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,

then a lot of that fun will disappear. At the end of each project there will not a feeling of complete mastery, only of having “just about managed”. In the longer term, the pupil will almost certainly develop bad technique habits in order to compensate for what they lack in size and strength (this goes against one of my principles, which is Don’t Teach Anything Which Will Need To Be Unlearned Later – see final instalment). In the very worst case, pupils could even injure themselves trying to attempt the impossible (though I don’t know many seven-year-olds who do enough practice to be in any danger of this 🙂 )

In this article I am considering the following questions:

  • What can the teacher do to lessen the demands placed on the left hand by a large fingerboard?
  • How best to develop strength in the hands and fingers, so that young pupils can get the best use out of the physical resources that they have?

Scaled down guitars

Most seven year olds will need either a 1/2 size or 3/4 size guitar. These are widely available (one model my pupils use a lot is the Admira Alba, which is a good quality starter guitar). Here’s a simple test to get the size right – if the pupil sits with the guitar tilted up in the classical guitar position, is the end of the fingerboard roughly at shoulder height?

The only problem with very small guitars is that as they are scaled down, so the strings get closer and closer together. For this reason, some half size guitars really are quite fiddly to play, even with tiny fingers! My personal opinion is that if a pupil is too small for a 3/4 size guitar, then they are probably better off doing ukulele for a year or two – the instrument is even smaller but the four strings are much wider apart – and then switching to guitar.

Somewhere in my cupboard I have an old “Guitalele” (made by Yamaha) which one of my schools had knocking around. It is basically a guitar pitched up by a fourth, but has an unusually wide neck for its size. This strikes me as a good idea, and one day I will find the right pupil to try it out with. It also leads me to the next point …

Using a capo

This is a time-honoured way, not only of changing the pitch of the guitar, but of reducing the load on the left hand fingers. It brings the left hand closer in to the body, reduces the distance between the frets, and lowers the action of the guitar (so the pupil does not need to press so hard to make a clean fretted note). The capo can initially be placed as high as the 5th fret and then brought down fret by fret until the pupil is ready to dispense with it. This is such an obviously good idea that I am not sure why I do not do it as a matter of course myself. Apart from making the pupils’ lives easier, I guess it also means the teacher does not need to sit and listen to tunes in the same key all morning 🙂

Playing around with tunings

I read an article in Acoustic Guitar magazine a few years ago extolling the virtues of teaching younger pupils with open G tuning (DGDGBD). It was based on some work being done in primary schools somewhere in the Midwest (where I guess that playing in open tunings is a more everyday notion than it might be in the UK).

My own tutor book, Rainbow Guitar, starts with just the middle three strings (DGB) which is a sort of mini open G tuning. So from there it is not too much of a leap to think about using full open G tuning. I’ve never tried this idea with pupils, but I can see that if you tuned the top string down to D, you could make more music using open strings only, and delay the need for fretting with the 3rd finger for some time.  For example, you could play tunes on the top 4 strings, with the note range DE GA BC D, using only two fretting fingers.

Another obvious advantage of an open tuning is that a beginner is less likely to play nasty-sounding wrong notes. Put very simply, if you make a clumsy move with your right hand and miss a string, then the string next door will not sound too bad.

I’m not quite convinced (changing the tuning seems to involve Learning Things Which Have To Be Unlearned Later, which I am not keen on) but I have to admit the idea is at least worth considering.

Little finger for 3rd fret

I was always taught, and have always taught my pupils, the “one finger per fret” rule. When playing melody in first position, the four fingers take one fret each, up to fret four.

So until very recently, I would always have told pupils that “skipping a finger” is wrong. You don’t use the 4th finger at the 3rd fret as a general rule, but only when you are playing chords or overlapping notes and the other fingers are tied up elsewhere.

However, there is a view in the classical guitar world that the 4th finger should actually be the default finger for the 3rd fret, even in melody playing! And I must admit I am starting to see the possible benefits of this more clearly. The main argument is that it encourages the whole hand into a better alignment with the string in the early stages. Further benefits would be that chord work and contrapuntal playing is made easier later on, and that the 4th finger is less likely to to crunch itself into a useless little tight ball, or stick up in the air, while the other three fingers are getting themselves established.

For seven-year-olds, this could make a real difference to the amount of finger stretching required. I have encouraged one or two of my pupils to use the 4th finger by default and I am certainly going to try it more often.

I’m not completely convinced. It does mean having to learn several ways of playing the same note (e.g. you would have to use the 3rd finger in chromatic passages). Also, with beginner pupils, I am cautious of making any suggestion that there is more than one proper fingering. I just know how quickly most of them will start fingering things “any old how” if you let them get away with it 🙂 But it is certainly an idea I would like to try out more.

Developing muscle strength, suppleness etc

Of course you could write an entire book about this! So this section is very brief and just mentions a few idea which are particularly applicable to guitar and manageable and fun for seven-year-olds.

“The Hand”

The comedy film “The Addams Family” features, among its loveable grotesque characters, a servant called The Hand. It is just that – a disembodied hand – and runs around on its fingers and thumb fixing and fetching for the rest of the family.

I often get beginner pupils to make “The Hand” shape on the floor or on a table. It makes quite a good approximation to both the left and right hand shape for guitarists. The Hand then practises running around, running on the spot, “stamping” with particular fingers etc.

A variant of this is to put the thumb under the table top and the fingers above (so the thumb and fingers push against each other as they do on the guitar neck. Pupils can practise this any time, even in the middle of a boring maths lesson.

Finger hopscotch

I give this name to a group of left hand exercises that I show pupils and do very regularly as a warmup to a lesson. They are done on the instrument but without actually plucking the string. A very simple one might go like this: if a new fretted note has just been learned, the pupil has to place the finger on the note and then practice lifting and replacing the fingertip on the string (either completely silently, or “tapping” the note so that the note sounds faintly). Later the pupil might practice shifting between different fingers (e.g. between the note A on the 3rd string and C on the 2nd – both these notes are usually learned quite early on). At a later stage we might practice holding down the C note with 1st finger while the 3rd finger taps D (3rd fret) on the same string. Etc etc. Finger Hopscotch can be tailored to almost any left hand teaching point.

The point of these exercises without plucking is to get the pupil to focus momentarily on the shape and the movement, rather than the sound. With young pupils they can be done as a fast paced warmup, quickly moving from one exercise to the next, for a couple of minutes at the start of each lesson.

Done regularly, they have an amazing effect on finger strength and dexterity.

Riffs as finger exercises

Pupils of all ages very much want to play “real music”.  Learning a recognisable riff from a real song is a big payoff and highly motivating. Riffs (and ostinatos of all kinds) 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!

It is not necessary to pupils to have previously met all the notes, or be able to read them all on the stave. I would assume here that the teacher would teach riffs by ear or from tablature.

The only problem, if you are getting on a bit, like me, and don’t want to spend hours listening to teenage music, is keeping up with the new riffs that constantly appear. I ask younger, hipper teachers to keep their ears to the ground for me and send me links to good new riffs when they come across them.

OK that is enough about big instruments and small hands. In the next few instalments I will start to look at the actual musical content of lessons, always asking the question “What works, and what doesn’t, with this age group?”