Every now and then life hands you an experience that aims not only for inspiration, but also affirm something you believe deeply.
I recently had the pleasure to witness a truly gifted musician at a local coffee shop who did just that for me, Vicki Genfan. What was really fun about Ms. Genfan’s performance is that she educated the audience as she played for us. Although she knew there were people in the audience studying the guitar I have a feeling that this kind of talk is common for her during her performances. In fact, she explained that because she uses so many different tunings, when she changes from one tuning to another she has to talk for a bit and then adjust her strings again because the strings are tempted to go back to where they were. (Isn’t that a metaphor for human behavior!)
If you are like me you did not know that there were different tunings available. I grew up playing the piano which has a standard tuning. Once that is done, the pianist does not have the option to change the tuning – only a professional tuner can do that. A guitarist, on the other hand, has to tune her/his instrument each time s/he plays. This much I knew.
What I didn’t know is that there are other options available. From what I understand there is still standard tuning for the guitar but this performer had other ideas. Vicki Genfan talked about how she spent hours of her childhood enjoying the acoustics in her bathroom changing the tuning experimenting with the different chords and sounds she could create. Once in college, she said she spent those hours in the stairwell which had even better acoustics than her bathroom at home!
Throughout the evening, Vicki Genfan plucked and strummed and tapped on all different parts of the guitar creating amazing effects I never knew could be made on an acoustic guitar. It turns out that she has a microphone on the inside of her guitar to pick up on all that tapping she was doing so the audience could appreciate that rhythm as much as what she played on the strings.
At some point in her performance she talked about getting permission to do things differently, to try them her way. This idea of needing permission from someone to think differently about something, to try something different than what you’ve been taught resonated with me. It’s such a common obstacle that Susan Riley of Education Closet wrote a book entitled “No Permission Required” letting educators know the permission is implicit and they should jump into arts integration.
One philosophy of the early childhood music program I teach, Music Together, is that experimentation is good. The program encourages us teachers to help the parents fight the urge to take instruments out of their children’s hands to correct the way they are playing the rhythm instruments and allow the children to explore them and discover what those instruments can do on their own. We encourage children and their parents to discover new ways to play by mimicking the children’s novel play and asking for ideas, “How else can we play our egg shakers?”
Of course, we also model the conventional ways these instruments are used but I love that the philosophy is not limited to that type of modeling. We need to continue to encourage this sort of experimentation as children get older and more “serious” about their music studies. My hope is that we are educating a new generation of musicians and thinkers who feel free to experiment, to explore and find their own ways to express themselves and what those instruments can do.
It’s always exciting and inspiring to meet someone like Vicki Genfan who is so completely in love with what she does and is constantly seeking new knowledge and understandings. It is also reaffirming to witness what glorious music can come from someone who feels she has permission to play outside of what is typically done and to know that encouraging your students to do the same may just lead them somewhere just that glorious.