Monday, July 9, 2012

Learning the Guitar

I just realized that, while most of my professional career was involved with teaching guitar, I haven't put up much on the subject! So here are a few pointers. I did play electric and acoustic steel string guitar and bass guitar early on, but here I'm just going to talk about learning classical guitar which I have played for the last forty years.

There are three important things you need to learn how to play guitar:

  1. A reasonably decent instrument
  2. A good teacher
  3. Yourself!
Now let's flesh that out a bit. Here in Mexico you can purchase an adequate student guitar for less than $100 USD. But in most places you might have to pay between $100 and $300 for a good student guitar by Yamaha or something similar. The important thing is that the neck be straight and the strings not too high off the fingerboard. If you can find a guitarist to help you pick one out, that will be very helpful. Just for comparison, concert guitars cost from $3000 or $4000 up to $10,000 or more. Still very cheap compared to what you would pay for a concert violin or cello.

The teacher is very important. When I started out there were hardly any knowledgeable classical guitar teachers in Canada. There was one in Vancouver, one in Toronto and perhaps one in Montreal. I had to commute to Vancouver for lessons and after six months he suggested I study with his teacher in Spain, Jose Tomas, one of the great maestros of the guitar. This is what I did, and I have been thankful ever since. A bad teacher can set you back years by affirming bad habits that can take you years to rid yourself of. What are the qualities of a good teacher? One is the ability to play well, but this is not absolutely essential. It is important that the teacher have confidence and be able to encourage it in the student. The teacher needs to have a good understanding of technique, but not be dogmatic about it. Dogmatic teachers in general should be avoided, though they often have charisma. The teacher should be up on where guitar technique is at these days. Probably the most influential teacher of the last twenty years was Abel Carlevaro, who passed away in 2001. He published a series of books on technique. If your teacher has never heard of him, you might wonder about his or her qualifications. Your teacher needs to be patient, though some of the best are sometimes moody and impatient! Probably it is more important that you be patient with yourself.

Ah yes, yourself, the last necessity. By this I mean that you have to approach study of the instrument with the right attitude. You have to be disciplined, persevere, not be discouraged and seek to improve your playing and, even more important, your understanding of music, at every opportunity. Perhaps the biggest block to learning how to play is yourself. Students limit themselves in various ways. The most important thing is to practice every day, building on what you did the day before. Do warm-up and technical exercises every day to start, then move on to the music. Practice slowly! Sometimes I have been tempted to hand out to my students a big sheet of paper with PRACTICE SLOWLY written on it a thousand times! Because students nearly always practice too fast. If you want to play something well, you have to go over it very slowly. Even the greatest of guitarists practice slowly. I have had reports from reliable sources that both Pepe Romero and John Williams have been heard playing through the Concierto de Aranjuez in their dressing room before a concert at one-half or one-quarter speed. In fact, one reason they may have gotten to the level of virtuosity they have is because they practice slowly.

That should get you started!

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