Songs My Father Taught Me

This Father’s Day, Anna & Emily share what they’ve learned about music from their fathers.


When I got my first guitar aged about 8, my Dad taught me two things; how to play a little picking pattern riffing on a D chord, and then how to play it behind my head. It’s a party trick I still have up my sleeve that makes me look far better than I am. I’ve been blagging it a fair bit ever since. 

Both my parents sing, with my mum a classical pianist and Dad a self-taught guitarist and piano vamper.  One day, when practicing clarinet pieces for an upcoming exam, I called for my Mum to come in and accompany me. She was out. “I’ll do it”, said my Dad. “But it’s proper piano, Daddy!” I replied. “Then we’ll improvise.” And we did. We turned a rather dull passage into a jazzy motif, with Dad leaving me a few bars to throw in something I’d made up; it was the best way to learn. 

I’ve never had piano lessons, but what I learned growing up in a busking, vamping household has helped me fake it for over twenty years. When I was 14, we returned from a holiday in Canada and, unable to sleep with my body adjusting to the time difference, I asked my Dad to show me what some of the piano chords for Ocean Colour Scene’s Better Day were. I was away. Knowing my music theory from the clarinet, I was able to apply it to chord structures and there was no stopping me.

With our extensive family library of ‘fake books’ (anthologies of songs with the melody and chords written above them), Dad would introduce me to jazz standards and show tunes I didn’t know, highlighting where it was important to observe suspended chords, or which inversion of the chord might sound better for the song. Being a child and a sponge, I soaked it all in, eager to steal ideas from him and share songs we both knew.

To this day my Dad plays in various bands and runs open mic nights and local music events. As a teen I’d sometimes join, playing sax or singing backing vocals for him, but these days I prefer to sit back and watch him with pride. We still sit at the piano sharing moments from songs that really crunch, dissecting lyrics and exchanging different versions of songs. I guarantee that I wouldn’t be doing what I did today if wasn’t for Daddy Shields’ interest and investment in my music. Thanks Pa! 

Anna and Emily with their fathers, then and now

Anna and Emily with their fathers, then and now


I grew up in a house full of music. On one side my Mum, a classically trained violinist (who grew up in a string quartet made up of her sisters) and enthusiast of all music from Wagner to Simply Red, and my Dad, an avid listener and self-taught guitar player.

My Dad showed me my first guitar chords, and got me hooked. We’d perch on either side of the sofa and belt out Roberta Flack’s The First Time Ever I Saw Your Face and No Doubt’s Don’t Speak. I’d harmonise and we’d get lost in the atmospheric tunes, talking about the stories within the songs and the people behind the lyrics. He taught me to be curious and interested in how the music moved and changed me, how it made me feel. I still have a very visceral relationship with sound, and I thank my Dad for teaching me that music is more than notes on a page.

At university, my musical education continued - my Dad would send a weekly package filled with CD mixtapes and DVDs - documentaries about artists, writers, musicians, along with sheet music and choir performances. Between lectures and rehearsals, I’d push the disks into my student laptop and be filled up with the pick-and-mix programmes curated by my Dad. Even though I was a hundred miles away, I still felt the gentle tutelage of a wise music lover. To this day, he sends me links; to articles, documentaries and other choirs performing. He never misses a performance, travelling across the country to watch me sing, and also to see the fruits of my labour as Starling’s co-director. 

My Dad continues to fill his life with music, as a member of a local ukulele orchestra and volunteering to source, up-cycle and pass on guitars to vulnerable young people in his area, teaching them chords and techniques in small group lessons. I know these students will be getting so much more than free music classes from him. They’ll be learning about how music makes us who we are, and how to see the world differently, too. 

Do you share a song or musical memory with your father? Leave it in the comments below!