NO CHORDS BARRED #6 – “The Promises Our Teachers Gave, If We Worked Hard, If We Behaved”

My teacher was excited when I suggested learning a song. I think he was hoping I would ask.  After discussing the possibility with him I went home and spent the week trying to decide what to pick. I narrowed it down to four choices and brought them in. In the end we went with Billy Joel’s “Allentown” since he knew that song best. (The others were “Althea” by the Grateful Dead, Bruce Springsteen’s “Atlantic City” and “Ginseng Sullivan” by Norman Blake). I had just watched “The Hangover 2” the weekend before and Ed Helms plays an acoustic version of “Allentown” in the movie. I’ve always liked the song so I looked up the chords and printed it out.

For the past couple of weeks I’ve been working on it. Some parts come easy. The opening line, “Well we’re living here in Allentown…” Is just Em, A, D, relatively simple chords. So naturally I play that part and other easy sections over and over again. It is so satisfying to hear familiar music and know that you are making it. I’m sure there are endorphins released. However, this is a problem. I see it in my classroom as well. Project Based Learning is large in scope and multifaceted by its nature. Some parts come easy to the student whether it’s because of prior knowledge or high interest. There are always some things in the beginning that students eat up. The problem is the hard part that comes after that: the tedious stuff like referencing, the boring stuff like correcting mistakes, the time it takes to dig deeper.

So now I’m practicing the hard parts I can’t do. Zero endorphins released. It’s repetitive and frustrating. I’m tempted to just play and sing the verses I can for an hour and call that practice. The non-cognitive skill I am very aware of at the moment is discipline. Discipline is high up on my list. I ask my students to show discipline in their dedication to the program and the quality of their work. Of course it’s hard. Of course it’s no fun. (I’m not a rote method teacher but there are things such as balancing chemical equations that you just need to practice to get good at.) Regardless of talent or skill, discipline increases your chances of success.

I feel like it is going to take a long time to get the entire song down. There’s some fast strumming and switching between F and G in the, “Every child had a pretty good shot…” part. I can’t even play it slowly. There’s also the end of verse section, “and it’s getting very hard to staaaay…” that involves several chords and is tricky strumming. I’ve been trying to be disciplined and practice just those sections over and over again. Because it’s hard I also find I’m slipping back into making my G’s the way I used to when I first learned guitar. My teacher asked my on my first lesson to try forming G with a different fingering. When a song gets hard I subconsciously switch back. This adds another layer of complication since I can sometimes solve my switching chords problem but cheating on how I form the G. All of this points to the simple truth that practice makes perfect, and practice requires discipline.

P.S.  On another note the, choice of “Allentown” for this project is somewhat ironic. The lyrics of the second verse are not kind to education. “The promises out teachers gave, if we worked hard, if we behaved. So the graduations hang on the wall, but they never really helped us at all, no they never taught us what was real; iron, coke, chromium, steel.” It’s a cautionary reminder to me about what a student should leave school with. I make those promises. Adult high school students (and some administrators and teachers for that matter) sometimes mistake the piece of paper that is the diploma for the goal. It’s true, owning that piece of paper opens some doors but it’s useless if you don’t know how to walk through them.


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