A Beginning Autoharpist’s Great Chord Find

My webcam student, Al, is very much the beginning autoharpist, although I am impressed by the way his harmonic perception is growing.

I usually start new players off with singing songs and strumming chords.  (If you are just starting out, this is an excellent foundation.  Playing melody at the get-go, IMHO, is too big a gulp.)  Little did I know how Al was going to struggle with accompanying his singing.  A couple months ago, he presented me with a song he likes and wanted to sing and play.  The chords were easy enough–I, IV and V–but he couldn’t make sense of their placement over just the lyrics on the page.  Some of the chord placements were off, so I tweaked them, but they still didn’t make visual sense to him.  Their placements, even though perfect, were erratically spaced over the lyrics, and had to be this way.

A chance, off-the-cuff acquaintance made with Karen (we met standing in line at a local Starbucks about six weeks ago ) led to a two-hour visit and fast friendship.  We sat together at a community table in the store and talked about many things.   As she shared with me some of the fantastic things her daughter has done with her school students, an answer for Al’s chord-placement dilemma came to the fore.  I went home and transcribed the song to music notation so that Al could see why the chord changes land where they do, including one occurring between words.  Further, I set each musical phrase on its own staff and aligned the bar lines down the page so he could see how regular and normal the chord changes are.  Even though Al doesn’t read music, this visual picture provided some metrical logic to chord placement in ways that lyrics alone cannot provide.  After that lesson, I re-processed the notation for the other songs he plays in the same way.  Al is on his way now.  (I’d say the bigger trick at this point is coordinating the erratic singing mouth with the constant, steady beat of strumming, but that’s another story.)

AL took his concept a little further prior to a webcam lesson a couple weels ago.  He’d explored a song of his own choosing (something I’m all for, by the way; practical application is always good).  He sent me notation for the song a few months earlier, and I could see that it was within his realm to sing and play.  Al sang the song and then said something about adding a chord that needed to be in there.  I initially blee off his comment becsuses everything sounded okay to my ear, and then he said it again.  Time to look at the score, when I immediately caught up with his comment: the song definitely needed I-V-I at the end of the second phrase, but the score showed I-I-I.  He had placed V exactly, to please his ear and soul.  Bravo, Al!

Al’s find reinforces how we cannot trust everything we see in print, much as evein as would like to.  In fact, the more I look at chords in the scores my students bring to their lessons, the more I realize how many musicians out there do not know how to make harmonic sense of even the simplest songs.  This is why I’m so keen on making sure autoharpists–really any musician who chords–understand how to chord tunes with plain-vanilla harmony.

For a beginning autoharpist to fill in a missing chord tells me how much he is absorbing about harmory that makes sense to the ear.  Yes, Al impresses me indeed!