Method of Teaching
Teaching methods vary according to a pupil’s needs/wants, level of playing, style of music, and other assorted factors. The subject matter of a lesson for one pupil may be completely different from that of another. Moreover, it’s often not until after the first few lessons that I can begin to assess the appropriate amount of information/instruction a particular pupil will comfortably assimilate. I try to aim for a balance between, on the one hand, overloading, and, on the other, not providing enough practice material for each pupil.
As a teacher, I also have to be prepared to sometimes adopt different strategies to maintain a pupil’s enthusiasm and interest, should I detect an element of staleness setting in. Such a situation tends to apply only to a beginner (usually of school age) and is in most cases down to a lack of practice between lessons.
Apart from considerations relating to the general pacing of individual lessons it’s also important to bear in mind that individuals learn in different ways. Some people are quite comfortable with an accumulating pile of written material, others respond better to a more practical and aural approach e.g. playing the musical exercises or piece slowly but thoroughly during the lesson until they’re 100% certain of what and how to practise. As regards children it will very much depend on their age. A child of 7, for example, is unlikely to have a similar level of comprehension as that of a child of 10.
Much of the teaching material I use is of my own design, modified and developed, over years of teaching, in such a way that crucial information relating to the rudiments of music can be understood in an effective and relatively simple fashion. But nothing’s static, there’s always a need to come up with some new ways of teaching some aspect of music that sparks a pupil’s interest or that the pupil hasn’t fully grasped e.g. reading rhythm. I should point out that such issues aren’t exclusive to one particular style of music. It’s quite possible that in the course of teaching the chords to a song (anything from Gershwin to Ed Sheeran) a pupil finds they’d like to explore further aspects relating to harmony in general…..or it may be that as a result of going over typical phrases found in rockabilly guitar solos a pupil realises the value and purpose of not only practising but also thoroughly mastering scales and arpeggios right across the length of the fingerboard…..or on the other hand, the subject matter could be the effect of the changing dynamics within a piece of classical guitar music.
For complete beginners there are, of course, aspects of guitar playing that will be common, irrespective of the style of music a pupil wants to learn – an obvious example being the principles behind good playing technique. There are, for instance, guidelines relating to the working of both left and right hands that will lead more readily to fluency, accuracy, and good tone. Such guidelines, particularly in relation to the right hand, will be more detailed and more exacting for classical guitarists.
In the first lesson I generally try to establish what a pupil would like to achieve in terms of guitar playing. Some, irrespective of age, may simply wish to learn how to strum chords to favourite songs. Some may want to learn to read music whilst others may want to learn to play guitar solos via TAB.
Most of my classical guitar pupils tend to stay with that style of playing but a few will venture into the rock territory. Are there any advantages or disadvantages in trying to tackle more than one style? If there are problems it’s usually down to time constraints because if you’re aiming to develop your musical and performance skills to high level then choices have to be made. On a very basic level, one major difference between, on the one hand, classical and on the other, rock, country, bluegrass, and jazz playing has to do with the way in which in which the strings are struck. Classical guitarists use fingers (in most cases it’s actually the fingernails that are responsible for the tone) and thumb(nail). For the other styles mentioned it’s the plectrum (also known as a pick) that’s mostly used to set the strings vibrating.
The skill involved in either method of playing will require a considerable amount of practice, depending on how a high a standard one is aiming for. Most players who cross the stylistic boundaries, playing both classical and plectrum style, enjoy the contrast between the ‘feel’ as well as the sound of the plectrum/pick striking the strings and the more direct, tactile feel of the fingers striking the strings.
How much emphasis do I place on reading music?
Adults who’ve already learnt to play some chord shapes or guitar solos via the system known as TAB are often reluctant to embark on a course of learning standard notation, mainly because it requires patience and a willingness to play very basic musical exercises (i.e. not very exciting from a musical perspective). In the course of an hour long lesson I often manage to persuade the novice sight reader to take some small steps in the direction of acquiring a skill common to musicians across the globe.
If the pupil definitely does not want to go down that road I don’t insist.
From a teaching perspective, however, it is at best very difficult, and often practically impossible, to explain certain musical concepts – concepts that, once understood, would enable the guitarist to become much more versatile and musically confident – if the pupil has practically no knowledge of any musical theory or music reading skills e.g. how do you explain that much of Robben Ford’s musical style is due to the fact that his blues playing is embellished by his considerable use of the whole-half scale, and through his use of flattened 5ths, sharp 9ths, 13ths, and chord inversions if the pupil is not conversant with scales, intervals, key signatures and so on?
In the case of children I teach music (notation) reading as part of the overall guitar tuition sessions. It’s rarely a problem as children tend to be more receptive to the idea that playing an instrument and reading music are two sides of the same coin.
RGT Rock Guitar
To achieve a good mark at Rock guitar exams you need, even at Grade 1, to acquire several musical skills, some of which relate specifically to guitar playing, whilst some relate to music in a more general sense.
The guitar-related skills involve knowledge of chords, scales and arpeggios, aural ability, and knowledge of notes across the fingerboard. The candidate also has to demonstrate an ability to improvise (which, in the case of classical guitar exams, is an option rather than a requirement).
Much of my tutoring in rock guitar involves developing this skill, a skill that is not as prevalent as it once was, due to pop/rock’s increasing emphasis over the past few decades, on the song and the singer as opposed to actual instrumental ability. It wouldn’t be much of an exaggeration to say that instrumental virtuosity came to be viewed by many, particularly in mainstream rock, as a kind of musical plague. Fortunately, thanks to players such as Joe Bonamassa, Laurence Jones, Josh Smith (just a few blues/rock guitarists you’re unlikely to see on Bristish television), great blues playing is very much alive.
For pupils who enjoy playing guitar learning to improvise opens up a whole musically creative side to a player. Improvising is synonymous with thinking and playing ‘on the hoof’. The best players invent musical phrases, one after the other, that combine to create a solo that should move the listener. It is, of course what all the great jazz players have been doing for approx. the last hundred years.
Considering that there is also a requirement to demonstrate aural ability, the RGT electric guitar exams are, in some respects, more demanding than Trinity’s classical guitar exams.
Although being able to read music isn’t essential for rock guitar exams you’ll still be expected to know the names of the notes that you’re playing. Acquiring music reading skills to a certain level would therefore be hugely advantageous.
Classical Guitar Exams
The basic requirements may be summarised as follows:
You have to perform 3 pieces; learn a certain amount of scales and arpeggios; be able to sight read; have some musical knowledge – enough to be able to answer questions relating to the 3 pieces. Obviously, it all gets that bit more challenging the higher the grade exam you enter. For each exam you will need to buy a book containing musical pieces, 3 of which you’ll have to play in the exam}. As for sight reading skills I provide a wealth of my own material to enable the pupil to attain the requisite level.
……..and of course you’ll need a classical guitar.
 There are exceptions: for example, Mark Knopfler (rock) and Jeff Beck (rock and jazz/rock) use fingers and thumb; Jim Mullen (jazz) uses his thumb rather than a pick.