Learn Guitar To Build Dexterity

Recently a BBC news story covered a piece of research from Imperial College in London which expressed concern about the lack of dexterity development in younger people.

The report focused upon medical students, and its main thrust was that whilst they had the academic qualifications and intellectual abilities ,they seemed lacking in the hand skills needed to stitch patients wounds and other surgical skills. The crux of the matter was that not enough time was spent in the early years developing techniques which required more intricate hand skills.

Should this report be taken seriously? Well Imperial College is a world class scientific institution and they would not go public on any piece of research if the evidence failed to support the proposition.

As a guitar teacher I meet people from all walks of life in the course of my work, and a common thread which comes through is the lack of time given in schools to develop craft skills on the curriculum, and how music education is given a fairly low priority in the context of tight school budgets.

This is a sad situation.

Music develops far more than an ability to knock out a tune or have some basic understanding of rhythm melody and harmony. When a young person has the opportunity to learn a musical instrument it will help co-ordination and dexterity. They may not become a virtuoso on the instrument of their choice, but the added benefits will help them throughout the course of their life.

However, it is important to ensure the child feels drawn to the instrument they are going to learn, and it may take a number of attempts to find the right one for the youngster.

For example, I know someone who had a son who was taking piano lessons. His sisters had both learned the instrument and derived a lot of pleasure and benefit from their lessons. But for the boy, they were misery because he was “wired” a little differently from his sisters. Then one day he was given a clarinet and suddenly he found his musical niche. I understand he still plays the instrument and he’s now in his thirties. The point is that although it was different from the piano he still developed musically and had the opportunity to build dexterity in both his hands.

OK here’s my sales pitch for learning the guitar.

This is a portable instrument, which comes in different sizes to suit the stage of growth of a child. They are also relatively inexpensive if you want a usable starter instrument for a child. In terms of dexterity the instrument promotes left and right hand co-ordination plus independent finger movement.

Will every child be drawn to the guitar? Well no, and as with any instrument some practice between lessons is essential to make progress.

However, the appeal of the guitar is perhaps expressed by one of the youngsters who came for lessons. I asked him why he wanted to learn the guitar and he looked at me with incredulity then said “because guitars are cool”. Nuff said…..

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The Versatile Classical Guitar

I’m often asked what attracts me to the classical guitar?

First, let me say I love guitars of all shapes and sizes. I’m fascinated by the different sounds they produce, and respect and admire people who can make well crafted instruments. I have a number of guitars -some are nylon stringed “classical” instruments others are not.

If someone asks me do I prefer nylon or steel stringed instruments, I reply it depends on what I’m attempting to play, the sound I want to produce…and some friends say whether the moon is waxing or waning but I’ve never been aware of that myself.

My earliest recollection of the classical guitar was a film clip of Segovia which was shown one night on BBC2 when I was a relatively small child. I was fascinated that one man on one instrument could produce such an array of sound. I found it hard to believe there were no other guitars in the room, and the way his hands moved was hypnotic.

The range of sounds which can be produced upon a classical guitar is extensive, for example a sweeter more mellow sound can be produced by plucking the strings near the neck, whereas a more metallic perhaps percussive sound is produced when you pluck the strings near the bridge. Segovia put it best when he described the classical guitar as “an orchestra in miniature”.

The range of music which is played on the classical guitar is vast. You can find examples of many styles of music arranged for the instrument, and also drawn from many time periods and countries. So the choice of what you want to play is almost unlimited. If you take up the classical guitar you may find yourself studying and playing music drawn from medieval times, the Renaissance, the Baroque period, the 18th 19th 20th and 21st centuries.

There are simple pieces for beginners and works of such complexity only virtuosos would attempt them. There are arrangements of folk tunes, jazz standards and arrangements of pop tunes. So whatever you feel drawn towards there is probably something to suit you.

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Do I have to read music?

A new pupil asked me this question.

The short answer is no. Many fine guitarists do very well without reading music.

There are options  to learn without reading standard notation: good observation, good listening, chord windows and good old guitar tabs. There are also plenty free videos out there on web-sites which help people learn without the need to read music. Do I make use of all of the above -of course of I do!

Can I read music -yes!      Do I insist other people learn to read music -no!

Do I recommend other people learn to read music -yes!

My own experience of playing the guitar and music generally was transformed when I learned how to read standard notation combined with a bit of music theory. It was as though everything became quicker to learn and the musical universe expanded for me.

(If you want to play classical guitar you will struggle if you can’t read standard notation, and this is one aspect of my own teaching where I insist students do learn to read music.)

My only regret is that I waited until I was into middle age before I stopped avoiding the issue and got on with it.

Did I find it easy? Some of it was very easy, but I have to admit I found some parts of it  a little confusing  at first and was glad I had someone to go to who helped me make sense of it all.

So that’s were I stand on reading music, but I stress this is based purely on my own experience.

 

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Structured Practice Brings Improvement

I’ve had a number of discussions in recent months with experienced guitarists who say they play regularly but don’t seem to improve, so they want to take some lessons.

Naturally I’m pleased about this because my business depends upon well motivated people coming to the studio. What I find interesting is that their lack of progress is nothing to do with their ability to develop as guitarists and all round musicians; and their experiences resonate with my own.

My own problem in my younger years was that I picked up my guitar and played it in a passive relaxed way. What’s wrong with that?  Well nothing is wrong with that if you just want to relax  and let your mind wander. Improvement can still take place but it happens in a hap-hazard kind of way, and somewhere along the line progress slows down until you hit a wall. It’s at this stage many people seem to stagnate and for some it is dispiriting because the satisfaction and joy that comes with genuine improvement is gone.

Some folks actually stop playing. I know this because it happened to me in my early twenties, and a twenty year hiatus began where my guitar gathered dust in a corner. The odd thing was that from time to time I would look at it and sigh, then find ways to rationalise why I wasn’t playing anymore. I still puzzle over this behaviour, but somewhere in there was a desire to play and I suspect the frustration was that I didn’t know how to improve.

I suppose at some point my background in education and training plus my love of music came together. I had an understanding of the processes that go into effective learning and when I finally did pick up the guitar again I was better equipped to move forward. Yet I still found that I spent a lot of time in what one of my students describes as “noodling around”. Again I emphasise there is nothing wrong with this, but don’t expect to make rapid progress.

I eventually took the plunge and found a teacher. He put more structure into my practice by making me focus upon specific exercises and pieces which stretched my abilities. Improvement happened rapidly at first and then in steady increments over a period of years. Motivation came from doing, satisfaction came through measured improvement. Reluctantly I also took exams and this added a further layer, in my own case I also finally admitted that this love of the guitar and music generally was what I wanted to do for the rest of my life and it led to an “eleventh hour” decision to change the focus of my working life.

Now I’m not saying that’s how it will be for everyone, but I do believe that if you practice with specific targets in mind and make it a conscious effort rather than a passive period of relaxation -you will make more progress.

Do you need a teacher? I don’t know-it depends what type of person you are, but for many of us a little external motivation helps keep us focussed on what we really want to achieve.

So think about how you structure your practice and make sure that at least for some of the time you focus on the things you want to work on in your playing. Because it isn’t about the quantity of practice you do, it’s the quality you put into it that really matters and having a structure will enhance that quality…and you will improve.

 

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Buying The Right Guitar-Some Basics

Some time ago a young student  arrived at my studio for her first lesson with a  new guitar an uncle had bought  her as a surprise birthday present. It was an inexpensive model and there was nothing wrong with it as a starter instrument…except that in proportion to her size it was like an adult trying to hold  and play a double bass as if it was a guitar.

Diplomatically, I pointed out that she needed to grow a little before it would be the perfect size  for her. The parent and the child were a little put out, but I keep a three quarter sized guitar in my studio  and when I let her try it, they both agreed it was much closer to her requirements.

The parent was happy to go away armed with a couple of recommended guitar shops (sadly I’m not on commission). I gave some additional advice about what to look for and cautioned the parent, not to pay too much for a first instrument. They reappeared a week later with something more satisfactory.

When you buy a guitar I still think it is best to see it, handle it and get the feel of the instrument before you part with any hard earned cash. I  know many people (including myself after careful research)who have bought instruments on-line with good results, but photographs and reviews can only convey a limited amount of information. That said, I do think the quality of guitars has become more consistent in recent years, and you get better value for your money at the “starter” end of the market than I would have expected in my younger days.

If you are buying for a child, the guitar needs to be the appropriate size, so the youngster can hold it correctly, and use the fretboard without strain on their growing hands. There is enough to ponder and assimilate when you start playing a musical instrument, and the last thing you need is to turn the process into a balancing act.

Guitars commonly come in half size, three quarter size, and full size. You can also get them as seven eighth instruments, there may be other sizes as instrument manufacturing is evolving all the time.

Other than that the range of instruments is vast. It depends upon the type of music and sound you want to produce.

Set yourself a realistic budget, don’t pay too much if it’s your first instrument, and go somewhere that has no problem letting you try out a range of guitars. A good dealer won’t hurry you, try to blind you with too much technical detail, or  foist something upon you beyond your budget or experience.

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“Learning Guitar -Lifestyle Issues”

To get value from your guitar lessons you have to set aside time to practice between lessons. Many students ask -how much time? My response is it depends where it fits into your lifestyle, but a short period everyday is likely to yield better results than a long evening once a week.

I ask parents not to make their children’s practice a heavy chore, but,if they are to improve, some time -even a few minutes -is needed most days. I understand there are other priorities to fit in such as homework and other activities, but try to ensure the guitar practice doesn’t get lost amidst everything else in the child’s often hectic and packed lifestyle.

The issue of practice and lifestyle applies equally to adults. The biggest problem many working adults have is fitting time for the guitar into their own schedules. Students who stop taking lessons really do want to learn , but work and other priorities become so engulfing -they don’t practice and when improvement is slower than expected they become frustrated.

This is ironic because many tell me they want to learn an instrument to take them away from the stress they feel in their job. The advice I offer(and this does work)) is to make appointments with yourself and put practice time in the diary. Treat this appointment like any other work or life commitment. Keep the appointment with yourself short and you’ll find a few minutes focussed effort on most days will bring about gradual improvement.

The amount of time you can commit to practice varies from person to person. Someone who has retired will find it easier to schedule blocks of time than someone in a full time job. The time you can devote or are prepared to devote will depend upon where you see your playing fitting into your lifestyle and where the priorities sit at any one time.

I originally took up guitar to have a diversion from my work; there were periods when I had enough time available for considerable practice, but sometimes it became difficult to follow a practice regime which lasted more than a few minutes. Eventually I realised music was more important to me than the work I was doing, so in the end I studied and practised for examinations and made a late career change.

Another lifestyle factor to consider is not the quantity of practice you can do but the quality of practice in each session. Some years ago I made the mistake of commiting to a fairly advanced grade examination at a time I was working long hours and doing a considerable amount of travelling.

When I arrived home in an evening I dutifully committed time ;to practice for the examination, but the usual magic didn’t happen. In fact I seemed to be getting worse, I think my teacher had reservations about my exam entry, but I have a stubborn streak and kept on. My pieces were not at the standard I wanted them to be, but I convinced myself that I was good enough to pass if all went smoothly on the exam day. It didn’t go smoothly -I failed -only by a whisker but it was a blow to my confidence.

The problem wasn’t the exam or my abilty, it was simply that the quality of my practice had been poor. I was tired and instead of enjoying it as a release from the day – it became another stressful burden. With hindsight I should have put the exam back a few months and been more realistic about the quality of my practice.

In the long term it proved a valuable experience and I think it helped me to become a better teacher coach and mentor to different students. But at the time the failure hurt.

So if you are thinking about taking lessons ask yourself what time you can you realistically give to quality practice. You may love the idea of learning to play but think where it fits into your own , or perhaps your children’s overall lifestyle before you commit to taking lessons.

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Am I too old to start now?

I often meet people who are approaching retirement or have been retired some time who say they’d love to learn to play the guitar.

“So what’s stopping you?” Iask.

“Oh I’m probably too old now” they often reply.

Now for me this suggests a couple of things are going on in their heads. Either they like the idea of playing the guitar -but it is just that -an idea they like – or they’ve really have bought into the idea that after a certain age you can forget learning a new skill, …and that is pure tosh.

Some of the best guitar students are older beginners. Provided they have the desire to learn and are prepared to put in the practice time and work through the frustrations of not being able to do something immediately, most people surprise themselves at the progress which can be made.

Indeed people who are retired usually make excellent students because they tend to have more control on their time than someone in a job or in education. I suggest it is more a question of deciding what you want to achieve as a guitarist, which is the question I tend to ask people contemplating lessons. I can then advise on the best route for them to take.

The first step, however, is to make the decision to learn. You’ll make that decision whatever your age if you really want to.

And to echo the words of Henry Ford “either you think you can or think you can’t;  either way you will be right”.

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