The ToneWay® Project: helping people play music

About the Project

The Story

The ToneWay Project is the result of several nearly accidental discoveries by our family.[1]

The family behind the project

A Method Created By Us, For Us

First and foremost was the discovery of an utterly new way to learn music. Carl (the dad), despite decades of studying guitar and other instruments, never found the fluency and joy he was seeking in music. So when his two sons began learning to play almost effortlessly, without the aid of teachers or instruction materials, Carl was flummoxed!

Determined to find the secret to their success, he and his sons began unraveling what the boys’ were doing intuitively. The principles (of playing music by ear) that they uncovered finally gave Carl all he needed to play music fluently with his family.


Luke getting some banjo tips at a bluegrass event in the late '90s.

Discovering the Musical Community

Around this time, we discovered bluegrass music; or rather, the welcoming community of bluegrass fans and players. Before 1997, our family was almost completely isolated, musically. To us, this “music scene” was a revelation. We met many helpful musicians and good friends through the various bluegrass jams and festivals we attended, and the bluegrass style and repertoire gave us a musical foundation to build upon.[2]

Giving Back

Carl and Luke teach their very first bluegrass festival workshop in Grass Valley, 2003.

Carl and Luke teach their very first bluegrass festival workshop in Grass Valley, 2003.

An approach to music so simple and straightforward just had to be shared! And so, starting around 2001, we compiled our discoveries into an appendix for a songbook that we were distributing locally, at cost. We also tested out our ideas on local “guinea pigs”—friends and neighbors near our home in Santa Cruz, CA. Between those tests, feedback from folks using the book, and further accidental discoveries, there always seemed to be room for improvement. So we kept working.

The Method: Polished, Yet Only Half the Puzzle

After years of development, the Method was finally refined into a reliable, efficient way to learn to play by ear. However, it turns out that having an easy way to learn to play music by ear is not enough to accomplish our goals of spreading the joy of music-making. There is a larger problem here; one of perception.

People nowadays are ingrained with a “top down” model of learning. First you study an instrument, get some books, go to a teacher, and of course, practice practice practice. Eventually, after enough time and practice, you’ll be ready to start playing music with other people.

A New Paradigm for Learning Music

After teaching hundreds of students, it is stunningly clear to us: this approach is backwards! Playing music with other people—indeed, learning with other people—should be the plan of action right from the start. This is why we engineered our Get Started program to prepare folks to play with others as soon as possible.

One of the many beginners group classes weve taught. As you can see, its heavily jamming-based!

One of the many beginners' group classes we've taught. As you can see, it's heavily jamming-based!

When you share the learning process with others:

  • you learn faster,
  • progress comes easier, and
  • you have more fun!

It is the joy of playing with others than ignites and sustains the interest in playing, and therein lies the magic—the catalyst.

For this project to succeed, the public needs to be convinced that an organic, “bottom up” approach works better—or at least, is worth a try. This “musical reeducation” is a formidable challenge.

That said, we believe the idea of an easy and egalitarian (democratic) path to learning should appeal to many. The stress and isolation of modern life creates a pull toward deeper, soul-satisfying connection. This is what communal music can offer.

We hope that you will join us, and help us spread the joy.

The Abbotts

  1. We’re the Abbott family, from Santa Cruz, CA. This article is not about us, though, it’s about the ToneWay Project. You can read the About the Authors page from our book for more on our family’s musical story. []
  2. We soon found that the bluegrass style and repertoire left something to be desired in terms of accessibility, among other things. This is part of the reason we adopted the term “mountain music” to represent the style of music we present. More on this in a future article. []