How do the colours help the pupil?

Staff notation is a very beautiful invention. Experienced players can take one look, and immediately see everything they need to know in order to play and understand a piece. But it is an abstract system, and it can take a long time for a beginner to learn to read it fluently. Sometimes the first steps can be very daunting if, at the same time, most of the pupil’s mind is taken up with the physical problems of playing the instrument. Using colour can guide the eye, and focus the mind, in a quick and unfussy way.

In the case of string instruments, one way to use colour is to have a colour for each string. This breaks the stave up into small, manageable zones. Once directed to the right string, the beginner pupil only needs to make simple 2- or 3-way choices. The mental load is lightened, the pupil will “get to the the tune” with less effort, and the logic of the stave lines and spaces can be learned at a gradual pace.
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What about the transition to reading without colours?

If you teach a pupil to read music with coloured notes, will that pupil then find it difficult to read ordinary black notes?

In my own experience, most pupils who have worked through the first book of Rainbow Guitar (or Rainbow Ukulele) will find that they can make the switch to playing tunes with the same notes, printed black in the normal way, within a very short space of time and with very few problems.  If you have had a lot of practice in playing tunes which look like this:

then it is not really such a great leap to playing a tune which looks like this:

The fact that pupils can make this transition fairly quickly, and with few problems, is the real proof that this system works. The colours have been helping in the early stages, but they have not been doing all the work! The pupil has still had to learn how the stave works, and to focus constantly on its shapes, lines and spaces.


The 7-year-old guitarist 6) Individual vs group tuition

Will a beginner do better in an individual lesson or in a small group?

This is a huge question for music teachers and for parents, and of course it is not specific to the guitar.

The answer is not necessarily the same for every instrument, and certainly not for every pupil.

But I will stick my neck out and say that as far as 7-year-olds are concerned, most guitar beginners will learn AT LEAST AS WELL AND PROBABLY BETTER in pairs or small groups as they do one-to-one. Exceptions are: pupils at the top or bottom end of the ability range, and pupils who for personal or behavioural reasons will not work well with a group.

I have plenty of experience of this, as I am lucky enough to have long teaching sessions and long pupil lists in my schools, so I teach individuals, pairs and small groups all on the same day and am able to shuffle and reshuffle from term to term according to current rate of progress, interests, and availability of compatible lesson partners.

True, sometimes I have known pupils who have switched from group tuition to individual tuition and suddenly started to do better. But I can think of at least as many examples of pupils who were, frankly, failing in a one-to-one situation, but who suddenly flowered on being switched to a group, and took off both technically and musically. Social learning is a very powerful thing.

The fact is that the teacher often does not have much say as to whether a pupil is taught individually or in a group. But if you do have a choice, I would simply say: do not just assume that pupils will do better in individual lessons. It is a widespread assumption in the instrumental teaching world – often made by teachers who prefer a quiet life or who simply haven’t bothered to consider any other format – but it is a lazy assumption and it is often plain wrong.

And if you haven’t tried teaching pairs or small groups, have the courage to give it a go. (It has benefits for the teacher as well as for the pupils, by the way). But do read up about it  first – lots of ideas and inspiration in the excellent “All Together Now” published by ABRSM.

The 7-year-old guitar pupil 5) bits

… to learn to strum chords? Only if they are badgering you quite persistently and you feel that you will lose them if you do not show them some. And even then, just a couple will be plenty for a while.  … to learn to play melody? Definitely. And more or less exclusively for now.  … to read from some kind of notation? Yes, unless they have very unusual powers of memory. … to learn stave notation? (see previous point) – assuming they are learning some kind of notation, then stave notation is the only approach I would use with a 7-year-old. Any alternative notation is just short-changing them and shutting down options for the future. … to learn a solid technique? Of course! … to learn classical guitar technique? Tough question! But for me an easy answer – Yes, if you are serious about keeping their options open for the future (and I imagine you are, with this age group).  Of all the ways you can think of to play guitar, classical guitar technique is the most all-embracing, flexible and and adaptable – the one which develops the most skills and the largest range of movements. It it also the best suited to gradual, progressive learning and Doing One Thing At  A Time. And here’s perhaps an unexpected thing; it is the most fun approach for 7-year-old pupils and their teacher. … to KNOW that they are learning classical guitar technique? Not really, no. With this age group, the lessons should be about Music, Skills, and Fun. The less you use words like “classical”, “rock”, and “acoustic” in lessons, the better. Pupils should learn things because they are worth learning, not because of a stylistic label the teacher attaches to them. … to learn some classical guitar music? They certainly don’t have to, but on the other hand why wouldn’t you want them to?  … to learn some “real music”? Definitely. Not chords! (see above). But riffs are a different story. Riffs are great physical and mental exercise for young pupils – they are short, simple, memorable and of course by their very nature, you end up repeating them over and over again. Almost every riff can be tied to some aspect of technique – a fingering pattern, position shifting, articulation … And they are a great antidote for Twinkle Twinkle Little Star. … to learn to improvise and compose? Yes, if you are serious about keeping options open for the future. And yes, if you are serious about including pupils with a range of learning styles. And come to think of it yes, if you are serious about music at all! The only proviso I would have is that not all pupils will take to this sort of work. Some people will always prefer a closed task (“play this tune correctly from beginning to end”) and will be at sea if you give them an open-ended task. So be aware and open-minded, and don’t rub people’s noses in something they don’t like and are not comfortable with. But then, you could say exactly the same thing about other musical skills such as reading from notation or playing with others.  … to learn tunes from memory? Absolutely, and regardless of learning style (see above). I can’t think of any music pupil who will not benefit from being regularly challenged to play from memory (as long as the challenge is a fair one and tailored to their ability).  … to learn “theory”? Strictly speaking, no. Three-quarters of the world’s music is made by people who have only the haziest ideas about bars, beats, and note names (let alone scales, cadences and all the rest of it). And without wanting to repeat lame old jokes, you could raise that figure to about 99% in the case of the world’s guitar music! But on the other hand, think again about keeping options open for the future. If your pupils are going to be able to function in a range of musical environments, access and understand all music, and communicate effectively with other musicians, then they do need at least some basic terminology. … to KNOW that they are learning theory? This goes against all my gut instincts, but I must admit that actually yes they do. I much prefer the idea of teaching theory in the background as a sort of “hidden curriculum” but I have found that unless you focus pupils’ minds explicitly on theory from time to time, they will simply not notice it or register it at all. A wise music teacher friend of mine once described theory as like a window through which you look at the music. The point is that you tend to do just that: you look straight THOUGH a window, not AT it. … to play with others? Yes, yes, yes! Come on, you don’t need a list of reasons for this. Again just one or two provisos. One, learning styles again. Not everyone is a social being and for some people, music is an escape into their own world, not a place where they want to try to keep in step with everyone else. Two, there will always be some pupils who just cannot play to a steady beat. For such pupils, group playing is confusion and humiliation, and for those around them, it is torture. So watch out and be sensitive. …to have fun? Lots of it. (Within reason of course, I mean where would it end … 🙂 )

In summary … some guiding principles for the teacher of young guitar pupils

1: Keep as many options open as possible for the future. 2: That does not mean giving them too many options now! 3: Don’t take short cuts (they have plenty of time!) 4: Teach nothing that they might need to unlearn later 5: Keep them curious and hungry 6: If you want them to learn something then create a NEED to learn it 7: 97% of all human communication is non-verbal 8: People will forget almost everything you say, and most of what you do, but they will always remember how you made them feel  

The 7-year-old guitarist 4) Chords and accompaniment

Back to your roots
Here is an idea for an activity that I often do with young beginner guitarists – sometimes in the very first lesson. It involves making a very simple accompaniment to London Bridge is Falling Down, with two open string notes played to a slow steady pulse. It is simple enough to do by ear, though it also makes a good introduction to reading the notes on the stave.

Here is an excerpt (it’s on p9 of Rainbow Guitar Book 1). Click on the image to see it full size:


If  you teach this age group and you haven’t tried this sort of activity, then you should. Continue reading

The 7-year-old guitar pupil 3) Big instrument, small hands

If you are working with this age group, there are several things you have to keep in the forefront of your mind, the whole time. The most important of these is to remember the physical limitations of the hands. There is only so much that you can do if your hands are half the adult size, and your joints, sinews and muscles are still growing and developing.

If the teacher constantly bears this in mind, the lessons can be great fun and lay the basis for a lifetime of enjoyment of the instrument. If the teacher gets it wrong and starts trying to cover things for which the pupil is not physically ready, Continue reading

The 7-year-old guitar pupil 2) Gear

Guitarists love gear! But what do 7-year-old beginners actually need? And are there some things that they totally don’t need?

A scaled down guitar?
Definitely, if you are serious about pupils learning a good, reliable, adaptable  technique. You would not try to learn any other instrument, or any other sport or hobby, using equipment that was the wrong size for the pupil. Why do parents persist in sending their 7-year-old children to lessons with full size guitars?

A footstool?
Yes. If you want to teach pupils a good, flexible, adaptable technique (see above) then you need the guitar tilted and the fingerboard up Continue reading

The 7-year-old guitar pupil 1) Introduction

If I had to nominate an ideal age to start guitar, I would probably say seven. There seems to be general agreement on this among the teachers I know, and among parents too, judging by the number of new enquiries I get every year for pupils around this age.

Seven seems to be a sort of golden mean. You can start younger, but children’s hands (or minds) will often not be ready for the task. You can of course start later (you can start any time) but at seven you have time on your side. Continue reading

BMG review for Rainbow Ukulele

Rainbow Ukulele was reviewed by Lesley Chapman and Michael Anderson of Cambridgeshire Music for the Spring 2013 edition of the BMG quarterly. ” … makes it easy for student and teacher alike … well structured and fun songs to play … the colour system makes learning to read almost effortless … lesson ideas jumping off the page … “

Starting with the thumb …

If you look at modern classical guitar tutor books, the majority start with fingers plucking the upper strings 1, 2, and 3 (thumb resting).

I have also seen one or two tutor books that start at the other end with the pupil plucking with thumb on strings 6, 5, and 4 (fingers resting).

There are good arguments in favour of either of the above approaches. Personally I have come to favour starting with the thumb, as Continue reading