It dawned on me yesterday that my forays into recording and sharing my own covers of songs was actually the kind of thing Dean Shareski coined in 2011 as a Learning Project:

I’m asking my students to take 25-50 hours and learn something new. While Ewan’s goals were somewhat different, I want my students to explore a few things.

1. Learn a skill, concept or idea you know very little or nothing about but that you’re interested in learning
2. Document the learning. Write about it, video tape, audio record, whatever.
3. Consider all the sources you use to learn. Collect those resources.
4. Take a early baseline snapshot of your understand at the beginning and another one at the end. Compare and analyze.

That’s it. As the quote above says, make your learning transparent. I’ve never done a project like this with students before. it’s not really about technology and yet it will be as students share their learning and consider people who can be their teachers.

It’s something I have seen Alec Couros do as well with his students.

So I did some rummaging around the posts and corralled stuff I had already into a new “learning project” category. I may not have the baseline, but sue me, or give me a slap on the rubric.

It’s not about just learning to play, or getting better. Here is my goal to toss on in public. I want to learn a set of songs I can play in public (there is an open mic night at a coffee shop in Payson, AZ) and do so in front of an audience where I do not know the people there.

Now here is my thing. It’s not a criticism, but it seems like 90% of the time I see someone performing a set at a bar, they are looking at an iPad. I understand the reason, but heck, when I look at the concert videos of my musical heroes, they are not playing off of a frigging iPad.

So I am aiming to know my songs well enough to do them from memory.

I still play on this Takamine acoustic guitar I learned on when I was 15, and am still on the learning curve. I can remember in the late 1980s just tinkering in my dorm room at the University of Delaware. A girl down the hall stuck her head in, and said “that sounds good! Do you know any entire songs?”

That was one of those slaps disguised with a thin veil of a compliment.

There have been steps– the Sanctuary Jam sessions coordinated at various gatherings in Vancouver

and hanging out with accomplished players like Bryan Jackson

… being in the proximity of the unlimited talent of Grant Potter

… jams at Casa Bava

have helped. A big boost was the time last winter in Kamloops and being an honorary member of the Tuesday night jams of Breaking Band (plus one final house party performance).

In the last year I have shifted slightly from trying to learn just to play a song so someone might actually recognize it, to finding my own interpretations of them. My way. Every time someone says “Folsom Prison Blues” they play it almost the exact “boom-chicka-boom-chicka-boom” way Johnny Cash recorded it, the country bass-note-chord up a fifth bass-note chord beat.

But if you listen to Cash’s covers of Rusty Cage or Hurt he is never just duping the originals.

The turn for me this year was playing around with doing cover songs to honor, sometimes playfully tease colleagues. The first was reading something about rhizomes by Dave Cormier and somehow having my brain make a connection to Glen Campbell’s Rhinestone Cowboy, yielding Rhizome Cowboy

The process is first seeing of I can find some guitar tabs I can play, grabbing a copy of the lyrics, re-writing them, practicing about 3 times, then doing a one take recording. And of course, then doing a Photoshop remix of the album cover.

Yeah I know my singing is off, and my rhythm is un-even. I am not trying to be a performer, I am trying to have fun doing a cover song– and pushing myself to actually put it out in public.

It was only a week later that Bonnie Stewart (who happens to be married to Dave) was defending her dissertation. Some folks were suggesting doing some music in her honor. I knew her affection for David Bowie’s music…. so “Ground Control to Major Tom” became “All of Twitter to #Drbon” (the hashtag people were using to send their wishes). This was a stretch, as it was not just 3 chords!

Since then, I did a Bob Dylan cover for Jason Toal and a Doors cover of “When the Music’s Over” as “When the MOOC is Over”.

I have been on a Dylan kick, and in a way it was initiated by Audrey Watters’ Hybrid Pedagogy article on Maggie’s Digital Content Farm — I learned to play the original, which in typical Dylan fashion appears simple, but has a lot of subtleties going. It took me a while, but earlier this month, I did a version using references to her paper:

this being the first one (I think) where I am playing harmonica with the guitar.

On request of Mariana Funes, I did a cover of the Kinks Sunny Afternoon as #ds106 Good Spellin’ on a Sunday Afternoon (the weekly show she does with John Johnston)– this being a stretch too as I thought, until I saw (and simplified) the tabs that it was out of my ability range. Nope, I got it (sort of) – the first recording with my new Telecaster Deluxe guitar and the Vox amp sent my way by Adam Croom

and just Sunday night I went into new ground of [pseudo] multi track recording with Edu Ansgt a cover of Cracker’s teen Angst as a new round of MOOC Mocking

Now these covers are just done for the challenge and practice, these are not the songs I would play for strangers (boy would they think it strange). But it is pushing me to play in ways I was not doing even a year ago.

Again, I am not putting myself up as any kind of performer, I am on my own challenge path

So it took my maybe 5 years of trying before I realized I was doing a Learning Project. Transparently and open.

Heck, life is a Learning Project.

Top / Featured Image Credit: Public Domain image from pixabay

If this kind of stuff has any value, please support me monthly on Patreon or a one time PayPal kibble toss
Profile Picture for Alan Levine aka CogDog
An early 90s builder of the web and blogging Alan Levine barks at on web storytelling (#ds106 #4life), photography, bending WordPress, and serendipity in the infinite internet river. He thinks it's weird to write about himself in the third person.


  1. OK this is extremely exciting!!! and my comment is sort of very deep, and also ridiculously encouraging, because I think they need to go hand in hand sometimes. -that performing thing – it is something that you already *are* but you truly will be when you allow yourself to be comfortable with it. Like you said, you are already doing it – this learning project. Making it public is a big step – even the saying it in public. The memorising thing is not a problem. If you set your mind to it, it will be done before you begin. It is more about believing that you can and are doing it, and feeling comfortable with that – in a sort of musician identity way. -and knowing that there is no specific ‘arrival point’ that means you ‘are’ that, whereas you weren’t before… we’re always on that journey. -and if along the way you fall off the path, get back on the road, Jack. Plenty of people (that you’ve already met) will give you a lift/hand/encouragement along the way. I look forward to hearing more!!

Leave a Reply

Your email address will not be published. Required fields are marked *