by Simon Powis
Common advice to a beginner classical guitarist is to find yourself the best classical guitar teacher available, but what exactly makes a good teacher? Furthermore, how do you know if you are getting good instruction when the lessons are private?
The initial allure of a teacher might come from an impressive performance CV. However, the fact that a guitarist might be a great performer does not always translate into being a great teacher. Sometimes, musicians who have a natural aptitude for playing may actually lack teaching fundamentals as their own innate ability meant that they never worked through the nuts and bolts of studying the instrument like most of us have to.
Teaching is quite a separate art form from performing and it can sometimes be easy for a performer to fall into the trap of apathetic teaching for the sole reason of paying the bills. If this happens it is negative for all involved and can create an ongoing chain of destructive events. Another issue is that many teachers are self taught often copying what they were shown as a student or making it up as they go along. This might happen to work for some, but the absence of any formal pedagogical training can and does create a very diverse array of teaching standards. I for one have always thought that the gaping whole in current university training for classical guitarists, or any music performer for that matter, is a strong foundation in pedagogy. For better or for worse, almost all professional musicians will teach at some point in their career, so I think it would be prudent to offer proper pedagogical training for this eventuality.
So, let’s have a look at some of the elements that make up a good classical guitar teacher. Have your say in the comments below:
Patience and foundation
Classical guitarists love playing pieces. They love playing fast pieces (don’t get me started on this…). They love playing so much that they can’t wait to play the biggest, baddest, fastest, fanciest pieces. This is all a wonderful thing, it is passion and enthusiasm and energy. Where a classical guitar teacher needs to come in, is to harness that unbridled passion and steer the student on a steady, progressive course of study. The initial disappointment of not playing Asturias by the second week will soon be replaced by a sense of real progress. Achieving small goals on a regular basis is fuel for a fire that burns over years, not a hot flash that lasts for a month or two.
The number one problem I see time and time again is that students are playing repertoire that is too difficult. The inevitable result is frustration with the instrument and self doubt as a player. A sour mix. I really don’t blame the student for jumping the gun but I often think “what on earth was this teacher thinking!?!”. My theory is that some teachers just teach repertoire that they know themselves, and if it has been a long time since they played Sor Op.60 they tend to jump twenty steps and give a beginner Bach. Or, perhaps they simply don’t care that much so they let the student choose whatever they want, which is like letting a kid loose in a candy store with a credit card.
A good foundation is crucial, it will set the student up for the numerous challenges to come. Patience will allow constant progress, and reveal the beauties of simple pieces played with excellence.
Teaching how and why not what and where
Sometimes I feel like students just want someone to verbalize the instructions on the score. Put your second finger there, use your index on the third string… this kind of simple instruction is not only very limited in terms of advancing the student’s skills it also is completely mind numbing for the teacher. The instructions are all there on the page, and a motivated student should not need someone to read them out loud. Instead, a teacher should be guiding the student through the why and how of the piece. Why is this fingering the way it is? How can you perform that technique? Why would the composer use that note there and how do I practice this passage to make it sound better? In a nutshell, the best classical guitar teacher will teach the student how to teach themselves.
The actual progress made by the music student happens not in the lesson, but at home in the practice sessions. The lessons are there for guidance, encouragement, and information amongst other things. The practice sessions are where all of these skills and techniques get put into use. If a student only practices in the actual lesson, then they are 1. going to progress at a snail’s pace and 2. paying a lot of money to practice!!
Practice sessions should have structure, goals, variation, repetition etc. and it is the teacher who needs to teach the student how to run these practice sessions. The immense discipline it takes to practice well does not come naturally to everyone so the best classical guitar teacher will make sure to teach not only how to play the instrument but how to practice effectively for progress. A teacher should encourage the student to think about their playing in an inquisitive fashion as opposed to carrying out a set of orders laid on a musical staff.
Communication and passion
Communication has always been key in education. Often concepts passed on from teacher to student are really not that complex, however, if the communication is not there, even the simplest of ideas may not be understood. Everyone learns a different way, so the best classical guitar teacher should be aware of how each student learns and cater to the individual. Some people like analogy, some like scientific breakdowns and kids love games. Having a breakthrough in understanding can bring as much joy (and relief) to the teacher as it does to the student so it is worth persevering with a concept until it is understood.
Passion is what brought us all to music in the first place, and in the muddy depths of guitar fingerings we can forget to revel in the sounds and wonderful qualities of the instrument. So, I believe that is is crucial to display and share your passion for the instrument with a student. Just that little aside moment to enjoy a good note with vibrato can be enough to spark a week of practice.
A musical education never ends, for anyone. The journey itself is really a source of joy but in the early stages that endless journey can be incredibly overwhelming. Without any structure, a sense of progress can be completely lost and the student might feel aimless or incapable. Thefore I believe that structure is crucial to the beginner and intermediate stage of development. I have always been a big supporter of the graded systems provided but the AMEB, Trinity, Royal College etc. as they provide goals and a system to adhere to. This site is very much set up in a similar fashion as a testament to my belief in structured learning.
The best classical guitar teacher will have a structure for the learning process for the benefit of themselves, and the student.
Too many notes
Too many notes, Mozart. This is my favorite line from the movie “Amadeus”. The classical guitar is a difficult instrument to learn, no two ways about it. Plenty of technical challenges to overcome. It is important, however, not to neglect a well rounded education in music. Learning theory, how to analyze a piece, how to sight read, music history, and stylistic qualities of different genres is just as important as playing the notes written on the page. A good classical guitar teacher will incorporate many different elements of musicianship into each lesson to balance out the note-heavy technical side of playing.
Horses for courses
She might be the best teacher in the world for some, he might be the most diligent student. But together? They don’t mesh.
Teachers and students have a relationship just like friends or family. And just like friends and family some relationships are better than others. Both teacher and student should always give a new working relationship some time to see how it goes, but always be aware that sometimes it is just not the best fit. It is nobody’s “fault” but I believe that it is the responsibility of a good teacher to recognize this situation when it occurs and take action.
A dangerous cycle
In my teenage years, I was unfortunately stuck with some pretty bitter music teachers at school. They made me feel negative, and they didn’t inspire any reason to pursue music. I even had one teacher who recommended against it! These teachers really scarred me for a long time, and I actually strayed away from teaching for many years because I didn’t want to fall into the same depressing position of a performer who saw teaching as a failure. Those who can’t do teach, they used to say.
Thankfully through some utterly wonderful individuals my passion for teaching has been rekindled over the last decade and I find it one of life’s great joys to share the learning process with people. I have some colleagues that are not so lucky and they pass on their disenfranchised attitude to their students and peers, poisoning future joy and potential careers.
We could talk a lot more about this topic, but to stay on point: the best classical guitar teacher will make you want to practice, go to concerts, and come to the next lesson.
Lastly, lets not forget that learning an instrument is primarily for enjoyment. We are not all out to become virtuosi, on the contrary, many of us just want to bring some variety and levity to daily life. So finally, I will say the best classical guitar teacher will allow fun and playfulness to be a part of learning.
by Simon Powis