Is language truly a barrier?  For the zillionth time in a row – musically speaking –  I say a resounding NO. 


I recently found myself in yet another situation where I was confronted with not only a classroom of youngsters who spoke little English, but also an entire day of teaching one of my guitar camps where only 2 of the 9 attendees spoke English.  A few spoke no English at all and I was faced with a four-hour series of classes involving slide guitar, open tunings , song breakdown, theory and a very intricate method of systematic fingerstyle playing.


Easier said than done to pull this off, but in a nutshell my best friend besides visuals was the right attitude.  A smile and the willingness to laugh at myself, as I tried to speak a couple of Swiss-German words, was worth a million dollars when it came to opening the doors to communication.  I think both the school students and my GillaCamp players felt drawn to accommodate my efforts as they worked with each other and me, searching for the correct word or meaning.  In addition to my animated signals and a friendly demeanor, a historically workable routine saved both events.


Experience can really pay off and if you’ve done this before you tend to learn what works and what doesn’t.  When dealing with another country, for example, there might be a language barrier as well as a cultural one.  Just because a gag or joke or story worked in one place does not mean it will work in another.  In fact, it’s wise to be cautious because sometimes you run the risk of downright offending an individual or an entire group.  If they are very polite you many not even realize that the offense occurred.   A good solution to that potential nightmare is to check ahead of time with the presenter and simply inquire as to any sensitivities you might not be aware of that pertain to the group you are about to address.


Another preparation that comes in handy is the awareness of momentum.  As I taught the class of mid-grade students (13-15 year olds) in Gams, Switzerland, it occurred to me very quickly that the group was interested more in my title of “American” than just the music I was playing.  In fact, only two individuals in the group were guitar players!


My job was to keep them entertained for 90 minutes. As far as I can tell it was a huge success because we all became engaged very quickly with rhythmic clapping and tapping as a group, show and tell for the guitar, and everything related to it such as slides, capos, 12 strings, delay pedals.  We talked about music, travel, stories, movies, and had a blast with an amusing question and answer session. I honestly believe that attitude and momentum played as much of a role as the actual music or material being presented.

A day following the classroom session, I taught a workshop for the customers of my friend Urs Winkler.  Urs is the owner of Guitar-Repairs in Gams – truly one of the finest music stores I’ve been in anywhere in the world.  While there he was kind enough to Plek my guitar with one of the most astounding machines I’ve ever seen in the music industry. Basically the machine, with the expert guidance and clear-cut instructions of Urs, did a surgically precise fret job on my guitar – more exact than humanly possible.


So as a human who speaks mostly English, I was put to the test at my GillaCamp as I pulled out my other tool of communication:  loads of printed music.  Carefully selected ahead of time, I shared with the guitar playing attendees materials on an exploration of open tunings, slide guitar basics, a systematic method of fingerpicking, and familiar tunes to explore. 


Taking advantage of the couple of folks in the room who spoke English was not only advantageous in communicating the material to everyone,  but it helped to gather the group together as I temporarily employed individuals to become my assistant teachers – a venture that seemed to instill pride in them as well as a challenge to be an effective intermediary.


So, once again, I have to say that music is a universal language. As the students in the school classroom and the students at my GillaCamp Guitar Workshop absorbed the components of the written material, became familiar with the parts of the guitar or how to use a slide, it mattered not what language we spoke as we were all on the same note.


Richard Gilewitz