I’m a qualified High School music teacher with a B(Mus)Ed and guitarist A(Mus)A. As a young man having just graduated from the Conservatorium of Music, I wanted to continue to be the best guitarist that I could be and opted for a career as a freelance musician and guitar tutor giving kids guitar lessons. I believed that I would be allowed greater freedom and more time to focus on developing my own guitar playing ability. I played many musical genres from classical to jazz to rock and country in many different types of bands and ensembles but soon the financial pressures associated with raising a family and paying a mortgage saw guitar teaching quickly became my main source of income. I have taught full time as a school guitar teacher at Somerset College since 1988.
The school’s music director, Sue Roberts kept sending me young children, some as young as six or seven to learn guitar. I kept saying, like most guitar teachers, that this is too young. I am an advocate for note reading as an essential part of a guitarist’s music education but children that young don’t have the cognitive ability to understand and react to the complex musical terms and symbols that make up written music and their fine motor skills are so under developed that they are often wasting time and money. They are much better leaving it for a few years and starting when they are nine or ten years of age…but they kept coming.
The children would stay for a term or two but basically it was a frustrating experience for all concerned. The problem is in the pedagogy used by the books that were currently available. The books aimed at young beginners are simplified versions of books aimed at older people and used the same approach to teaching. That is, they are expecting young people to have the ability to mentally process and react to the pitch and rhythm of a note immediately as well as focus on posture, hand positions and more. This approach overwhelmed and frustrated most students.
A friend of mine showed me a video of a large ensemble of people playing ukulele. They were very good and were led by a conductor but they used no music. I assumed that the music was demonstrated and the musicians followed. This stayed in my mind while I searched for music suitable for the very young beginner.
I made use of a violin tutor book that I’d modified for guitar. It was Encore on Strings by Mark Gibson, Keith Sharp and Natalie Sharp. That sufficed for a while but only was not entirely satisfactory for my purposes. The book did act as a spring board for my own. It focuses initially on the open strings and allows students to focus and develop the required movements for each hand before combining them. This type of teaching technique proved to work so well that my students were happier, they’d stay learning guitar longer and I was happier!
Thinking about the Ukulele video that I’d watched months before, I thought that if I could incorporate my assumptions about the way they’d learned to play, I could demonstrate the pitch, rhythm and finger movements to a vibrant backing track. The children will have heard it, seen it played and can then duplicate it. After all, children are naturally visual and kinaesthetic learners. They learn this way in most endeavours except in learning to read music and apply it to guitar it seems!
As I developed this idea it became obvious that a child developed the ability to play at a faster rate than their ability to mentally process and react to written music. They can do it, but it takes them a while. A young child can tell you the name of the note and its location on the guitar but can’t satisfactorily link the notes within the confines of a pulse to produce a recognisable tune. It was at that point that I realised that if the notes in a tune produced a visually logical pattern then the child could relate to the pattern rather than the written music. The child will analyse the written music, play it, and discover a finger or melodic pattern. Children are thinking about written music and how it works but knowing the pattern that exists in a piece of music to be played, significantly increased a child’s overall ability, their level of satisfaction, enjoyment and sense of accomplishment.
Since I’ve been using Copy, Play and Learn Guitar, the numbers of young children that I’m teaching between the ages of five and nine years of age have increased markedly and they are more likely to make a long term commitment to learning the instrument which, as a guitar teacher has markedly increased my level of satisfaction. I have found that it works well for the time poor student. The student who doesn’t pick up or practice their guitar between lessons because they also have swimming, chess, soccer and homework, can also benefit by using this guitar teaching method.
I have also used it when teaching adults. One student found reading music extremely difficult because the symbols are all very similar. For example, he struggled telling the difference between the notes C and E in the spaces. Another boy who I taught in a group lesson, unknown to me has an intellectual disability. His teacher and mother were surprised and elated at how well he was able to play.