The average young beginner guitarist in the five to nine year old age bracket is challenged by fledgling fine motor skills and developing cognitive skills. They find coordinating their hands a challenge and the mental processes involved in reading and interpreting the pitch and rhythm of music make reading music extremely difficult. Children learn best by seeing and doing. They learn best and naturally by imitating the actions of those around them. Till they mature, they are typically visual and kinaesthetic learners.
Guitar teachers, aware of a young child’s limitations often won’t start teaching them till they’re nine or ten years of age. If they do start a young child on a course of lessons, they are likely to use books that make use of an out-dated and inappropriate teaching style. These books look like they are aimed at children, they are simple and colourful but essentially they require the young student to learn as an adult would. Young children learn differently to adults and using an ‘adult’ approach to learning often results in frustration and a negative experience for all concerned.
The Guitar teaching books on the market are generally not suitable for the young beginner
Consider the approach to learning taken by the traditional style of guitar tutor methods. It is one that most people are familiar with. The student is told that the first three notes they will learn are an E, F and a G on the first string and they will make use of crotchets, minims and semibreves. You mix them up a bit and you can have the student learn Hot Cross Buns and next week, learn a few more notes they can play any number of nursery rhymes and Christmas Carols.
This type of learning works fine for older kids and that’s why most teachers don’t start teaching kids till they’re nine or ten years of age. But what about the young beginner? A five year old student struggles with this way of learning. Consider Mary Had a Little Lamb. It’s quite a popular tune for those who are learning to play guitar and read music. It contains notes of four different pitches and three rhythmic figures. It shouldn’t be hard to learn but it is. In the first bar alone the child has to mentally process a different note on each beat! Because the child struggles with this, the teacher, out of frustration, will write the note names above the notes in an effort to make it easier for the child to read. The result of this type of teaching is that the child looks to the letter name and not the note on the stave. They are not learning to read music at all!
Note reading and the guitarist
So note reading is a bother and a good alternative to written music is Tablature. This system of lines representing strings, and numbers representing frets is much easier to understand and is extremely popular. The problem here is, that there is a generation of guitar players having learned to play that can only read tablature. Directors of school ensembles can surely relate to the frustration that arises due to guitarists’ limited ability to communicate effectively with other musicians. They can’t read the parts presented to them as they are always notated in music and sadly, guitarists are missing out on an important part of their music education.
The Aims of a Music Teacher
As music teachers we like to encourage a life-long love of music and set students under our tutelage on the best possible path toward helping them reach their potential in as many areas as possible such as note reading, aural development, improvisation, repertoire knowledge, composition and ensemble playing.
The young beginner has one goal and that is ‘Just to learn to play the guitar’ BUT with that goal are many expectations. They want their learning experience to be Fun, Quick, Easy, and with little practise (if any at all) and they want to be Rock Stars within a week.
The Challenges faced by those teaching the young guitarist. Why old teaching methods are ineffective
Poor fine motor skills, limited concentration and a developing mental capacity to adequately process pitch and rhythm and apply it to the instrument are the major challenges faced by the young guitarist. Reading music requires analysis, thought and concentration and as mentioned before, to a young child, seemingly simple pieces can be very hard to learn.
Consider the same child who, unable to play Mary had a Little Lamb, comes to your next lesson and effortlessly plays the riff to Smoke on the Water or Seven nation Army by the White Stripes. ‘How did you learn to play that?’ you ask ‘Oh, my dad showed me’ is often the response. They have just shown you the way they prefer to learn and that is by imitation. Young children, whether they are learning to talk or perform a physical activity will learn naturally by copying the actions of those around them and playing guitar is no different. Imitation is their preferred and natural way of learning.
Children also learn to read words by associating words with a picture or an image. It could be argued that a child has a pleasant dining experience at the restaurant, McDonalds. They might not be able to spell it out yet but the child knows that the word under the golden arches says ‘McDonalds’. By associating a series of words with a melodic or rhythmic phrase, the book, Copy Play and Learn Guitar, teaches children to read music.
Using the same natural and proven learning procedures, Copy, Play and Learn Guitar teaches young children to play guitar through Imitation and read music through Association.
Balancing Children’s expectations with the aims of the Professional Music Educator
Young children want instant gratification, they need to be able to play NOW! Telling a six year old child that if they practise hard every day for a year they will eventually become a wonderful musician doesn’t work. To engage the child and for effective learning to take place, the child must also see their lessons as being interesting, pleasurable and relevant. This is a statement most school teachers would recognise and it is no less relevant for us as guitar teachers.
Keeping learning activities simple and enjoyable, Copy, Play and Learn focuses on developing one fine motor skill at a time. Children discover, observe and imitate a visually logical pattern of notes as demonstrated by their teacher allowing the child to play challenging finger movements without the burden of having to process pitch and rhythm. Students develop their note reading ability over time and removing the burden of having to process pitch and rhythm as they play allows the child to focus on other areas such as finger placement and aural awareness. Pieces are formatted so that the teacher plays a short phrase as the child observes then imitates. The child has time to gather their thoughts and ‘reset’ between musical phrases.
Using recurring rhythmic and melodic fragments triggers a memory response. There are many pieces in this method that share the same and similar melodic and rhythmic fragments, often with the same words. In the way the child identifies the word, ‘McDonalds’ under the golden arches, the student is able to recall and play a previously learned phase upon hearing it.
There is a lot that we as adults and experienced musicians take for granted that children are still trying to make sense of. For example, unless we point it out to them, a young child won’t realise that high sounding notes occur on the upper part of the stave and low sounding notes down the bottom, or that the high sounding strings are placed toward the floor and the low sounding strings toward the ceiling. Children can be confused by note names and may see notes as being presented in a random order. Unless they are shown, they don’t see that as notes ascend by step, the note name progresses in alphabetical order and as notes descend by step the note names are in alphabetical order but backwards.
Pieces designed around step-wise movement and the physical properties of a vibrating medium
In Copy, Play and Learn Guitar, some pieces have been designed to help illustrate that the ascending step wise notes on the stave result in those notes advancing in alphabetical order. As the notes advance in alphabetical order the pitch of the note gets higher and the length of vibrating string gets shorter. Drawing a parallel between a trumpet and a guitar makes for an interesting experiment that students enjoy. Try blowing across the top of an open bottle before pouring in some water and ask the student whether they think the pitch will go up or down?
Songs are humorous, contemporary and exciting
The songs contained in the Copy, Play and Learn method ensure enthusiasm for learning by being humorous, contemporary and exciting. Songs about childhood experiences such as sleepovers, surfing, skateboarding, X boxes, football, cranky parents feature as do Some Andy Griffiths style humour that contains dog farts, ear wax and snot. Children enjoy linking the themes of the songs and may delight in telling you that they’ve figured out why the sister of the central character, Simon, is trying to suffocate him with her pillow in the song, Dorothy’s Revenge and that’s the reason why Simon is dreaming about being low in oxygen in the song, Lost in Space.
Flash cards are a great way to start the lesson and really get the kids’ brains engaged. They can be used to challenge the children to start to mentally process pitch and rhythm. You can ask them to identify the name of a note and where it would be played on the guitar as well as reviewing signs and symbols. Musical themes from some of the songs are represented on the flash cards that come with the book and reviewing them keeps them current.
From Copy and Play to the independent note reader
The whole aim of this method is to make the student an independent note reader and to make the experience as positive as possible. Students are presented with pieces that are logical in their construction in stepwise ascending or descending order. These pieces have a melody whose pitch remains the same for a whole bar allowing plenty of time for the student to work out the pitch of the note and where it’s placed on the guitar.
To conclude, The Copy Play and Learn Guitar teaching system provides a positive experience to young beginning guitarists. It is the ideal first book for the young guitarist and prepares them for the books currently on the market that make use the traditional style of teaching.