I’m approaching my third semester of online guitar teaching. They don’t prepare you for this possibility in your undergrad experience. How could they? Why would they?
A door has been closed, and I’m trying the windows.
Truth is, I’ve been teaching studio and classroom guitar most of my adult life, and I’m still trying to figure out what it means to ‘teach guitar.’ I’m revising it as I go along.
Part of the re-framing comes from colleagues who insist that I’m hopelessly and inherently biased from a Western-European world-view. But that worldview is not myopic. It’s deliciously Spanish,Italian, and Celtic.
Further, the guitar is a world traveler, and it establishes new traditions as it settles in.
Then there’s the lute, the balalaika, the charango…
The varieties and permutations boggle the mind.
And as guitar players become collectors, collections soon include mandolins, banjos, ukuleles. And with that curiosity, the discovery of other cultures.
In short, guitar education is a world music education. And the guitar is a passport.
So back to the question,
“What does it mean to ‘teach guitar?’
And what does it mean to ‘learn the guitar?’
For one thing, ‘guitar education’ is fraught with disclaimers.
Using an image of a traditional guitar diagram, we tell students that the strings are numbered 1-6, but are sequenced right to left.
To go up the neck is to move down the diagram.
When playing, the highest string is closest to the ground.
It’s hard enough explaining all this in a traditional classroom. But it’s an especially rough go in Google classroom where your tongue gets twisted trying to explain that “The thick string is the sixth string.”
Students may also be asked to learn a variety of notational systems:
G clef, tablature, chord diagrams, the pima system, or Fake Book symbols
It’s a multi-lingual education you can’t learn from watching cartoons (or can you?)
Questions posed by a new student may well be answered with a qualified, “Well, that depends.”
“What is the tuning of a guitar?”
Well,that depends on the sonicsyou’re going for, the literature you want to study, or any physical obstacles you’re dealing with (I once saw a one-armed guitar player who tuned his guitar to a chord, then used his index finger as movable capo and plucked with the other fingers of his hand.
“Must I use a pick?”
Well, that depends (in part) on the style of music you’re learning. Classical style eschews the plectrum. If you’re a West Montgomery disciple, you’ll learn to get the most out of your thumb.
Beyond that, certain techniques are better suited to either flat-picking or finger-style. So the student needs to understand the differences and learn something about discretion.
“How do I hold the guitar?”
Well, again, that depends. Classical style is strict on this, and for good reason. The demands of the literature are more easily met by adhering to standard Classical posture. The guitar is traditionally held with the 6th string on top. However, if you’re a lefty and all you have is a right-hand guitar, you may choose to play it upside down like Elizabeth Cotten. Having said that, some players place the guitar on their lap, raise the action and re-tune the guitar to a chord. If you’re a member of a British invasion group, you’re likely to hold the guitar over your chest.
“Do I need to learn to read the G clef?”
Well, that depends. If you’re traveling abroad, you can bumble through knowing nothing beyond your native tongue. But a basic understanding of another language will help when you’re trying to read a menu. Not all literature is tabbed out. Some music is too complicated to learn by Youtube tutorial. Consider it cultural capital.
I’ve sat in collaborative sessions with other classroom guitar teachers who are so concerned about imposing their culture that the main objective for their students is that they will learn how to “produce a sound of it.”
That’s a pretty low bar.
Harold Hill’s ‘think system’ may work in the La-La-Land of Broadway’s “The Music Man.” But what are we as teachers if we make apologies for a liberating world of literacy, and shield our students from the wealth of that knowledge – or any schools of knowledge that are waiting to be discovered beyond the comfortable routines of our tradition and experience?
In this pandemic we can either be stymied or stimulated.
So I continue to teach what I know, infused with caveats and condition. But also a menu of options and delightful world detours. It keeps the door open.
I’ve got a soft-spot for Gretsch guitars. And you’ll fall in love with what’s highlighted in our Product menu. Perfect for studio work, or for that classroom student who’s ready to develop some solo chops.
Find new ways to work the chord shapes in the rich harmonies of a pensive Brazilian duet (or is it French?)