Many years of playing, performing and teaching guitar has led me to believe that there are some basic skills that every well-rounded guitarist should have a basic proficiency at. These are:
1. Playing by Ear
5. Playing with Other Musicians
7. The Blues
8. Confidence/Risk Taking
9. Sight Reading
1. Playing By Ear
The ability to listen to a recording and decipher the exact notes being played is not something you are born with as many believe. It can be achieved by anyone willing to dedicate some time to it.
I can remember attempting to learn my first guitar solos note for note around the age of 14. I would play a few notes over and over again as all budding self taught lead guitarists do. It was a painstaking process because I really didn’t know anything about scales or keys.
When I did finally teach myself a thing or two about scales, I decided that I would use them to create my own solos, not to learn the existing solo in the song. It seemed an easier thing to do. I was in my first band at the time and was declared lead guitarist because I could fake a solo pretty well. I was just using my ear for the most part and piecing together fragments of the pentatonic scale that I learned from a guitar magazine.
Looking back, I realized that this was the best thing I could have been doing. I was training my ear in a way that those who simply read the parts as they were written down don’t experience. This is a common experience for most rock musicians who, maybe because of the rebellious nature of the music, don’t always feel the need to be too formal about learning their instrument. That said, I think the ideal learning experience would have involved a combination of reading music and ear training.
If a student tends to favor one way over another, I would encourage you to inspire that student to focus a little more on the weaker of the two methods (reading or ear learning) to achieve a healthy balance between the two.
The ability to transcribe a part requires the ability to play by ear and hear exact notes and rhythms. But transcription takes it a step further; it involves the added ability to write down these notes and rhythms using traditional musical notation. The pursuit of this skill will increase the overall musicianship of any student willing to try.
These days there are computer programs that make it quite easy to create professional looking sheet music. Most enable you to input tablature. This means that you place fret numbers on representations of individual strings, and the program converts those numbers to actual notes and places them on the proper place on the staff. This is tremendously useful, but one thing the software cannot do is determine the proper note values for you. In order for the music to make sense you must indicate the desired duration of each note. This is why, even with the use of automated software for notating music, transcription is still a valuable exercise for guitar students as it is for all students of music.
I have found it invaluable to ask a student to transcribe a short bit of melody by listening to a recording and writing it out on blank staff paper. It doesn’t have to be a long passage, 4 to 8 measures is fine for starters. It is instructive to see how well they do and how interested they become in the process. You can easily discover which specific concepts they are grasping and which concepts they are having trouble with. If you add this to your curriculum you just might inspire them to become a truly literate musician who plays the guitar rather than simply a guitar player.
Before a student is familiar with the concept of improvisation they may believe that each and every note played by their favorite artist has been thought through and composed before the song is performed or recorded. I have found that the first step in teaching improvisation is to simply define what the heck we mean by the word “improvisation”. This can only really be accomplished by tricking the student into improvising something. I say “tricking” because as you may have experienced, when you ask a student to improvise something they usually give you a blank stare as if to say “what the heck are you talking about.”
At this point I start to play a slow blues progression and ask them to play the pentatonic scale and ignore me completely. What happens next is that they notice even though they are just mindlessly playing the scale the notes they are playing sound strangely musical. They can’t seem to hit a “wrong” note. This has worked time after time for me. Next you ask them to stay on one of the notes and play it over and over, then you ask them to go back and forth between two notes, then three and so forth. They are soon aware of what it means to improvise. It is usually right then and there that they start taking scale study more seriously.
The process of learning to improvise will take the student down three very important paths: 1) asking questions about music theory, 2) listening to themselves, and 3) discovering their own individual creativity. They will begin to find their own “voice” and that is the most valuable lesson you could possibly give a student.
Giving your students basic direction in how to compose a song or musical idea may help them take their talents to whole new levels of career opportunity. Many teachers assume that composition is an advanced skill and one that really shouldn’t be attempted in beginning guitar lessons. I think the exact opposite is true.
After a few chords have been learned and the student has learned to play a few songs it is time for them to write their own song.
I have a simple method for doing this that I would like to share. I am sure I am not alone in using this method but I am always surprised at how many teachers don’t have any method for doing this.
I open up the students manuscript book to a couple of blank pages, draw a G clef on the top line and then draw bar lines so one page now has four measures per line. Then I tell them that this is going to be their song, and I am simply going to write it down for them. Next I simply start asking questions.
What are some of your favorite chords? These are nearly always G, C, D, Em, Am, D7, etc… because these are all they know. (Funny F is never one of them!) I then draw the chosen chords on the chord diagrams at the top of the page. Next I ask “what would you like the first chord to be?” They just pick a chord, any chord, then the second, third and fourth. Usually at this point they start thinking really hard and I have to tell them not to think at all. The process should be somewhat random. I write the chosen chords above each measure asking them how many measures they would like each chord to last. After 4 measures I explain that this is the intro or maybe both the intro/verse and that verses often have 4 to 8 measures or so then repeat. I put in the repeat markers, then say “let’s see how it sounds so far.” Then I ask about a time signature, “three or four strums per measure?”
We play these measures together, discuss a strumming pattern based on the time signature and proceed this way through verse, chorus and bridge. Then we put in the musical directions such as DC, DS, and Coda.
At each step in the process they are learning things little by little about how music is written down. All of the little marks that experienced musicians take for granted are questioned by the student as we go along. They will often ask things like “Why do they used double dots for repeats?” (Most questions I can answer intelligently, but that one had me stumped. I think I answered with something like “Why not?”
In ten minutes or so we have written a song. I explain that it might not be a song that will set the world on fire, or maybe it will be, but you can always change anything you want. It’s your song. For this reason, I always use a pencil. We discuss changing this or that chord, try a different time signature, rearrange the verse chorus sequence, discuss how to end it on what chord and why etc… I usually end the lesson by saying “Now we just need to have a melody, why don’t you go home this week and write some lyrics and next lesson we’ll talk about how to write down a melody?” They always leave the lesson a little prouder and a little more inspired to be a songwriter than when they arrived.
5. Playing With Other Musicians
Music at a fundamental level is a communication skill. It is created by an individual or in a group, but is always intended to be shared with others. The experience of playing music in a group is something that many musicians describe as intensely satisfying, exhilarating and life changing.
It is possible however to begin this too early. If students are not ready to play in a group and get in over their head, they may find the experience to be disheartening and shy away from future chances to do so. (I can attest to this from personal experience). As a teacher you should be aware of this potential situation and don’t encourage a student to try out for a band until you think they are ready. You will know when the time is right for them to venture into this exciting territory, and they most likely will themselves. That said however, it is just as important to take risks that will challenge you to do your very best. Every time you play you learn something.
Playing in a band provides many opportunities for growth both musically and personally. It can exponentially increase a student’s self confidence and musicianship. It can also build strong communication skills and foster lifelong mutually rewarding friendships.
In this sense, the ability to play with other musicians is more than just learning how to stay synchronized with another player or group of players. It requires a commitment not just to show up for rehearsals and gigs on time, but the commitment to do your personal best and learn the material properly. When you are in a band you have a very real responsibility to the others in your group and to your potential audience. You find that you want to practice harder because you don’t want to let yourself, your bandmates, or your audience down by giving a half hearted or sloppy performance.
As a teacher you are perfectly positioned to be a significant source of support to a student who is just starting out in a band. They will have questions about the music of course, but they will also be interested in what you may know about the required equipment (guitars, amps, microphones, effects, etc.) They may also want to pick your brain about the best places to play, how to get a gig at a club or how to deal with a troublesome band mate. This is one of the more fulfilling aspects of being a teacher. It is expected that a teacher should be helpful concerning the musical execution and performance of songs, but it is a real privilege to be asked for help in other areas of a students life as they begin the adventure of becoming a performing musician.
Even if you don’t have an extensive performing background, your advice will be valuable because it is coming from an adult who is not a parent or a “school teacher.” When asked for advice, you can simply do the best you can and show confidence that they can do whatever they set their minds on.
I have a friend that teaches drums down the hall from me who has had the pleasure to teach a student who later went on to become a world class jazz drummer. He speaks of this student with great pride and you can tell it makes every minute worth it when you can point to a great success story such as this.
Helping a student to be confident, compatible and comfortable with other musicians is truly one of the most rewarding aspects of teaching guitar.
Without listeners there can be no music. So much can be learned by putting down the instrument and just plain listening. When you listen intently you do the performer and composer of the music a great honor. You participate in a spiritual experience that the human race has defined as art and music. All the hard work, practice, intellectual and emotional effort the composer has expended comes to fruition when you, a solitary listener, puts on those headphones or sits in that audience and simply pays attention to the music.
Does a student really need to be taught to listen to music? You would think this is something someone either does or doesn’t do, depending on whether or not they enjoy it. I am always amazed by the number of students who can’t, or don’t want to, tell me a single artist that they enjoy listening to. Maybe they are just casual listeners of the car radio and don’t really pay attention to song or artist names, and that’s okay. But it is obvious that the ones who really do actively listen are the better students. The really great students are the music “fans.” They are taking lessons because they love music and it often shows in how much they know about this or that band or recording artist.
There is not too much you can do to inspire someone who is not already inspired to listen to more music. But there are some things that are helpful. One thing I do quite often if I know my student hasn’t even listened to the song we are learning is to simply let the song play on the stereo and leave the studio for a few minutes to go to the restroom, or to get some paper, or some other excuse. When I come back, I know that they have had no choice but to sit and listen, just themselves and the music, if even for those few short minutes.
Today it is easier than ever to find ways to listen to music. We have CD’s, iPods, iPads, cellphones, boom boxes, car stereos. Everywhere we go there is music playing in the background. With all this it seems that actual “listening” is becoming a lost art. I know this from personal experience. I have gone through several phases where my music listening time has dropped off a cliff! I think this a partly a cultural thing. I can identify with a young student today because I am a bit of a techno geek myself. There are so many other choices today. You can watch TV, surf the Internet, chat or post on social networking sites, or simply play with your smart phone for hours! Where do you find the time to just sit and listen?
How many of us have spent much time lately experiencing an entire album? In my younger years I would spend hours each day just listening and pouring over the album notes for information on the band, who played what instrument, where and when the album was recorded, what are the lyrics? what does the song mean? who wrote the lyrics? But this was because the album notes and cover art in those days were larger and much more extensive. In todays Mp3 world this sort of information is no longer connected to the song or album itself as it was with album and CD liner notes. If you download a song or even an album and want to know who the guitarist is or the drummer, you are simply out of luck. The information is there, somewhere, on the Internet but you have to go and really search for it. I hope the record companies realize how valuable such information is to serious music collectors and find some way to include this information with the digital formats.
All this talk about the good old days of album listening is simply to make the point that serious listening still matters, especially for musicians. I would hope that you can use whatever influence you have to inspire your students to spend more time just plain listening. It doesn’t matter what it is, heavy metal, classical, jazz, folk, country, only that we listen. When we pay attention we complete a circle of inspiration that enriches the lives of the composer, performer and the listener equally.
7. The Blues
“The blues had a baby and they called it rock and roll” – Muddy Waters.
If the blues was the father, jazz was probably the mother. The fact is that all of todays popular music grew out of the blues, including jazz and rock and pop and funk and punk and heavy metal. Just about any major genre you can think of evolved from the blues. This is why it is so important for you to provide at least the basics of this musical form to your students.
The blues is often seen by younger students as old people music. This is a significant hurdle to overcome sometimes, but it is very possible to overcome it. The blues is a starting point. I explain to my students that when two musicians from very different backgrounds meet for the first time, they start by playing the blues.
I usually introduce the concept of improvisation to my students having them attempt a guitar solo over a simple blues progression. Often times that is all I need to do to demonstrate the power of the blues. When they hear themselves using a simple pentatonic scale to create music on the fly without hitting any “wrong” notes, I can see a big smile coming over their face and I know they understand the power of the blues. Nothing more need be said they now “get” why the blues are an important musical form.
8. Confidence/Risk Taking
Being successful at music is 90% confidence, maybe higher. Our job as music teachers is to build this confidence with every note or chord that a student plays. To teach confidence you need to show undying confidence in your student. Let them know that it is always ok to make mistakes. If mistakes are seen as part of the adventure of learning, the risk taking part of the equation will take care of itself.
Playing along with a recording is a great way to instill confidence in your students. Being able to do this successfully proves to you and the student that they can keep up with a band, keep steady time and anticipate the changing sections of the song. It is also a good idea for you to regularly play a song along with the student. This provides the confidence that they can play with the “big boys.”
Regular compliments do wonders too. When they do a good job be sure to tell them. I usually make a point to tell them privately during and after the lesson that they are “doing great” and then (if it is a younger student) I try to repeat this after the lesson when their parent picks them up. It means the world to them to have their parents feel like things are working out. It’s a bonus if their are other students around that can overhear your compliments too. Where I teach there are always lots of students coming and going in the halls between lessons so I save some of my kind words specifically for that time when the others can hear them as well. The student usually leaves with a little extra spring in their step – as they should. Playing guitar, or any instrument is hard work and even the smallest step forward should be recognized and celebrated.
9. Sight Reading
I recently bought a new piano and was inspired to research ways to approach the development of sight reading on that instrument. In doing this research I learned that many traditional piano teachers neglected teaching pure sight reading skills in favor of “studying” a piece of music. If this is true of piano lessons generally, it is exponentially more true in the world of guitar lessons. How many guitarists do you know who can sight read a piece of music with any kind of fluency? I’m not talking about reading chord charts, but rather single note lines with occasional double stops and stacked chords. In my experience it is very rare.
In order to make my point, I should first describe what I mean by the term “pure sight reading” or simply “sight reading” in relation to “studying” a piece of music.
In studying a piece of music, the student, who has been taught the mechanics of reading moves through the piece measure by measure deciphering the notes, fingerings, phrases, tempos and rhythms. The student may repeat the same measure, or even the same two notes, over and over until they are comfortable before moving on the next note or two. This is a totally valid way of learning music of course and I highly suggest this method myself. In contrast however the concept of “sight reading” involves moving through a piece of music previously not seen before without stopping and playing one note after the next with a steady if very slow tempo.
So, basically in “sight reading” the intent is to perform a piece of music as accurately as possible for the first time, and in “studying” the music is learned slowly in starts and stops along the way as needed.
The point I would like to make here is that I believe guitar players constantly shortchange themselves as musicians when then neglect the skill of sight reading. True, sight reading for guitar is more difficult than other instruments such as the piano, due to the way the guitar is tuned and constructed. This should be recognized as a hurdle but too often it is used as an excuse not to develop sight reading skills at all.
Encourage your students to read music no matter how simple the pieces are. In fact, the simpler the pieces are the better. You want to challenge them but not to the degree that it becomes too frustrating. We all know that you can become a good or even great guitarist without this skill, but the increase in musicianship that results from developing sight reading skills should not be underestimated.
Keeping a music notebook or scrapbook is a great way for your students to begin developing a repertoire. A three ring binder with top loading, clear plastic sheet protectors is perfect for this. The binder format enables easy rearranging of the material and the sheet protectors eliminate the need for using those annoying 3 hole punch things. Without sheet protectors, the pages would just keep tearing out.
Much of the time, you will be writing songs, lessons and exercises in a blank staff paper/tablature book, but when the material is printed out from a computer file or copied from a workbook it can go in the scrapbook. Many students don’t like to bother with this at first but those who take the time to maintain a notebook always seem to be more organized and productive. They are also more likely to actually finish the songs they have started because every time they open the book, there it is. When a song is finished and memorized it can simply be removed to make room for the material the student is actively working on.
The items described in this chapter are central to developing a well rounded musical experience for your students. Not all students will excel in all the areas discussed here, but neither do all serious guitarists. It is something to aim for over the long haul, and as you know, our journey is never complete.