Guitarists, the ear, note reading and a free spirit.

Last week I started a new one-day-per-week role as a guitar teacher in a stunning private school here in Scotland where I presently live for much of the year. The working environment is fantastic. I have a designated guitar room with plenty of instruments of many sizes as well as all the instruments of the ukulele family at my disposition. I met my pupils and they are universally charming. As many of them board at the school, they have time put aside for supervised practice of the instrument as well as music theory support in other areas of their education journey. In short, it’s a dream scenario for an instrumental teacher.

I spoke to my predecessor via email a few times in the weeks leading up to me starting the role and it soon became clear that he is a man who loves folk, pop and rock music above classical music. He is a massive character and it is absolutely apparent that he was much loved by all those at the school. Every time I mention his name to a pupil or colleague, their faces light up and there follows a warm chuckle and distant glazed expression suggestive of a recollection of some amusing incident from yesteryear. I soon began to feel rather inadequate.

After day one, I made a number of observations. Firstly, none of my pupils can read notes. Secondly, many have a very casual posture – reminiscent of a guy strumming in a pub. Thirdly, they all love the guitar and can do many things, physically speaking, quite well. I would suggest though that the casual posture will limit further development.

Consequently, I have inherited a group who are making good progress but whose literacy note-wise is poor. I have made the decision that, in this environment, my pupils should be able to read fluently. I already have one pupil who is reticent to adopt this approach, preferring ‘power chords’ or playing rock riffs. My challenge is to continue motivating the pupil but also ensure that he develops as a rounded, cultured musician.

I have no intention or desire to criticise my predecessor. He has developed a sense of love, joy and desire to play in his pupils. That is most admirable and both I and the pupils owe him a great debt.

I often see discussions on guitar forums debating (with varying degrees of intelligence) whether guitarists should be able to read notes or not. Arguments against note reading include ‘Jimi Hendrix couldn’t read’ or ‘readers can’t play by ear’. Both of these arguments are irrelevant. Hendrix was a great rock improviser but his structures are easy to memorise. Writing his works on paper serves no purpose. I often see transcriptions of improvised solos for sale in music shops and I wonder what purpose these serve. No-one will ever use them. There is little point in learning a Hendrix solo note-for-note. The original spirit and intention is completely lost.

It is also unintelligent to make a direct link between being able to read and having a poor ear. That points to teaching which has failed to develop the whole musician. Guitarists are frequently unaware that musicians in the Baroque and Classical periods were great improvisers. When I say ‘great’, I mean truly great. They wouldn’t improvise a pentatonic solo over a simple chord structure but would spontaneously create multi-voiced fugues full of sophisticated counterpoint and modulation. Beethoven’s concerts would usually feature a section when the composer himself would take to the piano and improvise on a theme, perhaps one proposed by a member of the public.

I’d also make the point that I am often approached by adult learners who want to start reading as ‘they never did it when they were a kid’. One adult pupil asks me to transcribe sophisticated pieces from notes into TAB. It is a little bizarre requiring one code to be transferred into another. Why not learn the second code as well?

I think that having a good ear, a free spirit and being a competent reader are all comfortable bedfellows. My challenge as a teacher is to develop my pupil’s reading skills without demotivating them. I think much of the solution lies in ensemble playing so to start things off at my new school, I have created a little quartet which is an arrangement of an Argentinian folk tune. The lower part is chords and it is tailor-made for my rock-lover. There are percussion parts too to help in the reading of rhythm.

If you’d like a copy, it’s available for free at my online shop shop. If you’d like to buy me a virtual beer via PayPal as a thank you, you can but please do not feel obliged in any way. I’d welcome thoughtful and helpful comments below; let’s have a good debate about how we can best serve our pupils and fulfil our roles and weighty responsibilities as teachers.

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