The Guitar Teaching Blog is an expanded version of the blog with posts about information pertaining to teaching materials by Matthew S. Ablan. Matthew S. Ablan is a music educator who began playing the guitar at age 12 and holds a Masters in both Music Performance and Music Education.
In last month’s post I was discussing having young students use their thumb rather than a guitar pick. The reason for this is that young beginners are still developing their fine motor skills (the small muscles in their hands, fingers and wrists) and the thumb is easier for them to manipulate.
This month teachers can use these simple open string exercises with their young students to help facilitate the use of their thumb. Although the exercises are simple the development of the right hand position is the key. Keep in mind that:
• Fingers should remain on the first string
• The right hand wrist should remain straight
• Movement of the thumb should be from the large joint
• The hand should not move only the thumb
Teachers will only need to show the exercise to students and explain to parents what the child is doing so that they may help them at home. The exercises are written in tablature and there is no need at this stage to explain “tab” to them at this time.
Guitar instructors who have little experience working with young children will often approach teaching them as they would an upper elementary aged student, teen or adult. However, this is a common mistake as young children (ages 5 to 8 for our purposes) are still developing their fine motor skills which are the smaller muscles in their hands fingers and wrists. Children use fine motor skills when writing, holding small items, buttoning clothes or turning pages.
Since young children lack of fine motor skills I do not have them use a pick when beginning to play guitar as it is difficult to manipulate a small object. Rather than use a pick I like to have my young students use their thumb when playing. The large appendage is easier for them to manipulate, maneuver and aid in development of the lacking fine motor skills.
The default hand position that I like to have students use is one in which the fingers of the right hand “cup” the first string for stability right over the sound hole while keeping a straight wrist. From this position students move their thumb from string to string (see images below).
Teachers will need to remind their students that their fingers/hand should stay in the “cupped” position as the fingers will have a tendency to “slip into the sound hole and pull the hand out of position.
Although I had written about the parts of the guitar in a previous blog post it is worth mentioning again – especially when teaching young children. When working with younger children it is best to use the KISS principle (Keep It Simple, stupid). Children do not need to know all the nuances of the guitar such as the binding or upper and lower bout, but rather the “bigger picture” parts they will be using or interacting with. Here is a list of the parts of the instrument that I cover with students and all are listed with on this diagram:
· Fret Dots
· Sound Hole
The parts of the guitar are important to know for young students to know and should not be overlooked as it gives them a sense of ownership over the instrument. Moreover, you should review the parts of the guitar with your students each week for the first few lessons as well as ask parents to review them with their child at home.
Although I have previously written about the importance of a proper seating position as it is topic worth repeating as it can be vital in developing proper technique in young beginners. Of all the styles of guitar playing classical guitarists have the most uniform seating position as this position can: help develop “proper” technique, easily balance the instrument and give the ability to survey the guitar when playing.
A traditional classical seating position involves sitting close to the edge of an armless chair and elevating the left leg with a footstool while holding the guitar. When the guitar is held correctly it will come in contact with the body at four points: (1) on the side of the guitar where it is placed over the left leg (2) the lower bout as it “rests” against inner thigh of the right leg (3) the back of the guitar as it touches the chest of the player (4) on the top/side of lower bout when the right forearm is in playing position. This playing position enables the guitar neck to be angled upward much like when one is standing and playing allowing more freedom of movement in the fretting hand.
The classical seating position works for any style of guitar playing, it also helps support a “structured” approach to learning for young students. I have all my students use this seating position until they have developed a proficient technical facility and then may sit in another position if they choose. If your students are not sitting this way already, have them try it. It may seem a bit strange for them at first, but in the end it will prove most beneficial.
One of the main obstacles that can keep a young student from continuing to play the guitar is the instrument itself. There are many teachers (myself included) who have had children start lessons with an instrument which is too big for them or with the action a mile off the neck. An instrument which is inappropriate in size or is difficult to play can be a hindrance and deter a student from wanting to play, while one of good quality and of appropriate size can help a child enjoy playing.
There are good quality child sized instruments on the market made by a number of manufacturers which have both nylon or steel strings. However, there is a “mythos” regarding whether it is better for a young player to start with nylon or steel strings. In my opinion it does not matter because when young fingers begin pushing on strings it will hurt until calluses begin to develop. What matters most is the quality of instruction that young players have in the beginning stages, not what type of strings they use.
The guitars listed here are those which are well built, stay in tune and endure the rigors of young children. This list is by no means meant to be exhaustive, but rather those which my students have used with much success. Keep in mind that the size of player will be proportionate to the size of the instrument they will require.
If the student is smaller in stature a 1/4 size guitar may be exactly what is needed:
For the majority of young students I have taught a 1/2 size guitar has worked quite well for them. Keep in mind some guitars are listed as 3/4 size, but because of their body size are well-suited for younger children.
When speaking to guitar teachers it is not uncommon to find that many do not like to or are not comfortable teaching young children. There are a number of reasons for this, but the most common theme is that most guitar teachers are not sure how to approach working with them. In this next series of posts I will be tackling some of the “in’s and out’s” of working with younger children.
Before getting started let’s define an age range for the young children I will be discussing – for the purposes of this series of posts I’ll set the age range from 5 to 8 years old; students from kindergarten to third grade. That may not seem like a large age range, but developmentally speaking for children it really is. What does that mean for guitar teachers? It means you’ll have to know your audience and expect these three things when working with young children.
First, realize that time can be an important issue when teaching young students. The typical length for a guitar lesson is 30 minutes and when working with young students that can be a very long time. Not in the actual length of time, but in a child’s ability to maintain focus and sit still. Many young children become “fidgety” after several minutes of prolonged concentration, so plan on having a variety of topics to cover in one lesson. Moreover, incorporating some type of movement activity will always be beneficial. Additionally, the time of day for a lesson can be important – if it is early in the day a young student may be more attentive or if late in the day less so because as they may be coming from activities such as school, a play date or family function.
Second, teachers should be aware that young guitar students will lack in the development of their fine motor skills or “use of their smaller muscles, like muscles in the hands, fingers, and wrists. Children use their fine motor skills when writing, holding small items, buttoning clothing, turning pages, eating, cutting with scissors, and using computer keyboards”. Teachers need to understand how to help students develop their fine motor skills as they relate to guitar playing.
Third, expect there to be a great deal of repetition in the early stages of development. Do not be fearful of spending several lessons covering the same material; young children learn through repetition. Many teachers believe they need to cover new material every lesson and that is not the case with young students - they will benefit from reviewing material. Next, month I’ll talk about recommendations for child size instruments.
As any music teacher can tell you, the studio environment has a strong impact on lesson flow. The resources a teacher has at their fingertips shape their instructional methods as well as the motivation of the student. If students are receiving lessons in a cluttered, poorly outfitted dump, they are less likely to take their lessons seriously than if they are studying in a well-decorated, fully outfitted, and comfortable environment, so putting some time and effort into how you set up your studio is a worthwhile endeavor. I’ve created a list of things I feel are beneficial to the teaching environment divided into those that are essential, those that are a useful addition, and those that are a bonus.
Two amplifiers - If you teach electric guitar, you’ll need an amplifier for both you and your student. While you may not play much in your lessons, you’ll want to have it handy for when you need to demonstrate a technique.
Two chairs - This may seem obvious, but you should give a little thought to what kind of chairs you use. For students, I like a stiff folding chair with a little padding to keep their posture upright. However, since the teacher will be sitting there for hours on end and frequently pivoting from student to PC, bookshelf, etc., I recommend a softer, swiveling desk chair.
A music stand - Again, this may seem obvious, but the type of music stand should be given some thought. A flimsy, portable stand which keeps falling over will make lessons a clumsy experience for students. A sturdy, adjustable stand is best, though be careful that the screws are kept tight or the stand will begin to tilt.
A desktop computer - The myriad resources available on the internet or storable on a PC for quick reference has eliminated much of the need for sloppy, handwritten transcriptions. While a laptop is serviceable, a desktop computer with a large monitor is best for allowing students to see information pulled up on-screen.
A bookshelf - You probably have a ton of books you use for teaching guitar. Here’s a tip: having fewer books is better. For all the books you own, you probably only use a small percentage of them. To reduce clutter and time spent looking for the right book, reduce your bookshelf to only the ones you use to teach.
Copier/Printer - This goes along with the previous two items. You should be able to quickly print or copy pages from your PC or books.
A Tuner/Metronome - While there are many metronome and tuner apps available, I believe having battery-powered versions on hand is best as they can be kept on the stand and used free of other distractions.
Zoom Recorder - I adapted this idea from my voice lessons. A little Zoom H1 recorder can be used to tape lessons that you can share with students via Dropbox. If your students are having trouble recalling lesson information, this gives them a recording to reference.
Wall Art/Decoration - Here’s an easy way to brighten you studio: ask your younger students to submit artwork of guitars and music. It’ll be a huge boost to their self-esteem to see their work framed on their teacher’s wall.
A Couch - This is a “must” if parents sit in on the lesson. Make sure to sit in it and take in the view from their perspective; parents are spending upwards of 20 hours per year there. The couch will also serve as a noise dampener to keep sound from reverberating off plaster walls and hardwood floors.
Carpeting - Speaking of dampening noise, hardwood floors and drywall can cause a lot of echo. Cut down on this with a few area rugs to cover the floor while sprucing up the welcoming look of your studio
Extra Guitar Stands - If you have your students doing any kind of writing assignments, it’s best to have a stand for them to rest their guitar on so they won’t have to lay it on the floor.
Pedal Board - Effects are just as much a part of the instrument as the guitar itself. Setting up a pedal board with a few basic effects so you can show your students how to use them will greatly aid their development.
Hole Punch - I have all my students keep their music in three-ring binders to cut down on clutter. Punch every piece of music for them and instruct to place it securely in the rings.
A bowl of Extra Picks/Extra Strings - How many times has a student shown up to a lesson without a pick or broken a string mid-lesson? I collect all the lost picks off my carpet and keep them in a jar on my desk. I also use a broken string as an opportunity to show them how to change one out.
Mirror - Sometimes a student needs to see themselves to correct posture issues. Hanging a tall mirror on the wall across from their chair allows them to check their position.
White Board - Sometimes you’ll have a teaching idea you’ll want to flesh out quickly without wasting paper; a whiteboard is a great tool for this. You can also use it to write jokes or questions of the day!
Recording Equipment - If you teach songwriting or any of your students fancy themselves writers, it would be great if you had some equipment on hand to capture their ideas.
Additional Instruments - If you can play any other instruments, it would be wonderful to have a few available to accompany your students and give them a more realistic live playing experience.
Awards/Recognition/Progress Board - Students love to have their achievements recognized. Writing their accomplishments on a board will boost their sense of progress through public recognition.
This months post was by guest blogger Chris Primeau. Chris is a guitar teacher based out of Austin, Texas and you can learn more about him at hisAustin Guitar Lessons page.
This month I will be wrapping up a lengthy series of posts which pertain to reading charts. In previous posts I have discussed rhythm and chord charts, and with this final installment I’ll cover lead sheets.
If you are unfamiliar them, a lead sheet notates the three basic elements of a song - the melody, lyrics and harmony. The melody is written in standard notation, song lyrics are written as text below the staff with the words corresponding to the appropriate melodic notes and the harmony is specified with chord symbols above the staff.
Here is a sample lead sheet for Yellow Submarine by The Beatles to practice with.
Back in January I began a series of posts devoted to the study of rhythm charts, but this month I’ll tackle a similar concept called a chord chart. A chord chart is a shorthand system using only lyrics and chord symbols to outline a song.
Chord charts are probably the most utilized form of “notation” by the average guitarist and are commonly found on the Internet to illustrate chord changes to a given song. Just Google a song title and guitar chords - chances are some type chord chart will appear.
These types of charts are ideal for guitarists who sing and play as song lyrics are laid out with the chord changes above them. Since chord charts are shorthand way to outline a song a certain familiarity with the song is expected.
Why should they player be familiar with the song? First, unlike a rhythm chart, chord charts do not indicate how the rhythm to a song should be played – the rhythm is left for the player to interpret. Second, chord charts may not inform the player how to finger a given chord and the player may choose whatever fingering they like. Third, chord changes may not match up exactly with the words and the player needs to know how long a chord should be played or when a chord change may occur. Fourth, there may be certain “signature licks” in a song that are not always included in a chord chart. Fifth, chord changes may not be indicated in every verse or chorus, so the player must be familiar with the flow of the words against the chord changes.
Here is a sample chord chart for the Elvis Presley classic “Don’t Be Cruel” to practice with. Enjoy!!
Last month concluded my series of posts on rhythm charts and included a chart for the song I’m a Believer. This month I wanted to review the book Easy Pop Rhythms (3rd edition) published by Hal Leonard which is a wonderful supplement for further rhythm chart studies.
Easy Pop Rhythms contains rhythm charts for 20 songs of varied pop styles (country, grunge, 50’s rock, etc.…). The book has gone through several editions and some of the songs have since changed, but here is a listing of several tracks from the current 3rd edition:
· Jambalaya (Hank Williams)
· Rock Around the Clock (Bill Haley & The Comets)
· Wonderful Tonight (Eric Clapton)
· No Woman No Cry (Bob Marley)
· All Apologies (Nirvana)
The rhythm charts included for each song are simplified and only use open chords in order to make the songs accessible to beginning students. Moreover, the rhythm charts also outline the songs structure: Intro, Verse, Chorus, Bridge, Solo and Outro. The song listing at the front of the book also denotes what chords are used in each song for easy reference.
Each song also has an accompanying play-a-long track; older versions of Easy Pop Rhythms came either with or without an accompanying CD. However, play-a-long tracks for the current 3rd edition are downloadable via the Hal Leonard website using an access code which comes with the book. The play-a-long tracks all have full band accompaniment however, the melody is not sung, but is played by a saxophone. Additionally, all tracks start with a measure long “metronome click” (2, 3 or 4 beats in length) to set the tempo for that particular song.
Easy Pop Rhythms retails for $14.99 and is a welcome supplement for teachers wishing to have their students gain a thorough understanding of rhythm charts. If you’d like to preview the book you may do so here.