Aaron Shearer Looks Back
by Patrick Lui and Tom Poore
reprinted by permission of the GFA, from the Soundboard (2009) Vol. 35, No. 4, pp. 51-55
In Memorium: Aaron Shearer (and Thomas Humphrey)
reprinted by permission of the GFA, from the Soundboard (2008) Vol. 34, No. 3
Aaron Shearer: The Evolution of a Master Pedagogue
by Alan Hirsh and Thomas Kikta
September 2019 marked what would have been the 100th birthday of Aaron Shearer, the father of American classical guitar pedagogy. It’s a fitting title since over the last 60 years, students worldwide have either started their early training with the Shearer method or, at some point in their development, have encountered his many books (there are currently 17). Depending on the book, Shearer method can mean several things. It can mean a nuts and bolts approach from the Classic Guitar Technique series (1960), the four principles of efficient muscle function from the Learning the Classic Guitar series (1990), or the seamless technical sequence of The Shearer Method series (2012). To others, it’s the central theme common to all things Shearer, the pedagogy of mindful learning.
To study Shearer, is to study the journey of his evolving pedagogy. Throughout his life, he tirelessly reworked and refined ideas, always seeking feedback from his students, colleagues, friends and family. So often, Shearer would labor for weeks, crystalizing a concept in an article to complete satisfaction, only to throw it out and start over the next day. David Tanenbaum comments, “He was always looking for the right way to do it and more importantly the right way to say it.” Former student, Thomas Kikta reflects,
During the early 80’s Shearer was bringing into pedagogy class his writings. We literally were the “guinea pigs.” So many times, we would have one class go in one direction, and the next one in the complete opposite. To most, this would be very frustrating, but it taught us first-hand the value of trial and error. That experience was priceless to me.
Growing up Shearer faced numerous obstacles that would forever change the course of his life. As a guitarist, he was self-taught. In the 1930’s suitable step-by-step methods were not yet available and, while he owned a few books, they offered poor or little information. In his early 20’s a serious car accident left him with a permanent right-arm injury that was further aggravated by countless hours of misaligned guitar practice. This brought on a condition of severe tendonitis with no hope of becoming a serious classical guitarist. In spite, Shearer was able to turn his handicap into a positive force.
Classic Guitar Technique
With his right hand crippled, performing was limited to jazz rhythm guitar. But his passion for classical music endured, so Shearer’s only remaining option was to teach. To pursue fully, he began tackling the issue of beginning-level methodologies. Shearer sought advice from other musicians and teachers including Segovia, who referred him to his friend, Sophocles Papas in DC. To Shearer’s dismay, Papas endorsed the Aguado Method, which, like other 19th century texts, assumed a level of musical literacy and included etudes that were too difficult for beginners. In addition, Papas’s curriculum focused on imitating Segovia; “I wasn’t interested in what Segovia does, I was interested to understand how he learned to do it.” Shearer emphasized.
This was the beginning of Shearer, the analyst, asking what was wrong with present methods and what could be done to improve them. He experimented with his students seeing what worked best and in relatively short time, wrote Classic Guitar Technique (1959) the first real systematic method for beginners.
It was designed to quickly get students to alternate rest-stroke melody and free-stroke bass. First, fingers on upper strings are introduced, then p on lower strings, and finally alternation of p and fingers. His recommended Procedure of Practice is rather simple: 1) name the notes as they are being played; 2) vocalize the finger alternation (“i,m,i,m.” etc.); 3) count the beats of the measure using a metronome–all seeds for his later, more developed pre-reading procedure. Despite its simplistic content, an evolving system was born and a book, that Segovia called “worthless,” became the benchmark of American guitar pedagogy.
Learning the Classic Guitar
For a span of about 30 years after Classic Guitar Technique, Shearer was heavily immersed in teaching, developing guitar programs at American University, Catholic University, the Peabody Conservatory, the University of North Carolina School of the Arts (UNCSA) and ultimately the Duquesne University, Mary Pappert School of Music. In the 1960’s, higher education unfortunately regarded guitar as a second-class instrument, unfit to compete on the same level with other classical instruments. Shearer himself echoed that opinion when interviewing for the Peabody position, but nonetheless accepted the job. Initially, the Conservatory environment was intimidating, forcing him more than ever to re-think his approach. Through a critical trial and error process, his studio became the testing ground for new pedagogic development. Some private students were medical specialists and doctors, enabling him to ask questions and delve scientifically into issues of body, arm, hand, and finger position as well as muscle function.
The fruits of his labor finally landed in the three-volume Learning the Classic Guitar series (1990). The project was significant in that it was one his first creative collaborations, bringing together the expertise and talents of editor, Tom Poore and composer, Alan Hirsh.
As a grad student at Peabody, I was honored when Shearer asked me to be the composer for his project,” recalls Hirsh. He had just heard one of my guitar trios and I thought its musical style was what captured his interest. It turned out that he was just looking for a composer who knew the guitar well, which I did. Initially, I thought writing easy-level works would be a snap, but he had to work closely with me to teach me to be sensitive to the needs of a beginner.
While the organizational layout is tricky (all technical explanation in Book I, all musical application in Book II), the pedagogical concepts are sound and groundbreaking. The method opens boldly with Shearer’s favorite Albert Einstein quote:
Strange is our situation here upon earth. Each of us comes for a short visit, not knowing why, yet sometimes seeming to a divine purpose. From the standpoint of daily life, however, there is one thing we do know: That we are here for the sake of others.
The last phrase, ‘for the sake of others” is pause for thought and segues directly into Shearer’s ultimate goal for guitar study, sharing music with others, specifically performance. To this end, he unveils a host of new tools such as Aim-directed movement (ADM), Pre-Reading, and Visualization, all carried out away from the guitar for both learning and memorizing music. In the very beginning, he offers guidelines for clarifying music by vocalizing notes (fixed chromatic solfege) and counting and clapping rhythms. Whereas mindful learning is in its infancy in Classic Guitar Technique, it’s in full swing in Learning the Classic Guitar.
On the technique front, Shearer lays down one of his best contributions to date, the Four Principals of Efficient Muscle Function: 1) Alignment; 2) Mid-range positioning; 3) Follow Through; and 4) Uniform Direction of Joint Movement. From these simple truths, unfold the foundation for all technical development in the book and beyond. The method’s step-by-step sequence is strong, beginning with p free stroke, progressing eventually to sympathetic p,i,m arpeggio, finger alternation, etc. All the way, Book II serves to apply the technique in Book I with originally composed, level-appropriate music. Teacher and student duets, mostly in the first half of the book, allow for a rich musical experience from the very start.
With performance as the ultimate goal, Book III, Interpretation and Performance Development opens an entirely new branch of Shearer pedagogy. It’s the product of decades of practice in his studios, and validated by the extraordinarily high quality of students he had been producing at both Peabody and UNCSA—virtuosos such as Barrueco, Cobo, Starobin, Tanenbaum, to name a few. The first half of the book, Interpretation, includes topics such as Rhythmic, Harmonic, and Melodic Attractions, Note Groupings, and Phrasing, all exemplified in simple pieces from the standard repertoire. The second half, a collection of articles on Performance Anxiety, Memorization, Positive/Negative Concerns, Stage Conduct, Developmental and Expressive Performance, should be essential reading for all aspiring musicians.
Classic Guitar Technique Volume I, 3rd Edition
While the three books of Learning the Classical Guitar (LTCG) represent one of the most comprehensive guitar methodologies to date, Shearer grew increasingly concerned with its somewhat unwieldy design, the minor bumps in technical sequence, and lack of standard repertoire. In addition, though the text clearly explains every detail of technique, it’s a lot to digest for raw beginners, especially younger students. In many respects, this was not the target audience. At the time of LTCG, Shearer had been working with high-level college students, many of them remedial who had to be stripped of bad habits by starting over from square one.
By 1995 Shearer retired from full-time teaching, and turned his attention to refining ideas introduced in LTCG, specifically, Visualization, Habits, and Performance Anxiety. The first significant work produced was the 1998 unpublished article, An Innovative Approach to Learning Musical Instruments. The article is considered by many as one of his best, and forms the basis for writings on mindful learning in the later Shearer Method.
Another project was revising Classic Guitar Technique, Vol 1. Though the book continued to be his best seller, he was dissatisfied with pictures of positioning that were both outdated and incorrect. Since he was too busy also revising LTCG, Shearer turned the job of over to former student and Duquesne colleague, Kikta. Kikta approached the editor at Alfred Music who was initially reluctant and ultimately warned him, not to “mess it up.” With Shearer’s blessings, Kikta shot new pictures, recorded the studies and repertoire and ultimately molded the new edition to satisfy both Shearer and Alfred. As Shearer states in the preface, “We did not change the appealing character of the original book, but rather the corrections will make the text far more valuable to both teacher and student as a study guide.” Ultimately Classic Guitar Technique, 3rd Edition was nominated for “Best Instructional Book or Video For 2009” by Music and Sound Retailer. Most importantly, this project made clear to Shearer the power of media in telling his story.
Kikta and Shearer
The Shearer Method
By 2008, Shearer finished the 400-page manuscript, The Shearer Method, knowing that he would not live to see it to print. He handed it to Kikta one month before his passing with the instruction, “get it published, it’s really good!” The text is essentially a total makeover of LTCG. As he states in the Forward, “Although many of the terms and ideas remain the same, some differ in application, others have been replaced, and some important new ones have been added.”
The success of Classic Guitar Technique sparked a new direction for Shearer. Kikta reflects on the early stages of working on the project:
Around 2000 or 2001, Aaron was thinking about his magnum opus, his final word on how the guitar should be taught. Since he was regularly teaching at Duquesne University, we had a lot of time to discuss the content, curriculum and approach. One comment I made was that it would be so much easier if we could use video to tell his story. If a picture was worth a thousand words, then a video was infinite. We hooked our homes up with “CU See Me” and I would provide video examples of his technique. More often than not, he would say he “didn’t understand how it was all going to work.” I think it was the “midrange position of the joints” video when he finally realized the potential and new direction for his method.
Bringing in Kikta, was the start of making the most collaborative and creative method yet. Each book would include extensive videos, software-controlled audio to enable change in tempo and volume, and a hefty online supplement. To take it to print, LTCG composer, Hirsh created all the music and developed the online supplement, while Kikta performed and recorded all selections and produced videos. By 2012, the Shearer Method Book I, Classic Guitar Foundations was published; Books II (Classic Guitar Developments) and III (Learning the Fingerboard) were published in subsequent years. The sheer content dwarfs all earlier methods by comparison. Shearer Method, Book I alone has nearly 200 pages with over 80 compositions, 63 videos, and 34 online supplement links to more articles, videos and music. “Tom and I knew Shearer had risen the bar, which inspired us both to make it our best,” Hirsh recalls.
With video, Shearer’s instructional language is noticeably lighter. In LTCG, each new technique is described in step-by-step detail, while the Shearer Method provides only minimal explanation with reference to a video (streamed online or from the accompanying media disk). For instance, the topic of Sympathetic Movement is only 4 bullets of text, the first of which is “Study the video to form clear aims.” Each of Kikta’s videos brings all the details of technique to life with high definition image, motion graphics, and clear voiceover instruction. Articles such as performance, memorization, and habits, however, remain in the full Shearer-force writing style.
The most obvious departure from LTCG is the method’s format, which merges text and music within the same book. In terms of technique, Shearer began to regard rest stroke as a difficult hurdle for many beginning students. It’s noticeably absent throughout Book I, focusing instead on setting the optimal hand position with free stroke, follow-though, sympathetic motion, etc. Book II, however, launches immediately with rest stroke, first on a single line with scales, then later in homophonic texture involving other fingers free stroke.
Of course, the thread of mindful learning is collaboratively interwoven throughout. Shearer’s concepts are introduced in the text, brought to life with Kikta’s videos, and reinforced by Hirsh’s pre-reading/visualization exercises to prepare students for specific challenges in the music. In addition, students can view the entire mindful learning process in an 11-part video series at the Aaron Shearer Foundation website.
Since establishing the Aaron Shearer Foundation in 2009 along with its website, Shearer’s legacy lives on. In his footsteps, the foundation is dedicated to excellence in guitar education. Hirsh, Kikta, and others have expanded book offerings, such as Shearer’s complete fingerings of Carcassi Op. 60, Classroom Shearer: a Teacher’s manual, and Shearer Method Book IV, Guitar Harmony. The website offers a wealth of free materials, writings, blogs, and music, while the foundation continues to develop its programs, including Guitar in the Schools, an annual summer institute in Zion, and US Guitar Orchestra.
Remembering Shearer during his centennial year, we can appreciate his many contributions to the guitar world. His mantra was always to compare pedagogy of the guitar to that of the piano and violin. Those were the “serious” instruments. Shearer remembers, “In the beginning people would laugh when I would say that someday guitar would be a serious major instrument…well they’re not laughing anymore.”