It’s Only Hard Until You Know It

During my seven-year stint teaching music at the International School of Berne, Switzerland, January and February months were sacred – the height of ski season. For seven Fridays in a row, all students grades 2 and up embarked on a 90 minute train ride to Zweisimmen for a day of skiing.

The younger students took a short tram ride to  a nearby indoor ice rink. I’d never learned to ski or ice skate as a child. Growing up in Northwest Iowa, it just wasn’t part of our culture.

So when I was asked to play responsible adult for the occasional elementary skating day, I marveled at the sight of a few dozen international students (6 to 8-year olds) yanking up snow pants, lacing up skates, and walking out on the ice. When your home country is from somewhere in SE Asia, or the Mediterannean, this is hardly an inherited practice.

Once, on the tram ride, I sat next to a precocious girl whose parents were Chinese diplomats. I asked her if it was hard to learn how to ice skate. She thought a minute, and then offered this bit of wisdom: 

“It’s only hard ‘till you know it.”

That little jewel of truth has echoed in my brain ever since. And it’s shaped the way I guide my students through any ambivalence or anxieties about the learning process – no matter the nature of that learning.

It’s only hard until you know it.

I was self-taught, but I believe in the value of an intentional method book. As long as the teacher and student go through that method book, well, methodically. That requires patience. Patience for developing skill and technique, but also patience for developing a deeper understanding of concepts. Zen and the Art of Musical Notation. Zen and the Art of Sound and Physics. Zen and the Art of Mechanical Design. 

Most books designed for DIYr’s or studio lessons start off in a similar fashion.

Hal Leonard Guitar Method Book 1 , Jerry Snyder’s Guitar School Book 1, and Charles Duncan’s “A Modern Approach to Classical Guitar,” for example, are front-loaded with a lot of basic stuff – stuff that is more or less useful, but much of it more useful once you’re up and running.

This ‘front-end’ information can be either a slog, or a good opportunity to find out what he/she already knows and to clarify definitions, terms, and symbols.

There’s also typically a diagram of the guitar, with arrows identifying everything from the moving parts (machine heads), to the structural (saddle), to the ornate (sound hole rosette). It’s easy to overlook this information, but it does provide yet another opportunity to foster curiosity and provoke questions. 

NOTE: In the classroom, guitar structure and mechanics are actually worthy of a separate unit of study. Explore the possibilities of an interdisciplinary unit with your high school physics teacher. Short simple presentations like the one in the link below might even encourage the tech nerds in the room to consider pursuing a trade as a luthier. Trades may seem difficult in theory. But it helps to observe a master who makes it look easy. 

How Acoustic Guitars Are Made

Once the student knows the difference between a nut and a bridge, method books often address how to sit, where to place your arms, hands and legs, advice on fingernail care – all of it a good reason to discuss ‘why’ this is all matters. It follows with a few pages explaining pitch and rhythmic notation, and perhaps some starter tips on the pima method.

What’s missing from most of the books I see is a separate glossary of terms. Vocabulary words, when introduced, are presented in bold or italic. But an actual list of keywords with definitions would benefit the student.

In my classroom work, I organize the learning in units with a glossary specific to the learning objectives for the unit.

Self-taught guitarists will always be tempted to skim over basic theory concepts. It’s up to the studio or classroom teacher to incorporate them into our teaching in ways that make the abstract accessible, and the mundane exciting. David Perkins from Harvard’s “Project Zero” calls this process Taming the Wild/Wilding the Tame. I had the privilege of hearing him speak on this at Harvard University’s “Project Zero” years ago, and it was a game-changer for me.

One way to tame the wild process of learning theory is to turn it into a computer game. I talked in an earlier blog post about the website Musictheory.net. I use it as an assessment tool. It’s an easy set-up for students, and ‘chunks down’ the learning into manageable bites.

Open the link below for a sample tutorial.

Musictheory.net video tutorial

If you’re looking for a physical workbook to serve as companion to your lessons, here are a few recommendations.

Guy Capuzzo’s “Theory for the Contemporary Guitarist”  is loaded with terminology, taking the student from basic theory to altered and extended chords. He includes worksheet exercises with every lesson (answer keys are on the same page, upside down) and a full glossary in the back. It’s thorough. 95 pages

Burgess Speed’s Guitar Theory Workbook goes the same route. This workbook, however, incorporates heavy use of tablature literacy in the written examples, where Capuzzo’s approach is focused on standard notation, supplemented by chord diagrams. Burgess’s method also comes with a code which provides online access for audio examples and ear training. Answer key is in the back. No glossary. 96 pages.

 Hal Leonard Guitar Music Theory, is strictly a tablature approach. After a few pages of reviews on basics, it jumps right into the topic of intervals in chapter 1. The cover promises that lessons are contextualized in the music of The Beatles, Bob Marley, Freddie King, Van Halen, U2, and the ever-popular “more.” A clean, easy lay-out and coming in at just 48 pages, this may be the least foreboding option for the young player.

Of course, any book requires a physical teacher to give it life. Choose the one that suits your own understanding, and your goals for your students.

Don’t assume that students will find this kind of conceptual learning boring or stuffy.

Perhaps they’ll balk at it being too hard. 

Everything worth doing is hard. 

Until you know it.


“Chunking it down” is one effective way of breaking difficult tasks in to manageable bits. In the Academics tab you’ll find some excellent tips from veteran middle school string teacher Riley Broach.

In Trade Publications, Acoustic Guitar magazine features an article from Michael Chapdelaine on ways to focus on strengthening the left hand for better motor-skill efficiency.

Our Artist Feature this time out introduces a Kenya-born Minneapolis immigrant with an interesting take on what he considers ‘exotic’ music.

For more help on mastering the motor skills required to get past the “this is hard stage,” our Method Book tab offers yet another resource full of ways to put you and your student through a fitness plan.

If your student is sitting in another class or otherwise away from the guitar, there are some ideas in Product Info that keep the left hand in shape.

And when it’s time to get practical, our Repertoire section offers a study in C by Fernando Sor.