The best classical guitar teacher?

//The best classical guitar teacher?

The best classical guitar teacher?

The best classical guitar teacherby 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.

Structure

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.
Fun

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

2016-10-24T00:20:01+00:00 19 Comments

19 Comments

  1. Jørgen Oktober August 29, 2014 at 4:06 am - Reply

    “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.”

    So if I have “innate ability” then I don’t work through the nuts and bolts of studying my instrument? I stopped reading from there.

    • Simon August 29, 2014 at 3:06 pm - Reply

      Hi Jørgen,

      Well, seeing as you stopped reading, perhaps you won’t see this reply.

      I started that sentence with “Sometimes” as I don’t think innate performance ability and teaching skill are mutually exclusive. There are many shining examples to the contrary.

  2. Harold August 29, 2014 at 9:00 am - Reply

    A lot of good points! I must say I’m sceptical about the worth of a pedagogical degree for one-on-one tuition. I believe that a bachelor in music is a time for a player to improve themselves as much as possible, technically, musically, analytically, etc. Without this, I can’t imagine the passion being fostered that must later be communicated to students.
    On the other hand, many students teach their way through a degree, so something more akin to an internship arrangement would perhaps be of value. I learnt a lot from watching others teach and asking questions, and then occasionally being watched and criticized. I know many musicians, particularly in Europe, who were obliged to get full-blown bachelor degrees in pedagogy, with courses in psychology and theory, who complain that they remember precious little of what they were forced to regurgitate on test-sheets.
    I think choosing repertoire is the most stressful thing about teaching! It’s so easy to say: nothing too hard or too easy, but it’s so hard to find that warm porridge for little Goldilocks. If you don’t challenge the student, they stagnate and loose interest, if it’s too hard they become depressed and loose their motivation. The trouble is that every student is different. Even basic questions like rest-stroke vs. freestroke at the beginning have no fixed answer. The constant flux obscures clear answers concerning repertoire, and practical experience teaching as well as critical advice from a veteran teacher is of more value than making lists of what repertoire is appropriate to what level.

    • Simon August 29, 2014 at 2:55 pm - Reply

      Hi Harold! Great to see you on the site.

      Well to clarify, I would like to see a pedagogy component added into the curriculum for Bachelor and Master degrees, not necessarily have everyone complete and entire education degree. These days, universities seem to be including courses that are extra-musical but still very crucial to a career in music. Courses such as business skills, alexander technique, and music technology/recording. I would love to see a pedagogy component as standard while not dominating the performance degree.

      I love your idea of some sort of internship and there can be plenty of useful facts gleaned from watching great teachers, but I think that not everyone who watches a great teacher teach will go out of their way to take in their teaching techniques.

      I agree that choosing repertoire is a challenge, and sometimes you really have to figure out what suits the student. However, if you have a selection of appropriate pieces in your teaching repertory you are already ten steps ahead of someone who just picks a piece somewhat at random. And, I totally agree that there is no substitute for experience but I am concerned primarily with teachers that spend years getting that experience at the expense of students.

  3. Theophilus Benjamin August 29, 2014 at 2:50 pm - Reply

    Great article! I fully agree with it. I myself have been through these stages where I was stuck teaching students the positions,fingerings, notes individually and then gradually trying to be teacher like the one your article suggests. In between I was influenced by the teaching of some really fabulous teachers from whom I took masterclasses who broke down the complicated stuff down to the basics. Really showed me the way to teach myself and be a better student and a better teacher too! Still a long way to go for me but I know I am on the right path.

    • Simon August 29, 2014 at 3:08 pm - Reply

      That’s great Theophilios,

      I share a similar story, and I am constantly trying to become a better teacher too.

      Cheers!

  4. jack November 16, 2014 at 9:18 pm - Reply

    Simon,

    Can you help me locate a teacher in Philadelphia?

    I’ve come to the conclusion that you mention recently that most teachers are just musicians looking to pay the bills. I need someone who is as passionate about teaching as you are..

    Jack

    • Simon November 17, 2014 at 12:25 am - Reply

      Hi Jack,

      Well I don’t think that most teachers are just there to pay the bills, but it can happen like that. I would recommend contacting the Philadelphia classical guitar society and asking for a few recommendations. Call a few teachers and go from there. Good luck!

  5. miguelito December 15, 2014 at 10:49 am - Reply

    Hi! Just signed up for the video course, great stuff, just what I’ve been looking
    for! Need advice though: How to buy decent guitar under one thousand bucks?
    Any tips will be appreciated…

    • Simon December 16, 2014 at 6:38 pm - Reply

      Hi Miguelito,

      So glad you are enjoying the course! I would say the best way to find a good instrument in that price range is to take a friend who plays guitar along with you to the store. Guitars under 1000 dollars are usually production line instruments and the quality can vary, even between the same make and model.

      Try as many instruments as you can and look for a nice sound, no string buzz, a good feeling on the left hand when you play and that the strings are easy to hold down (i.e. make sure the action is set correctly). The price will not necessarily affect the quality at this range so go on your ear and sense of touch. In general I have found that Yamaha C40 and the Cordoba guitar brands are quite reliable.

      Best of luck!
      Simon

      • Jack June 24, 2015 at 2:09 am - Reply

        Yes, I agree, Cordoba guitars are very nice. Actually, my guitar is a Cordoba C3M, which is their absolutley rock bottom made-in-China model. I got it from Sweetwater Music, through the internet, and the guitar plus hardshell humidifier case came to only $325. However, believe it or not, it’s a dream to play! I couldn’t believe what I got for that price: solid cedar top (not laminated plywood), and solid mahogany back and sides. The tone is rich and mellow, exactly what I was looking for in sound and playability. And guess what, it sounds so good that I actually LOVE to play SLOW, allowing each and every note to fully saturate my entire being. Even playing scales sounds musical, not technical. Oh someday I might opt to spend a little more on a Cordoba Espana series guitar (those are the ones that are hand-made in Spain) or even their Master class models. But then again, why, when I am enjoying my little C3M so well. Nonetheless, the maestro is correct, if you’re on a budget, Cordoba is hard to beat. They’re tops in my book.

  6. Senadira Ione February 3, 2015 at 9:22 am - Reply

    When ever you saw this please call me . I read what you have written . Want to join your classes .befor that want to talk to you . There for i leave my .mobaile number 0502573977. Thank you..!God bless you…!

  7. VGreen March 21, 2015 at 4:19 am - Reply

    I agree with several points in this article, particularly the point made about young teachers who gain teaching experience at the expense of their students! Looking back, I can see all the teaching mistakes I have made over the years. True, inexperienced teachers can make many mistakes in teaching technical and musical concepts; however, my main mistake was that I did not take advantages of windows of opportunities for students! This is a concept that is not discussed in depth at universities during pedagogy classes. I hope teachers read my comment and take it to heart: your students are in need of your relationship and they are in need of opportunity: opportunities to perform solos and ensembles and opportunities to hear high quality live music. I live in an area of the United States that is behind in affordable opportunities for music. I realize now, it is my job as teacher to create opportunities and not just give aimless lessons in which the student have no performance motivation. Teachers have to be the type of people who can organize events and get parents on board to support performances. I am speaking from the point of view of an instructor for children and teenagers but I also believe the same type of teaching mentality is important for teachers who teach adults.

  8. Kol MAK June 17, 2015 at 2:11 am - Reply

    Hi Simon (pardon the familiarity)
    I am an “older” (64) raw learner in Australia.
    Finding your site has helped me make some sense of all the information out there.
    I would seriously like to get some directional advice from you, but don’t know how else to contact you.
    I am the type of learner who needs to know some basic theory to put my practical movements into an understandable context, and as such what I have seen here has been of great help. I NEED a very structured approach to learning or tend to get confused and miss vital steps.
    To make matters more difficult I have a wide area of interest in music and want to learn the classical concepts, as well as blues, etc. My main desire is to be able to play for my own enjoyment – and let’s be honest I’ve left my run a bit late to become the next big name in entertainment (not to mention a total lack of drive or desire for that path).
    I have just purchased a beautiful classical guitar (looks, feel and sound).
    Could you offer me some advice – either here or by direct email.

    • Simon June 27, 2015 at 8:03 pm - Reply

      Hi Kol,

      Well, I think my best advice would be to really master the basics. Learn the fretboard, develop good habits with technique etc. the courses I have written go step by step from the beginning so they will cover pretty much everything you need. They are, however, very much geared towards the classical style so you won’t get much out of it for blues.
      Hope this helps!

  9. Jim Harkins December 12, 2016 at 3:27 pm - Reply

    Greetings, thank you for a perfect article, everything you said is so completely true, I know, because I’ve experienced all of it… I am in, what I feel is a desperate struggle trying to find a good classical guitar teacher… You’ d think that in the Boston area there would not be any problem finding a good teacher… so far, they’re all expensive, they all have no structure, one came in quite hungover and quite possible still drunk, it’s very difficult to get them to respond when inquiring, most times you get no response… I could go on…and on… the best seem to quite stuck up and snobby and never respond…it’ extremely difficult and expensive along the way, I will not give up…

    • Dave Belcher December 13, 2016 at 1:16 am - Reply

      Hi Jim,

      Sorry you’ve had so much trouble with teachers in your area, but I’m glad the article was helpful! All the best to you.

      Peace,

      Dave B (CGC team)

  10. Roger Hyam December 21, 2016 at 4:25 pm - Reply

    What you don’t say is how often one should have lessons. If I’m lucky I practice an hour a day. Working slowly through a method book plus some online reading and videos gives me loads of stuff to be going on with. I reckon I’d only need a teacher four times a year (90 hours practice between lessons). I may be developing terrible habits of course…

  11. Ian Holding January 6, 2017 at 7:34 pm - Reply

    Not trying push any line of philosophical thought but this is what the Dalai Lama has to say.

    “The aim of the teaching is that we transform ourselves within. This requires study and means we have to use our intelligence.”

    The reason I have joined classical guitar corner is that it appears that Simon has given some intelligent scientific thought to this and technology is making this accessible. Great stuff.

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