Making Music at Macomber

How does music happen at our center for self-directed learning? The short answer: in as many different ways as there are musicians. For a longer answer, this blog will give you a taste of how we do music at Macomber, including insights from members about how it works for them. 

Members play the music they want to play
Several Macomber members, who are now avid musicians, told me that they disliked music as it was taught in public school: adults telling them what notes to play, how to play the notes, then grading them on whether or not they did it “correctly.” Other members had taken private music lessons, but disliked not having a voice in what to study or how to study it. 

At Macomber, members decide what music to play and how they want to play it. Period. The music that members choose to play is incredibly varied. In just the past week, members have played classical music, jazz standards, hard rock, Taylor Swift, Beatles, and traditional Irish music, as well as music that defies description! 

Members decide how to learn music
Members choose the music they want to learn and how they want to learn it. There’s a good chance a staff member will be happy to help them do whatever musical activity they desire. However, members decide whether or not to take advantage of staff expertise. When a member asks me for help in learning an instrument, I ask what type of music he or she wants to play, and together we figure out what we need to do to get right into the music. If the member has sheet music or a chord chart, we may use it, or I might arrange and write out pieces for us to play together. Even if the member reads music, I enjoy teaching tunes by ear, focusing on getting to know the instrument and the genre of interest. I offer only as much music theory as members want.


One member who had taken private lessons intending to learn electric guitar was frustrated at being forced to learn acoustic guitar first, one note at a time, and soon gave it up. At Macomber, she received help learning a few riffs on the electric guitar and is now happily able to play on her own whenever she wants, using the guitars freely available at the center. Another member previously took piano lessons but found learning with written music constraining. Though he can read music, he now enjoys learning new piano pieces by ear, or by using online tools that show how the notes are played on the keyboard. 

Some members are also open to the challenge of expanding their learning to a mode or genre they find less familiar or comfortable. One member, who was used to learning classical pieces with written music, is now finding satisfaction in learning to play traditional Irish tunes by ear.

Some members are happy working quite independently of staff. It’s not uncommon for members to have a few guitar lessons, then enjoy working on their own without further instruction. (See Ian’s October 19 “Mac Cheese” blog for a good example.)  Several members who are studying instruments privately enjoy bringing their instruments in to play with others. Others are inclined to practice music alone at home and engage in non-musical social activities with their friends at Macomber. 

Members decide when to play
Music happens throughout the day, every day, unconstrained by a specific schedule. Members can spend as much time as they like playing. Music happens whenever members want it to happen. This contrast to scheduled school music is wonderfully liberating to those members who have come from public school. 

Music is fluid, and instruments cross boundaries
Members and staff play rock on the banjo, jazz on the French horn, and violin on Taylor Swift songs. Members enjoy adding their instrument to whatever music may be happening, regardless of the genre. We have had drum circles that include chairs, broomsticks and drill bits. A highlight of last year’s Spring show was a member playing an ocarina solo (the original instrumentation!) with a rock band in the 60s rock classic “Wild Thing.” 


Music is public
We do not have a soundproof music studio. When we are playing in the music room, even with the door closed, community members hear what we are playing. Even when members and staff are rocking out up in the Art Shack (a nearby building), the music is audible down in the main building. Members and staff come in and out of the music room, sometimes to get something, sometimes to listen. Those playing are generally open to others listening, or even joining in. 

Staff who teach music are experienced proficient musicians
We have professional performing experience with a broad range of instruments and musical genres, including classical, folk and traditional, jazz, blues, and rock. Instruments that staff play include guitar, bass, banjo, dobro, drums, hand percussion, harmonica, recorder, flute, pennywhistle, saxophone, trumpet, and French horn. 

Staff play and teach music that they love
We aren’t required to teach instruments or music that we don’t love to play ourselves. Members see that we’re having a great time when we’re playing, and that we take our music seriously because we love it. We demonstrate to members what it takes to rehearse a piece and perform it with confidence and commitment.

Macomber is a supportive music learning community
All participants are both learners and teachers. Members enjoy learning from, and teaching, their peers. Staff are also eager to extend our repertoire and skills by learning the new material that members want to learn. Members benefit by seeing staff as learners. Members and staff alike are willing to try new things and take musical risks. Because of the supportive musical environment, members are comfortable being beginners in front of other members, even in performances. Many members who are learning an instrument love playing for other members, and staff. Sometimes the listeners join in on another instrument. We encourage one another at spontaneous talent shows. (See Mark’s October 9 blog.) It’s moving to see members perform confidently before their peers, or at our Winter and Spring Shows, on instruments they are just learning. New member musicians bring in new energy and talent, and sometimes the gift of new genres. Last year, a new member brought a passion and talent for old-timey mandolin, which inspired jams and a country ensemble for the Spring Show. A new talented jazz pianist this year has instigated jamming on a variety of jazz standards with electric guitar and bass. (I can’t wait to add a horn section (trumpet, sax, and French horn) to the mix.)

The Winter and Spring Shows give a focus to music making
Members take these performances seriously, as they know that they will be performing in front of a real audience. As we edge closer to each Winter or Spring show, jamming transitions into rehearsing. Members must make a commitment to learn their parts in one or more numbers to be ready by the performance. Some members arrange and rehearse numbers for the shows. One member is currently arranging and writing out accompanying instrument parts for a number for the Winter show. These shows are a wonderful celebration and demonstration of the astonishingly diverse creativity and talent we have at Macomber.

So, these are of some of the reasons why making music at Macomber is such a joy for all of us. Please come to our Winter Show on December 5, to experience for yourself the fruits of our joyful labor!