Today I started another beginners' guitar group. We have 37 guitars, and most children who want to try can, but the first lesson is always a nightmare. I put guitars beside each chair and the children come in excitedly. They choose a chair, pick up the guitar, and hammer away at the strings, mentally becoming fabulously wealthy pop idols. A guitar at the back seems to be playing itself, until I realise it conceals George, the tiniest lad in the juniors. I suggest a smaller instrument. Tunji and Cedric, inseparable, sit next to each other. Cedric tells Tunji how his uncle plays an electric guitar. Tunji's impressed, until Cedric says that a string snapped and broke his thumb. Tunji's face drops, and he wonders whether he should join the gardening club instead. Busola, a boisterous girl with a deep voice, has started to sing as she strums. The child in the next seat grimaces and I call for silence. Everybody except Busola and her partner stop. Eventually, she catches my eye, and tells her partner to shut up because Sir is trying to talk.
The first trick is to get the group to point their guitars in the same direction. This entails knowing left from right, which catches a few children on the hop. It's why I put out the chairs for the first lesson myself, keeping several metres between them. When children manoeuvre guitars, tuning pegs can end up in somebody's nostril if it isn't done carefully. At last we're all playing on the same wicket and I introduce the parts of the guitar. "These are the strings," I say. "Don't play them for the moment." Immediately, somebody does. "Sorry, Sir," Spencer apologises. I forgive him and then I tell the children I'm going to say a very rude word to describe a part of the guitar. They look up eagerly. "This," I say, "is the belly." They giggle and repeat the word softly.
I introduce some science to the lesson, explaining why the sound hole is important. There is a clattering noise; Faye has dropped her dinner money change inside her guitar. The other children are fascinated and wonder how I'm going to get it out. I explain that good guitarists never carry dinner money while they're playing. The sunlight is strong, and George discovers he can bounce light off his instrument into Georgia's eyes. Science again. Other children try, until I explain that we're here to become Segovias, not Newtons. I explain how a note is produced and I say we're going to learn "E", because it's easy to play. I demonstrate, and the children have a go. It's easy to spot the children who are going to be successful; the less able are having difficulty finding the right string, and a thumb to play it with. George gives up and bounces light again.
I ask them to play eight "E"s in a row, to my hand claps. I count them in, but several play before I stop counting. I try again. And again. I wonder how we're going to progress to the next stage, where they have to use a left hand finger to hold a string against a fret. Then, the lesson is over. They hang their guitars on the hooks and file out, pleased to be heading for stardom. I wonder why I do this every year.
The next group comes in. They've been learning for a year. They pick up their instruments and we break into a lively rendition of "Blue Moon". It's great, and I remember that this group, just a year ago, were identical to the group that's just filed out.
Mike Kent is head of Comber Grove primary, London borough of Southwark. Email: email@example.com