I Wish I Were My Son’s Guitar Teacher

By Claudia Felske

I wish I were my son’s guitar teacher. 

Not just because that would mean I would be really good at guitar (musicality being something I’m sorely lacking).

Not just because it would be a major ego stroke, knowing that a year and a half ago, my son couldn’t play a note and now he sounds like this.

Not just because I would be teaching him something I know will deeply enrich his learning, his appreciation of beauty, creation, and (dare I suggest) life itself.

The real reason I wish I were my son’s guitar teacher is that it would mean I have arrived as a master educator; it would mean I have achieved what I’ve been trying to achieve in the classroom for 19 years; it might even mean we as educators may be close to bottling the elixir we have been trying to concoct for the past two centuries, namely effective, creative, authentic, self-directed learning.

Allow me to explain.
Performance and recording opportunities are part of his instruction
Backtrack to my son’s first guitar lesson. When Eliot came home that first day, I was a bit surprised he hadn’t been taught what a scale was, or the parts of a guitar; instead, he had learned how to play “Smoke on the Water” on one string.  We heard a lot of “Smoke on the Water” that week; it sounded to Eliot and it sounded to us like we had a 9-year-old rock star living in our house. Instead of learning a basic scale, he had been given the belief that he can create music, that he is a musician. That was lesson one.
Fast forward a year and a half to Christmas Morning this year when Eliot gave me the best gift a mother (who also happens to be a teacher) could receive. In the past, he’d given me a myriad of gifts: painted vases, home-made cards, crocheted bookmarks. I’d always looked forwarded to unwrapping his original creations. This time, though, there was nothing to unwrap.
“Mom, are you ready?” he asked, running into the room with my iPad in hand. I watched as he plugged it into the stereo and started playing my favorite song. Okay, cool, but where’s my present, right? What I quickly discovered was that he had uploaded my favorite dance song into Garage Band, and then added original guitar parts that he’d created, recorded, and remixed into the song.

“So you’re playing the guitar parts?” my husband asked (I was smiling too big to talk). “Well, kind of…there are no guitar parts.  I made them up  and put them where I thought they’d sound good.’

Eliot at play

Eliot at play

He wasn’t watching me for my reaction (as ordinarily is the case when I open his presents). He was tapping, concentrating, the gears were moving, “I’m a tad off here,” he’d add…or “wait, wait here it is.”The next day, he called me upstairs as he was practicing, and I was taken behind the scenes. He asked me to pick a song. I chose the most over-played song of 2012: “Gangnam Style” (sorry, that’s how I roll). Then, he listened, listened some more, struck a few notes over and over and then a scale, and then, spent the rest of the song improvising over the melody.

He explained to me that Craig (his guitar teacher) taught him to listen a  song and locate its “root note.” “Play it like the worst bass player in the world,” Eliot quoted Craig, emphasizing the need to test out the root note over and over to make sure it’s right. Then, match it to a major or minor pentatonic scale and “it’ll all sound good cause it’s based on the root note.” It made sense to Eliot, and it made sense to me. “Then, you can have fun with it, adding cool stuff, riffs, frets, bending notes, trilling,” Eliot explained while demonstrating each.
After years of declaring to Eliot that “this is the best present anyone ever made for me” and meaning it every time, this year when I said it, I meant it with an authenticity that transcended my role as a parent and entered that as an educator. What Eliot had done in addition to customizing a Christmas gift he knew I’d love was demonstrate ALL levels of Bloom’s Taxonomy, the gold standard for higher level learning.
Benjamin Bloom’s (Revised) Taxonomy of Learning

He was remembering notes and scales, understanding how they work together to create a melody, but then he was operating at a much higher level: applying a concept his teacher had taught him: analyzing the song, listening for the root note; evaluating which it was and which pentatonic scale should be applied; and then, creating and performing improvisational solo parts.  What’s more, there was no teacher in the room; he had internalized the process, all levels of it, becoming his own teacher in a new situation, with a new song. And then evaluating his own performance afterwards. Basically, an educator’s dream come true.

And right now, as I write this, he’s upstairs doing the same to ACDC’s “T.N.T.” – not my favorite song, not my favorite genre, but his process is music to my ears.  He’s beginning to read the world as music. When we’re eating dinner and he hears a “cool riff” in a song, he runs upstairs to try to replicate it. Clearly the much larger gift here was the one Eliot received from his phenomenal guitar teacher.

And so, aside from my best Christmas gift to date, I’m left with a slew of questions as an educator: How can we do this on a larger scale? How can we get our students to run upstairs (not because of the homework we assigned, but out of sheer excitement) to apply what we’ve taught them? Is this just a moment in time orchestrated by a gifted teacher with a motivated student in a small group setting, or are there generalizable truths here we can extract and sprinkle into classrooms across the country?
Should the Gates Foundation be visiting Wisconsin Guitar Academy in Mukwonago, Wisconsin? Should Craig Friemoth be giving a TED Talk on the power of improvisational music and learning?
Whatever the case, this gift has me feeling grateful and has me thinking…

8 Responses to “I Wish I Were My Son’s Guitar Teacher”

  1. 2 Chris Parson February 20, 2013 at 11:02 am

    great story. music will be a part of his life. what a great you’ve given him. Kate and Liam’s Grampa.


  2. 3 Laura February 20, 2013 at 12:19 pm

    Awesome story, thank you for this…….my husband sent this to me, a Business Alum from MU. We can empathize with you totally. Our son is a Finance Major at MU, our daughter an excellent student at CMH, both were students of Craig’s for many years…..we get it…….they both still frequently play, they also both write and record music as well. The gift keeps on giving!


  3. 4 David Streator February 20, 2013 at 1:21 pm

    This is not an isolated event with Craig. I have two children (one currently @ MU) who have taken lessons with Craig. Their understanding of music and passion to play is wonderful. Craig opens the door to music and carries them to another world!


  4. 5 Jenni Lehman February 20, 2013 at 7:38 pm

    I fully understand what you are saying as my daughter, Lindsey, also has been a student of Craig’s and a part of a musical rock band program in Mukwonago. I think that the teacher’s have definitely hit a “grand note” by instructing the kids in application settings and allowing them to realize the amazing potential of music. The energy and inspiration is second to none.

    As worksheets are boring to classroom students so is learning the scales on the first lesson, I would imagine. Investigating and learning the basics through exploring and understanding why the music works the way it does is an amazing avenue to take. Creatively integrating the fundamental skills and inspiration of this knowledge/immersion/exploration type based music style is definitely right up Craig’s alley. He helped me to understand a simple riff within 30 seconds upon striking up a conversation after one of Lindsey’s lessons. (I attended high school with Craig. I am a teacher as well so this article hits home.) Craig has always been a creative and talented person so this falls right in line with the amazing that person he is. 🙂 He runs a terrific program and I am always in awe of the online/in-house recording possibilities, application, immediate feedback and assessment available for the student’s self reflection. Craig is definitely an inspiration. 🙂 Great pics!


  5. 6 Anna Janusz February 21, 2013 at 12:47 pm

    Brilliant. Proud for you! And already trying to think about how to apply these concepts to teaching my twins.


  6. 7 Lisa March 22, 2013 at 7:50 pm

    That’s music to my ears. I enjoyed learning how to play piano as a chold but I wish my thought processes would have been like that which Eliot has now. At this point when I sit down to play, I have to relearn things I forgot and I’d much rather be tinkering and creating. Yeah for Eliot.


  7. 8 Guitar Lessons September 29, 2014 at 5:53 am

    Great read! Music is a wonderful thing


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