Aaron Shearer

Choosing a Guitar Teacher—Two Different Areas of Teaching

The validity of the frequently heard assertion that one must be an accomplished performer to teach well depends upon the area of teaching being considered. It appears not to be widely recognized that there are two distinctly different areas of instrumental instruction. One concerns basic development—the acquisition of crucial basic technical and musical skills. Without such training, a student cannot fully benefit from the second area of teaching that centers on the even more important issue of playing expressively.

Although the teacher involved in basic development also teaches expression and interpretation, the performance oriented teacher focuses on advanced levels of interpretation and expression rarely achieved by the teacher concerned with the more basic aspects of training.

While gifted performers provide students essential inspiration and exemplary goals, serious problems arise when they attempt to teach students expression and interpretation when what is needed is basic training and development. In such situations the performer tries to produce a desirable end result, instead of explaining how to develop the abilities necessary to achieve the result. Thus the well-intended class with the master performer often ends in confusion for the student and the seeds of performance anxiety will have been planted in fertile ground.

Many concert artists decline the numerous offers to become involved in teaching other than coaching carefully selected students in advanced interpretation and expression. Some three or four years ago I happened to see a fascinating TV appearance of the great violinist, Itzhak Perlman, showing him visiting a music class at his son’s school. One of the students asked the maestro whether he teaches the violin. His response was remarkably thoughtful and candid. While I do not remember his precise words, he clearly indicated that, if the student meant actually teaching someone to play the violin, his answer was “no,” and further that even if he had the time and desire he wouldn’t know how, that “such teaching is highly specialized, very demanding work.”

Although many famous concert performers refuse to become involved in basic training they are often prevailed upon for information about that area of study. Andres Segovia was a prime example. I spent enough time with him to know that he avoided discussing technical development. He was a highly intelligent man who appeared to be aware that his great strength lay in coaching and he avoided giving advice on the subject of technical development. He was besieged by enthusiasts to share his “secrets” of playing, which he did generously in the area in which he obviously felt capable—in expression. I was once present when a prominent lady connected with the Curtis Institute of Music brought her 14 year old nephew backstage at the Academy of Music in Philadelphia and asked—more like insisted—that the maestro teach him. I remember his response clearly: he politely but firmly said, “But madame, I am not a teacher, I only coach the more advanced performers.”

Thus there exist two different areas of teaching: the teacher and the coach. Although proficient teachers must possess a thorough knowledge of both music and the mental and physical areas of development as well as be able to explain and demonstrate basic technique, they do not need to be high-level performers. This is not meant to imply that teachers who possess only modest playing ability are apt to be more competent teachers. There are instructors teaching and directing guitar programs, some of whom even possess advanced degrees, who are neither proficient coaches nor competent teachers. This can occur when the teacher’s teacher and entire lineage of instruction was deficient—a regrettable situation where ineffective information becomes the norm and is passed down by tradition. As better information about learning the guitar becomes available, the standards of teaching among both guitar instructors and performers can be expected slowly to rise as will general levels of performance.

Andres Segovia: “But madame, I am not a teacher, I only coach the more advanced performers.”

Considering the Limitations of a Text

Then, of course, there is the issue of developing the various aspects of technique as well as the ability to read and interpret music. Who would contend that either of these subjects can be effectively dealt with in writing and a DVD? There are two equally important things that are essential in order to learn to play. The first is access to accurate information which, by itself, remains simply information until the second area, application of the information, occurs. If the information is inaccurate, or is insufficient in some way, the application may be practically impossible. If the information is adequate and the application is faulty, the student’s efforts can just as certainly fail. Being certain that the information is scheduled, introduced, and applied in the most effective manner for each individual student can only be carried out by a good teacher.

On the Importance of the Private Lesson

Why can instrumental instruction not be carried out efficiently in classes? Why has the private lesson become the universally accepted approach for learning an instrument? The simple answer is that it cannot be effectively done any other way. The reason is that learning to play an instrument is a highly complex process that, to be most effective, must take into account the variable qualities found among individual students. Every student possesses many differing tendencies of strengths and weaknesses we recognize as degrees of talent. These are manifest in an infinite number of ways both intellectually and musically. One student may tend to perceive and to acquire habits, concentrate, visualize, etc. more readily than another while a student lacking some of these desirable qualities may possess unusual levels of motivation and persistence and become more proficient than others apparently more gifted.

Further, I find it difficult to believe that any teacher really thinks he or she knows all there is to know about learning to play the guitar—thinks that there aren’t important things to be learned about teaching from a well-written text. But I have met many who apparently feel they know all they need to know about the subject. Further, it is doubtful that many experienced teachers think it’s possible in a one hour lesson, without a text, to provide all the information (aside from written music) a student needs to study well until the next weekly scheduled lesson. The lesson becomes more effective and rewarding for both the teacher and student when a well-written text and DVD are available to serve as sources of basic information as well as constant review. Thus the teacher can devote more time and effort to personal explanation and the application of information that is impossible to acquire any other way. Efficient teaching results in efficient learning—learning with a minimum waste of time and effort. The importance of efficiency in learning the guitar becomes most evident by pausing to consider the extremely challenging process of performing music.

Thoughts on Teaching

It’s my long-held belief that, along with possessing an effective approach to learning music and the guitar, the primary quality for achieving success as a teacher is a love and deep respect for each student as one of our human family who, for some mysterious reason, is motivated to bring a touch of beauty into this often troubled world. This manual is my attempt to be helpful in the teacher’s efforts to meet the tremendous responsibility of guiding another person in this positive life development. Whether the student aims for a professional career in music or simply seeks the enjoyment of playing the guitar and personally sharing music with family and friends, we need to remember that such an aspiration remains a most admirable goal.

……..Aaron Shearer