It’s a surprising by-product of my musical life that as well as becoming an entertainer I also ended up teaching music. It’s surprising because my father was a school teacher and, like many young people who resist following their parent’s path, I set off on a completely different course.

The roles of teacher and entertainer are similar. Both are communicators and each contains elements of the other. An effective teacher must entertain the mind of the student just as every entertainer, who is more than a purveyor of brain-candy, must offer something of substance and value.

What my dad’s former students tell me they found most memorable about his teaching was the stuff not found on the official curriculum. Back in the ’60s and ’70s a primary school teacher had more freedom to choose how they taught and my dad liked using his personal knowledge. He’d worked in forestry, had done meteorological work in Antarctica and enjoyed personal interests that included woodwork and the study of wild plants and fungi.

It seems this was an effective way to teach. He’d take his class of 8 and 9 year olds for walks in the woods and they’d come back with drawings of wildflowers and mushrooms. English and Latin botanical names would be looked up and inscribed next to the drawings. (At one point they were even finding magic mushrooms on the school field, although the kids were simply shown the Latin name and not given extra information!)

Practical mathematics was learned by taking weather measurements and then using the data to find patterns of temperature and humidity. After one snowfall he took the kids out on the school field and showed them how to build an igloo. (This episode made him a local celebrity after the TV news reported on his igloo-building.)

My dad’s best educational work was clearly the stuff he came up with on his own. And it’s very encouraging for me to know this. When I teach, say at a ukulele festival, my main hope is that the self-taught stuff I deem worthy of teaching will also be the same stuff that everyone wishes to learn.

Here’s how my self-guided teaching method works:

The first step is to teach myself. It begins with a desire to create a musical sound such as a strum, picking pattern, chord sequence or a whole song. While learning I am not thinking about the learning process. I’m just doing it, pushing on with new ideas and developing new skills in order to reach the desired endpoint.

This part of the musical process is more enjoyable to me than being able to perform the finished song. It gives me such a feeling of exhilaration that is unlike anything I get from a successful performance. Indeed when this part of the work is done and I’m satisfied that a song is ready to perform I feel a pang of grief that the learning stage is over for ever. It’s a bit like seeing your child suddenly reach a new level of maturity. You suddenly realize your baby is not a baby anymore. And that’s how it should be, but it’s a sad moment all the same.

The next step comes after I’m asked to teach a ukulele workshop someplace. That’s when I have to force myself to think, “What exactly did I do to develop that strum or that sound?” I then backtrack over my process to figure out exactly what I did to create my musical style.

After that it’s a matter of packaging it in a form that I can clearly communicate to those who wish to learn. People have different ways of understanding information so I always try to come up with several ways to explain each technique.

So why am I telling you this?

If you play music I want to encourage you to also be a teacher. Pass on your knowledge. Recently, a young woman was sitting in the front row of one of my performances. I couldn’t help noticing how much she smiled. She seemed to delight in everything I said or did. I wish all my audience members were like that.

She approached me after the show. It turned out she’d been a high school friend of my daughter. She told me I had given her a ukulele lesson a few years ago when she was over at our place and from that moment on she thought of herself as a musician.
The simple act of showing her how to play a ukulele had transformed her life. She now plays several instruments and points to that lesson with me as the start of it all.

It gave me a wonderful feeling to be told that. But it was also very humbling because I knew how little credit was actually due to me. Anyone with basic ukulele skills could have shown her. But someone had to.

So let that someone be you. Whether it’s ukulele, cookery, knitting or writing computer code, if you have a skill and you see an opportunity to share that ability, then do it. Who knows how transformative that simple act may turn out to be? And boy does it ever feel good when years later someone approaches you and tells you how you changed their life for the better. I highly recommend it!

© Ralph Shaw 2017