When I first left university I was thrown into a wide variety of teaching situations. For years I had been teaching adults, and I had become quite good at explaining musical concepts to people with a high level of cognition. Suddenly, I was teaching little kids. Four year olds that were swallowed by the guitar, cute as a button eight year olds, precocious pre-teens, it was a whole new challenge.
After a steep learning curve and some much needed guidance from my peers I began to teach young people more effectively. The true value of a sticker was a revelation to me, as were games and 10 second time-outs. It became very clear that a whole new skill set was needed. As I began to improve my teaching skills with young guitarists one aspect started to stand out as a stark difference between youth and adults that is very much in the favor of youth and continues to impact CGC members’ learning today.
The thing about working with adults is that they can process some pretty complex explanations. Communication tools such as analogy and metaphor are useful. Furthermore, an adult can concentrate for longer periods of time and receive instruction that is not customized to them specifically and identify what information is pertinent for them as an individual (hence the effectiveness of an online curriculum).
Along with these abilities comes a sense of entitlement that can be quite debilitating. The word “entitlement” can come across as a negative term, perhaps referring to a precocious young adult that feels the world owes him something. In this case, however, the entitlement here isa very positive trait. It is the entitlement to ask questions, to question a teacher, and to feel empowered to research your own answers. It can be profoundly effective for an autodidact, but it can also get you stuck in the mud.
It gets you stuck because no one teacher’s information can be trusted until it is corroborated by other sources. This matter is also hindered by the false assumption that there is a right way to do things and a wrong way.
Kids, who don’t have the same sense of entitlement to ask as many questions, will take the information they are given and run with it. More importantly still, they will take it in the order it is presented.
One of the reasons adults can get stuck, or slowed down, is because their inquiries take them down paths that are too advanced for their abilities. No doubt, the information they find along the way will inform their playing in the long run, but if it is too far out of kilter with their current level, it can produce more questions than answers.
Part of the reason the CGC membership has been so effective is the structured curriculum. It solves the problem of over-information. Before the internet it was a challenge to get information, now the challenge is to consume the overflowing information in a meaningful way.
So, that is the background to these next points. I was inspired to write down these common questions and answers as John, a CGC member, asked a question that crops up on a regular basis. Let’s start with it right now:
The alternation “rule”
Most of your instructions for the exercises state to use i m or m i and to take care not to repeat fingers. This leads to some awkward string crossings, so I often throw in a to avoid that problem. Any reason not to do that?
I got the idea from Matt Palmer, who uses a m i for his fast scales. He goes on to say that he uses a m i whenever he can, which really simplifies RH fingering. I like it, too, but I am not a pro so I would like your opinion.
Also, in a piece of music, I might use a slur to avoid repeating a finger and a bad string crossing. – John
John is absolutely right to think that slurs, the a finger and other inventive right hand fingering can be used to make playing more comfortable and effective. He has come to this insight from his own research into resources like Matt Palmer’s book, which deep-dives into ami scale technique. John has found some advanced answers, answers that are useful for advanced problems.
The issue here is not the answer, however, but rather that this question was asked on a Level 1 technical routine! It is an example of thinking too deeply on why we are practicing a particular exercise.
The reason we use strict im alternation in the early stages of the CGC curriculum is that we need to develop good alternation habits from the beginning. The problem that arises with almost everyone is that of repeating fingers. I go over this in great detail in the Level 1 Technique Course but let me give you the nuts and bolts of it.
Alternating fingers in the right hand allows us to maintain a relaxed hand and it allows for more speed and fluency. The simplest analogy is that of hopping vs. walking. Walking is more effective and does not build up tension in our body.
When we alternate our fingers we will inevitably come across a “bad” string crossing. To demonstrate this, simply take your guitar and place your i finger on the second string and your m finger on the third string. Now swap them over. You will find that one position is more comfortable than the other because it allows the hand to be in a natural, relaxed position.
In a perfect world we would only ever have to deal with the more comfortable of the two string crossings. But, the reality is that we have to deal with them all the time. Just play a one octave scale and you will find some.
If we have not developed good alternation habits, then the hand will try and “cheat” around the awkward string crossing by repeating a finger. Repeating fingers in the right hand, unconsciously, will build tension and end up affecting your technique negatively. For this reason it is important to develop good alternation habits early on, and tackle the repeated finger issue before matters get more complex in the right hand (a finger, slurs etc.)
Now. To further clarify a connected issue.
The “repeated fingers issue” is insidious because we often don’t know we are doing it.
If you want to check, just film your right hand with your phone and find out.
Once students learn this they will often relegate this rule to : alternation = good, repeating fingers = bad.
This misconception is held by many because they have come across information out of order or they are not following a structured curriculum. So let me clarify.
Repeated fingers that you are unaware about, are not good. Repeated fingers that are repeated knowingly and consciously? Absolutely fine!
Think about hopping again. Would you ever tell someone that hopping is bad for their health and they shouldn’t do it? No, of course not. People should not have their hopping hindered.
Would you, however, tell someone if every seven steps they were unwittingly including a hop and starting to get hip pain?
Repeating fingers at a slow tempo, or for specific passages is completely fine, and in some cases it can be used to great effect with sound and control consistency. If any of you have ever seen the opening four notes to my Bach Fugue BWV 1001… I repeat the index finger four times right at the outset because I want to control those first four notes as best as I can.
Is this piece too hard for me?
“Advice is what we ask when we know the answer but don’t want to hear it.”
I can’t remember when I first heard this little aphorism, but I enjoy reciting it to myself.
This topic has come up several times before at Classical Guitar Corner but it is so important and so pervasive I am happy to ring this bell once more. Perhaps the most damaging act a student can do is to undertake repertoire that is too difficult. It can cause bad technique habits, scar good repertoire for the rest of your life and result in will likely be some objectively bad playing. But all of this is secondary to the risk of running into frustration and dissolution that can lead to giving up. That would be the real tragedy.
With kids, you can give them a piece that is right for their level and they will accept it with little questioning. With adults, they want to play what they “like”. This is in part why kids can make stellar progress and why adults can feel stymied. It takes discipline and often a good teacher with knowledge of the student repertoire, but sticking to pieces that at are easy enough while still offering musical rewards and technical challenges is key to improvement.
I have done this at CGC with the repertoire books, many other authors have also collated studies and repertoire. In the end, the responsibility lies solely with you to resist jumping in the deep end of the pool.
There are always more questions… and I would love to hear them. I hope to be bringing in some guests for Q&A on the podcast so please leave questions below and you might get picked for some in depth answers!