Solo Acoustic Guitarist | African and Contemporary | Composer and Performer

Montessori in Zanzibar

Learn Africa recently made it possible for me to go to Zanzibar for the first time to teach at The Dhow Countries Music Academy in Stone Town.  The Dhow Countries Music Academy is in a beautiful old building at the ferry port. Around twenty guitarists joined me for three mornings to learn to read my Montessori style guitar notation and to learn how to play kora music on guitar. I also introduced the basic concepts of my Montessori Guitar Method to one of the guitar teachers at the Academy.

So a room full of guitarists. Of many levels. Some used to playing electric. Some playing classical. Some never played before. And we have to find a way to work together for three days. 


When teaching I have a little angel on my shoulder called Maria Montessori. She’s great because she really understands how the human brain accepts and processes new information. So two of the most important features of this understanding is “one thing at a time” and “only teach what the student can already do.” These two ideas dovetail beautifully. It means that the first task of the teacher is to analyse the content of what is to be taught, separating the various aspects of the task/concept into separate elements. Then each of these actions are matched to the abilities of the student, one at a time.

So if you can give a few new elements to a student, each of which is attainable right now (without that miserable thing called practice), the student can spontaneously generate something new when these three come together at some time in the future. The lesson is easy and the result is spontaneous (and often far beyond what you thought you could achieve).


So, from the perspective of Montessori, when, after giving a lesson, you find yourself saying “just practice it and you’ll get it” or worse “practice makes perfect” then you know you haven’t yet analysed the material and you haven’t yet matched the product of the analysis to the particular student in front of you with his or her particular skill set.

So a lesson in the principle of Montessori will generate very little effort on the part of the student or teacher. The whole nature of the interaction is one of simple exchange. Stimulus (teacher) and response (student). Most teachers would probably think that the lessons are too simple as the interaction begins. And in fact the teacher’s main problem at first is to keep the student from trying to assimilate and rush ahead – to get things right and move on. But once they start to realise that it is the conversation which is important, the tone of the exchange starts to change.


And a wonderful thing happens. You suddenly realise that it isn’t a lesson at all. You’re just conversing in music, playing with sound, exploring movement. There’s no place for practicing in this space. The result is instead a simple desire to repeat what is pleasurable over and over again, and slowly the individual elements start to form new and more complex elements and you’re suddenly doing something you couldn’t do before.

After three days we achieved this to some extent. It wasn’t always possible to keep some people where they needed to be, and move others to places they would prefer. So we compromised and worked as a group – but I think when I left Zanzibar, the basic hand movements of the koraguitar style of playing were in place and most understood how the notation worked and would be able to continue learning from the scores themselves. And I think we had just a little bit of fun too.

Here’s the material we covered over the three two-hour sessions We also worked on aspects of the Montessori Guitar Method.

Thank you to the DCMA for hosting me and for Johnny Fernandes of Learn Africa for sponsoring it all and setting it up and being just incredible in every way.



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