my mate won't mind me saying that he has tried loads of weird and wonderful quick fix teaching methods to learn the guitar. He has spent so much time and money on various methods that he could really have learned better by using the conventional, have lessons and spend the time doing it properly approach. In fact he has recently learned ukulele by the old-fashioned hard work method and is actually becoming a cracking player.
The guitar wizard was one of the more memorable contraptions he used to try to learn how to play guitar. It involves tuning the guitar to a chord and planting the contraption around your hand on the fretboard.
A strip of numbered stickers adorns your fretboard and then you follow the number guides which appear above the lyrics in the transcribed songs.
My pal made some rapid progress using transcriptions from the booklet provided with the gadget. He was able to play a small repertoire of songs for a grudgingly approving school staffroom much quicker than learning by conventional methods.
There were however several limitations to this approach Only very simple tunes could be played with any success. It only allowed basic major and minor chords. Using it for more complicated stuff sounded somewhat stilted and often wrong. It really grated on me. I like my fancy, jazzy altered chords.If you are not musical enough to work things out for yourself, you have to buy specially transcribed songs directly from the manufacturer which can be expensive and also they may not have the songs you are looking for.Lose the contraption, as I would, or find it mangled by the washing machine having left it in your pocket and you are right back at square one and 40 quid out of pocket.This however seemed like the best way for my student. Being able to play any music at all, no matter how simple it may be, would be a huge achievement but knowing that they would probably lose the expensive contraption in days, I had to think of another solution.
I liked the idea of tuning to a chord and spent hours building a number of, to put it in over grandiose terms, prototypes to try and emulate the guitar wizard cheaply. I thought I had found an easy to make, cheap solution and was quite happy with it, however my student didn't really get on with it and couldn't press down hard enough. I was gutted.
I needed a method of easily sounding notes at once without the need for pressing down. I turned to the old fashioned slide guitar method. You put your finger inside a smooth bottle neck and slide it up and down the strings to your required note.
I put coloured stickers on the fret board and have my transcriptions colour coded for the required fret. The student, moves the slide- which is actually a cheap curtain pole - not a bona fide slide- to the correct colour on the fretboard.
If you are slightly out of position it sounds badly out of tune.

Example of colour coded music :


Slowly but surely and somewhat surprisingly, my student's idea of intonation has improved significantly. It still sounds ropey at times but it means we can attempt some simple 3 and 4 major chord only songs. You'd be amazed at just how many of them there are to choose from.
Loads of Elvis, Cliff Richard, most rock and roll or country and western songs fall into this category.
I'm not sure which sounds worse, the bottleneck not being quite in the right place or having to play and sing the Cliff Richard, Val Doonican and Des O'bloody Connor songs I've been asked to transcribe. Either way it means that students who otherwise wouldn't be able to access the instrument can play to their heart's content without shelling out loads on expensive teaching methods and contraptions.