Teaching the guitar: Beginning considerations

September 1st, 2017

Everyone has their own way of solving a problem.

I like to solve problems backwards, meaning I start at the end and then figure out a way to get there.

For example, I like to hear a sound in my head and then I figure out a way to get that sound.

Or a technique, and then I figure out a way to get that technique.

It’s the same with teaching.

I like to know what I’m looking for and then I figure out a way to get it.

So what exactly am I looking for when I teach someone to play guitar?

I look for an easy natural technique, where the student is able to play comfortably and be able to play most things (if not anything) in the repertoire.

That means first and foremost a good free-stroke technique.

Free-strokes comprise almost 95% of what we do on the guitar and it stands to reason that if you master them, you’ll be able to play most things in the repertoire.

Working backwards, to be able to play good free-strokes, an optimum right hand position is absolutely essential.

If your hand is positioned right–meaning following the natural lines of energy in your body and giving equal access to all the playing fingers–your free-strokes will literally play themselves.

So how do you find this optimum position?

By listening to your body. Your body sensations will tell you when you’ve found it.

(It’s like trying to find that ideal sleeping position. No one can tell you what it is. You keep on trying different positions until you find the one that is most comfortable and when you find it, you’ll know it right away.)

But we, as teachers, can help them in the process.

Since we use three fingers and thumb to play, the optimum hand position must be optimized for all three fingers i, m, and a, and thumb.

To do this, I start students off playing with all three fingers and thumb (with maybe a slight delay in the thumb).

I find that if you start students off with playing with just i and m, that students naturally develop a position optimized for i and m and the a finger is left out of the loop.

And if the a finger is not in the loop, it will have difficulty playing. (Most problems with a weak a finger, I’ve found, is due to less than optimal positioning.)

The focus is on ease and comfort, nothing else.

Ease and comfort will lead to a natural technique for the student.

Now, this approach is based on the understanding that every student is different.

Everyone has a unique physiology, and it is up to the students to find his/her optimum position.

The teacher can’t do it for them.

Why? Because we’re not in their skin. We don’t know what they’re feeling.

In order for them to find their optimum position (the ‘sweet spot’), they must be given complete freedom to explore and not be hindered in any way by too many rules.

(At the beginning stages, the only rule I give is that the thumb must not go behind [or under] the fingers when they play.)

At this point, it is absolutely crucial that we as teachers stay out of the way.

Once you start insisting that they do a stroke this way or that way, or they have to hold their hand this way or that way, you’ve effectively preempted any chance of them finding their sweet spot.

Because they’ll be too busy trying to follow your instructions and won’t be able to listen to their body.

The basic philosophy behind this approach is that there is a natural progression to learning and you must allow this progression to take place without inhibiting it in any way. Otherwise you’ll stunt their growth as a player.

Every process of learning usually starts with a rough draft. (Kind of like writing an essay, you start with a rough draft.)

At the beginning, everything feels unfamiliar. The student is just finding his/her way. (This is the rookie stage.)

With time, familiarity sets in; the student feels more comfortable and gains confidence. With confidence, the student learns to relax.

As more time goes by, the student begins to gain greater control, he/she begins to refine his/her actions, finding easier and more economical ways to do what he/she’s doing.

Finally, the student achieves complete mastery.

At this stage, the student can do anything he/she wants and achieve any effect they desire. (This is the meaning of mastery–the capability to do anything you want.)

Now let’s say you’re a master and you have attained the ultra refinement that all masters have attained.

Would you insist that the rookie apply all these refinements even before he/she has even learned the basics?

To use an analogy.

Let’s say that your concept of the ideal walking gait is that of a supermodel (this is just an example).

And you have a baby who’s trying to learn to walk.

Now, as the baby is trying to get up and walk, do you insist that she walk just like a supermodel from day one? (Because you’re afraid if she doesn’t do it, she’ll develop some ‘bad’ habits of walking?)

Do you come up with precise rules on how to achieve that supermodel gait and you insist that the baby follow these rules exactly, like how to hold the head back and at what angle etc?

Or do you simply allow the baby to learn how to walk?

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