Building self-confidence with the acoustic Blues guitar

By Curtis Blues, Young Audiences artist and one-man Blues band

Curtis_Resized for web

Her face was hidden under rows of tiny, tight braids with small colorful beads on the ends. “Would you like to join the class and learn to play guitar?” I asked. Keeping her head down, she gave me no eye contact and shook her head “No.” “I’ll leave it here next to your seat, and if you decide you want to try it, you can pick it up.”

Leaving the guitar next to her, I went back to the front of the room and led the rest of the class in the guitar lesson. After about 10 minutes, when I looked over at her, the guitar was in her hands. She was playing the rhythm I was teaching, along with the rest of the class. “Nice job, that’s it, keep it up, you’ve got it,” I said. A tiny glimpse of white flashed from behind the braids for the briefest second. It was a start.

Every school has students who are having trouble keeping up with their school’s classes for serious personal reasons. Sharp Lendenhall is a school that exclusively serves students with special educational needs. It offers unique challenges and rewards for a teaching artist.

Elaine Tucker, the music teacher, invited me to perform for the small school in Baltimore, Maryland, last year with my assembly program on the history of acoustic Blues. Based on the students’ enthusiastic response, Ms. Tucker invited me back for a more ambitious project: teaching guitar to third through fifth graders in a four-day residency. Elaine is an inspiring teacher and tireless advocate for her students’ welfare. She had secured the rare treasure of beautiful guitars for the school through her personal effort in getting grants to buy guitars for the school. These children really need someone like her in their court.

Four days to teach guitar! I was intrigued by the challenge.

The first step was to help the students feel the work-song rhythm of the Blues in their bodies before even picking up a guitar. We all tapped our feet and swayed our bodies to the natural rhythms that gave rise to the Blues. Despite the students being antsy about getting guitars in their hands, I asked them to sing a call and response Blues song with me first. When they were ready I brought out the guitars.

I tuned the guitars in a traditional Blues “open” tuning which means that when you strum the strings you get a perfect chord. I was convinced that these students needed to hear a pleasing, full sound right from the start. With the more common standard tuning, the students must first master the difficult task of forming chords with their fingers before the guitar sounds “right.”

To my delight most of the teachers picked up guitars and learned along with the students. This modeling was a huge asset to my program’s success. Their participation demonstrated that learning new things is fun, and they were not afraid to look silly as beginners in a new task. We started slowly by transferring the beat from our bodies to the guitars with a rhythmic strumming pattern. From time to time I let them go wild like little rock stars, strumming patterns of their own choice, and teaching the rest of the class, including me, the patterns they had discovered.

While they strummed the guitar in the Blues rhythm, we sang our Blues song, which is the story of getting up in the morning, feeling upset, and then turning our day around by addressing the Blues and taking the power of our emotions back. It was the perfect description of what I saw in the transformation of the faces in the classroom:

When I woke up this morning, there was Blues all around my bed,
Went to eat my breakfast, there was Blues in my bread,
I said “Good morning Blues, Blues how do you do?”
“I’m doing all right, how are you!”

At the end of the residency, every class performed for the whole school. It was moving to see their pride in performance. Before I left the school for the last time, I asked the students, “Who believes that you can become a guitarist if you continue to practice?” When their hands shot up, I knew that this experience had changed how they saw themselves. Each had become the kind of person who can succeed at learning challenging new things.

Learn more about Curtis Blues’ assembly, residency, and professional development programs here!

How can the Blues be used to learn fractions?

By Curtis Blues, One-man Blues band

Young Audiences artists and teacher partners have written case studies documenting their work in schools and their exploration of one essential question. Each study provides a snapshot of how the artist or teacher works with students to integrate the arts into the curriculum and provide opportunities for students to imagine, create, and realize their full potential through the arts.

Project or Program Summary

My co-teacher and I met with Arts Integration Specialist Maria Barbosa to create a lesson plan that connected fractions to Blues music. We aimed to create a lesson that was aligned with the state math and fine arts curriculum as well as the Common Core Standards. Specifically, we wanted to address how music arises from a person’s cultural context. I immediately thought that the first Blues instrument, the single-stringed diddly bow, might serve as a great physical model for a number line fractions lesson.

The diddly bow was created by Delta blues musicians in the South before they could afford six-string guitars. It was usually put on the side of a barn door and played with a bottle, but my classroom model is a single string on a board, using the resonance of metal jar tops to project the sound. It is a piece of musical history that shows students the ingenuity of the men and women who invented Blues music.

Maria went to work to figure out how to put versions of this instrument in the students’ hands. She came up with a brilliant cardboard and rubber band version of the diddly bow that each student could play. Maria felt that the strength of the lesson was in having the students not only see and hear my instrument, but to play their own.

I started the class off with the art form, playing a Blues song on the diddly bow while the students clapped the work-song Blues rhythm with their hands. The students were fascinated with the instrument and understood how the Blues arose from the context of African Americans working on farms without access to instruments other than homemade ones like the diddly bow.

My co-teacher reviewed the material about fractions and number lines, and then it was time for the students to make their own instruments and apply their knowledge.

After attaching the rubber band to their cardboard, students marked the fractions along the number line below the string. This was their first experience of comprehending the relationship of fractions on a number line physically. Students were eager to get this right because they knew that only after filling in their number line correctly, would the real fun begin!

Purpose and Rational

My fine arts goal for the lesson was to show the students how Blues music was invented in the context of real people’s lives. This is how art emerges within cultures all around the world. I believed the diddly bow instrument would be an appropriate metaphor for the number line fractions lesson, but was not sure how to get the students involved beyond a demonstration.

The challenge was to create a lesson to help students who were having trouble remembering the relationships between different fractions, as well as being able to accurately place them on a number line. This difficult cognitive jump was a perfect candidate for an arts-integrated lesson to help students really own these distinctions by looking at them in an original way.

Analysis & Outcomes

What are your overall conclusions regarding the documentation gathered for this case study?
I think the strongest part of this project was the description by my co-teacher of how students used the diddly bow model as a conceptual tool for their tests. I would like to be able to follow up with test scores in the future.

What conclusions have you drawn from the responses to the assessment tools you have developed?
It was obvious through our final assessment of the students that they had mastered the material through this project. Students who could not tell us which was bigger, one-quarter or one-third, at the beginning of the class could answer the question correctly at the end of it. They also answered questions on the music objectives correctly at the end of the lesson, demonstrating a deeper understanding of how humans invent music within their culture and daily lives.

Back to the initial inquiry question, can it be answered?
The initial inquiry was whether or not teachers can use building a simple, single-stringed Blues instrument in their classrooms to help students better understand the relationships of fractions on a number line. The answer is a definite “Yes.”

Summary & Conclusions

What was learned?
There were many different examples of what was learned for each of the participants. The students learned how to build a simple instrument and then they learned the proper placement of fractions on a number line. Students overcame their natural cognitive challenges of conceptualizing abstract fractions in a concrete way. They learned the proper answer to questions like “Which is bigger: 1/4 or 1/3?

My co-teacher learned how to use an arts-integrated approach to help students master material. I learned how to manage a classroom during such a project from my teacher partner.

Combining my co-teacher’s classroom management skills with Maria’s innovative ideas made this lesson possible. Now because of their help, I can bring this powerful lesson to other classrooms. I have learned the skills I need to guide the students to get the most out of the lesson. My teacher partner can use this tool in her classes when I am not there, to help future students grasp abstract principles with something concrete and experiential.

How will this inform the work moving forward?
I am better prepared to deal with the specific logistics of classroom management during a craft building project. My co-teacher now has more tools for achieving the testing goals for the class. The students gained a conceptual tool for mastering abstract concepts that they can continue to use in their tests.

Curriculum Connections

American History
Music
Math
Common Core Standards
21st Century Skills

Learn more about Curtis and his assembly, residency, and professional development programs.

Read other case studies written by Young Audiences teaching artists and teacher partners