It is important to acknowledge from the outset that:
- Nobody is really “self taught”
- A teacher does not make you a better player
A self taught guitarist does not sit in a room with a guitar and no other influences, fumbling around until things start to fall into place. Rather, she will have numerous sources of information, inspiration, and guidance from around the world thanks to our modern ease of access to information and products. Method books, youtube videos, blog posts, concerts, recordings, these days they all play a part in our education.
I think what we are really saying when we talk about “self taught” is the fact that we do not have a regular ongoing connection with a teacher.
To be sure, having a teacher whether it be private or in a group, is a luxury and a privilege. However, it does not mean you will become a better player!
A teacher is a guide. This guide should provide a curated and customized path upon which you can travel. If, along the way, you veer from the path or pick up bad habits then your teacher should intervene and get you back on track. But the teacher can’t practice for you, nor can they give you experience, that is still up to you.
Furthermore, you are not guaranteed to have a good teacher just because you are paying for it. I’ll just leave it at that.
Guitar Learning Spectrum
Like many things in life self learning can be considered on a spectrum.
“I just picked it up”
I suppose there must be some people out there who really did pick up the instrument and figured it out on their own; learning pieces by ear from recordings and watching intently at concerts can provide an adventurous path with mixed results.
In the earlier to mid 20th Century there were fewer pedagogical materials around, and they were difficult to come by. This scarcity resulted in a wonderful flowering of idiomatic playing styles. For all of those who made their idiosyncratic styles work, however, I can only imagine that there was a much larger part of the iceberg for whom the experimental approach was less successful. These days, with such vast resources, guitarists have become more homogenized in both sound and technique.
Hopping around YouTube and the Internet
It is the golden age of information, and classical guitarists get a lovely slice of the pie. Information is not scarce anymore but its proliferation has brought with it some other challenges.
- Quality of instruction has gone out the window
There have always been bad teachers, but now they have a much larger platform to teach from. Unfortunately, marketing and tech prowess can take a poor teacher quite a long way in the online world and while students with some experience may be able to spot these teachers, beginners will have a harder time.
2. Information overload
One of the most important tasks a teacher can undertake is to provide the student with the right information and materials at the right time. Online materials that are disconnected and out of order can be damaging for your progress and leave gaps, sometimes skipping over important foundational steps.
3. Frustration and Motivation
The result of the previous two challenges (quality of instruction and information overload) is frustration.
Rather than blame the teacher or the materials, we tend to blame ourselves first thinking that we can’t do it or the classical guitar is too hard for us. This is the most insidious of the challenges we face in this part of the spectrum because we don’t have anyone there to keep us motivated and on the right path. Add to this a lack of accountability with no one to check in on you and you run the risk of abandoning classical guitar all together.
Affordable, structured, and often of a decent quality, method books have long been a popular method of “self teaching”.
The great advantage of method books is the ability to feel progress through the chapters, have materials provided in a suitable order, and benefit from a thought out program of study.
Teachers who have not developed their own curriculum will often use method books to enhance their private lessons, essentially offering feedback and pacing as you go through the book.
I have nothing against method books, except for the fact that they were created in a time when multimedia was not an option. If you presented me with the option of text, music, and static images vs. video, live sessions, community, audio, text, static images, and combinations of all of the above… I would choose the latter.
Dedicated Online Schools
An online school for classical guitar takes all of the aspects of a traditional method book and enhances them. Images become video demonstrations, written duets for teacher and student have audio play alongs, the repertoire list can continually grow and diversify while remaining structured, and you can learn through nuanced videos rather than reading text.
They also add many new features:
- An online community to keep you motivated and accountable
- Live sessions to provide feedback
- Personalized video responses
- Grading exams
- Goals and rewards
One of the larger benefits provided by method books and online schools that does not exist in private tuition is the ability to absorb information over time. No matter how profound the information your teacher imparts on you, if you don’t understand it, or you are not ready to receive it, then the information is wasted. Online courses allow you to re-visit lessons as many times as you need to let it sink in. In my opinion, this is one of the most underrated qualities of online education.
Of course, online education is not for everyone. It does rely on a modicum of self discipline and at the very least a willing approach to computers. For those whom it does fit, it is a wonderful solution.
Private Teacher/Degree Programs
Usually viewed as the apogee of classical guitar education, this option comes with a big caveat; its effectiveness depends largely on the teacher.
Yes, it is a powerful learning tool to have personalized feedback, however, if you are learning a piece that is too difficult for you, you can have all the feedback in the world and it will do little to help. Likewise, if you have not been taught proper technical or musical fundamentals from the outset, a teacher that is unwilling to take you back and fix those things is doing more of a disservice than anything else.
My biggest gripe with all instrumental teachers (not just classical guitar teachers) is that they were never taught how to teach.
You might be lucky and find a teacher who approaches teaching like the art it is. Someone who is skilled in communicating, and takes care of their students.
On the other hand, you might find a guitarist that is teaching out of financial necessity.
Ultimately, this is on the most effective end of the spectrum for learning classical guitar, just make sure you find a good teacher.
Let’s Bake a Cake
(ingredients that go into a self-learning program)
- The right information at the right time
- The right repertoire at the right time
- The right exercises at the right time
- Inspiration and Motivation
- Consistency and Discipline
- Correction and Guidance
Let’s go through these ingredients and find some solutions for the self learner.
Timing is everything
I have talked about this idea before, but getting your information, exercises, and repertoire at the right time is crucial. By tackling material that is just one step out of reach you will make progress and feel good about it. Its a tricky balance to strike and often where “self learners” feel stuck.
In the Classical Guitar Corner Academy we solve this problem by providing a very structured path through our different levels. As we teach theory, technique, repertoire, sight reading, and other skills it has been effective to carve out a program that walks the student through each lesson while connecting and relating to what has already been learned before. It is highly structured and guides our students through the substantial amount of material provided for them.
Other ways to structure your learning in this manner include using method books and also using the “grade” systems that are available in various countries. These grade systems provide curated repertoire, theory, and technique books (as does Classical Guitar Corner) that are grouped at various difficulty levels. Even if you do not intend to take the exams, these grade systems will provide you a certain amount of curation that can be very useful.
These organizations include:
- The AMEB (Australia)
- ABRSM (UK)
- Trinity College London (UK)
- The Royal Conservatory of Music (Canada)
I cannot overemphasize the importance of playing repertoire that is suited to your level. It is by far the biggest mistake made by guitar students around the world and if you are tackling appropriate material you are already ahead of the game.
Inspiration and Motivation
These two make up the secret sauce of success. If you are inspired and motivated, then you have fuel to practice.
I do my best to provide the classical guitar community at large with inspiration and motivation through the CGC blogs and podcast but I feel like the most powerful source will always be in-person experiences.
This was confirmed for me after running our inaugural CGC Summer School. It was truly a transformative event for the attendees and it has given a palpable boost to our online community throughout the rest of the year.
Attending concerts, masterclasses, regional events, guitar festivals, and classical guitar society events can all provide you with a boost of inspiration. I encourage you to seek out events near you throughout the year, and perhaps save up to travel to one of the many guitar festivals or Summer Schools that run each year.
Consistency and Discipline
Like I said in the beginning, a teacher will not make you a better guitarist, that job is still (and will always be) up to you.
As many of you know, practicing a little each day is better than practicing in one chunk once a week. It is easier said than done, and further complicated with work/family responsibilities.
The hard truth is that you have to make time for practice, it can’t be found.
Take some time to schedule out your practice, and furthermore, be vigilant of how you use that practice time. Set short term, achievable goals and don’t forget to pat yourself on the back when you reach them.
One of the great assets of having a private teacher is that your regular session provides a fixed point in time that aids your consistency and the potential for a pep talk helps you stay disciplined.
Things that can supplant this need include:
Signing up to play at your classical guitar society
Organizing a little soiree (no matter how informal!) and actually inviting people
Registering to take on of the grade exams or certificate courses at CGC
Join a guitar ensemble that requires you to turn up to rehearsals
Basically, you need to set a goal and if you start involving other people in that goal then they can help you by keeping you accountable. Even one persons asking where you were at the last society meeting, or a spouse asking “what happened to that house concert you were talking about?” these can all act as the little nudges that keep us practicing and disciplined.
Correction and Guidance
This is the most tangible benefit of private tuition. So how can we achieve this as a self learner?
- Recording Yourself
As a guitarist you may be a beginner, but you most likely have more musical acumen than you give yourself credit for.
It is easier to sit back and critique playing than it is to actually play (thanks captain obvious!) and you can use this to your advantage by listening back to your own playing. If you have had private lessons in the past then you might be able to acknowledge that more than half the time the teacher is pointing out things that you already knew, you just needed some prodding to work on it. Now you can prod yourself!
Here is a detailed guide on recording yourself for practice.
2. Feedback in forums or societies
At Classical Guitar Corner Academy we have a vibrant forum where teachers and students give feedback on video performances. I also run live sessions where students can play and get personal feedback. I can also recommend Delcamp as an excellent forum for classical guitar but I am not sure if they offer community feedback.
In a similar way, you can play at your local guitar society meeting and get feedback from fellow members.
3. Have a one off lesson
There is nothing stopping you from asking a teacher for a one off lesson. If you have a specific set of things you want to check with a trained set of eyes it could be money very well spent.
Just be sure to have a list of things you want addressed and make it clear to the teacher that is what you want to work on. Think of it like taking your car to the mechanic! You could even record the lesson to go over what was discussed.
4. Masterclasses and workshops
Just like the one off lesson above, you can make the most of masterclasses and workshops that are usually attached to festivals and events by having specific issues addressed in your lesson.
Share your insights
I know many of you are self taught out there, so if you would like to share what has worked for you, please do so in the comments below.