Wednesday, 19 March 2014

I Teach Guitar at a Primary School – SOS

 “Whats that? Little Tarquin didn’t practice again because he had swimming, fencing, water polo, karate, rugby, archery, maths tuition, science tuition, English tuition, "the guitar was in the boot of the car all week while it was at the garage"? (true story) Don’t worry just keep sending him here for the same lesson each week and I’ll keep taking your money, as long as that’s okay with you. It is? Great!” *puts down phone and sighs...*

If, like me, you’ve gone for the ‘safe & steady’ option of propping up a majority of your performance career with a guaranteed base-income of primary/secondary school guitar teaching, and, like me, find yourself wishing one of your pupils would just put you out of your misery and club you to death with their guitar, fret not... [guitar joke there…] (FYI I love this job really!!)

It is clear that the children of today are very much busier with extra curricular activities than they were not even 15 years ago. Whether this is a good or a bad thing, to lessen the impact this multitude of activities might cause to your pupils' guitar playing abilities, here is a blog entry with some tips I have acquired along the way to help streamline and encourage your pupils’ rate of learning. n.B. this is not an entry about guitar methods, I’ll save that for another post!

1. Highlighters

Highlighters are not only a great way of visually enticing a child to actually get their guitar out and practice their piece, it is also an effective way of bringing out and visually displaying some of the basic ideas hidden within the dots on the page – for example voicing, dynamics, tone changes, and certain technically demanding bars that the child really needs to practice in isolation. 

When I first started getting into using these part of me thought this is really just graffiti – but the net result has been an observable speeding up in all of my pupils’ learning, hence I’m not going to stop it any time soon!

2. The Gitano

I avoid, where possible, making my pupils buy anything unnecessary, since bringing up a child is itself an extremely expensive undertaking for parents. However, if they are going to go down the route of getting their children to learn the guitar this is a must-have accessory for their child’s initial technical and postural development, as well as later musical development.

EUREKA! You know that thing a lot of guitar pupils do with their thumb sticking out over the top? That’s because when they practice at home they can’t be bothered getting their footstool out to sit with correct posture – it’s a great way of spotting who your lazy/inattentive students are! Instead, they put it on their left or right leg which makes having the thumb hanging over the top a more comfortable approach to the fret hand, even if it is more restricting… Try it! Sit with the guitar on your left leg (/right leg for the lefties) and relax your posture; suddenly placing your fret hand thumb behind the neck requires you to drop your shoulder to reach it. The effect is the same when sitting with the guitar on the right leg, but with the disadvantage of having a slightly twisted lower back.

So, the Gitano streamlines practice - having one attached to the underside of the guitar will mean there will be one less thing to do during the act of getting the guitar out to practice, since it can stay attached to the guitar whilst in the guitar case. There are other such postural supports such as the Ergoplay Rest or the Dynarette support Cushion but they have to be detached and so create the same problem the footstool has with the lazy/inattentive students. To repeat, having one of these will mean that your pupil will be 99.9% more likely to practice with correct posture and, hence, correct technique! Not only that, but they will benefit from their lower back not being damaged over time by the twisting caused as a result of sitting with one leg raised on a footstool, or from sitting with the guitar on the right leg.

3. iPhone Notes

This is something I wish I had brought in a long time ago! Alongside a scales/pieces-based syllabus (I hope) you’ll most likely be setting extra exercises to develop particular aspects of your pupils’ technique. I often used to find myself in the position where I was unsure whether or not I had given a pupil a particular exercise from a method book or group of my own composed exercises, as you can’t necessarily work through them in page-order. (I like to set exercises which relate to technical demands of a set piece)
Noting down in short hand what you will cover/ended up covering with a pupil in a lesson from week to week is useful, but still doesn’t keep a tab on what additional exercises you have covered. Having a separate list beneath your pupil’s profile will allow you to add each page separately and can be a ‘go-to’ list to see what exercises you have not yet covered. It also means if your pupil didn’t practice this week through sheer laziness, you can punish them by setting last week’s lesson’s to-do list and spending a chunk of their lesson working through a random exercise they haven’t covered yet.
Hazzah! That’ll learn em!

4. Easy-to-read Duos

Occasionally when one of your pupils arrives to their lesson they might have just returned from a particularly busy week, had a family matter that has caused them some kind of distress, or just for some reason they’re in a bad mood (teenagers...). Either way, they’ve not picked up their guitar all week to practice, but in this instance its not an appropriate situation to be disciplining them for lack of practice. I like to think of the lesson in this instance as a ‘therapy’ session for them to be coaxed into a happier frame of mind where they will be enthusiastic to crack on with practice when they get home. A useful tool that I know many great teachers already employ (after spending around the first 5 minutes getting them warmed up and quickly refreshing their memory about last lesson's set tasks and ‘re-setting’ them) is kicking back and enjoying playing through a couple of duos with them.  My current personal favourite tool for this is Trinity Guildhall's book of duo pieces. [Incidentally, if you can recommend any other duo books that you have had good experiences with please comment on this blog]. Duos are a great way of boosting sight-reading proficiency in a slightly less formal, less intimidating, but more accessible way whilst also giving your pupil access to more recognisable repertoire that would otherwise be too advanced for them if set as a solo piece. If you can maintain their enthusiasm for practice in this instance then you're doing a good job.


Declan Zapala is a contemporary/classical guitarist based in Watford, UK.

Monday, 16 December 2013

4 Books Every Guitarist Should Have on their Santy List

Hi! My name is Declan Zapala. You may remember me from such YouTube videos as Crystal, Broken Rhapsody, and Epic Fails 2013: Cherubs Edition. You may also have no idea who I am, in which case, how are you even reading this?

Either way, welcome to the first installment of what I hope will be an occasional-but-regular blog about all things guitar – or other such pertinent matters.

This year has seen an unprecedented number of books come onto the market (here in the UK at least) by a variety of leading guitarists from different circles so I thought, as my first blog entry it would be nice if they were collated in one place, popped on a pedestal and reviewed so that humanity might marvel in astonishment at their brilliance!

Bridget Mermikides
'The Classical Guitar Compendium'

First up is the new book by the classical/electric guitar chameleon that is Bridget Memikides. Alongside her exploits as one half of the Bridget Mermikides & Amanda Cooke classical guitar duo, she is an accomplished blues guitarist, not to mention an examiner for end-of-year student recitals at prestigious institutes such as the RCM. Did I mention she taught Bill Oddie the guitar on a show for the BBC back in 2007? No? Well, she did! Most importantly, though, Bridget has a monthly column in the magazine Guitar Techniques in which she puts together her own arrangements of popular pieces of classical music, and, on top of that, prepares exercises to accompany her arrangements of technical pieces by 19th century guitarist composers including Matteo Carcassi, Mauro Giuliani, Fernando Sor, and Francisco Tárrega. This helps make the approach to learning these composer's pieces more accessible to student guitarists. The Classical Guitar Compendium is a collation of these pieces from 3 year’s-worth of the monthly column – for the record, that is A LOT of music! It is so enormous I am officially renaming it ‘Bridget Mermikides - The Guitar Yellow Pages’.

Rather helpfully the compendium comes with 2 CDs of Bridget playing each piece from the book! The fact the music is spread across 2 CDs gives you an idea of the scale of this book. As a bonus, the CDs are in fact quite lovely to listen to as standalone discs, whether you are learning the pieces or not!

To summarise, because of the tutorials and exercises, alongside the vast plethora of arrangements, this is an ideal book for any amateur or student guitarist looking to boost their technique as well as their repertoire. For the professional guitarist, however, there is also concert grade repertoire as well as arrangements suitable for weddings and functions. A really useful addition to any guitarist's repertoire collection!

Available to order from
Also available to order from

Stuart Ryan
'The Tradition: Fingerstyle Guitar Arrangements'

Before I continue, I must inform you that I had my copy delivered in the post and gave the special instruction “draw a picture of a panda on the packet” when completing the order form on Stuart’s website. That explains the rather angelic image of a panda next to the book – not quite a ‘drawing’ as I specified, Stuart, but lovely nonetheless!
Stuart is another distinguished guitarist to have written for the magazine Guitar Techniques, as well as the magazines Total Guitar and Guitar - through these magazines he has written and recorded over 500 hundred lessons! That's a lot of hours of dedication, both for Stuart and his following of guitar enthusiasts! His omnipresence as a fingerstyle performer and guitar tutor has led him to become one of the leading players and educators in the field of steel string guitar; something that is reaffirmed when you check out some of his YouTube videos.

Aside his skills as a performer and teacher, he is an extremely able arranger of guitar music – The Tradition is a collection of solo guitar arrangements of traditional Celtic and American music which show off Stuart's arranging skills. The pieces are all short and sweet (averaging 1-2 mins long) and are really easy to get under the fingers. I found the book is a nice way to relax into new short pieces of repertoire over a glass of scotch, and the Irishman in me had particular fun learning Sliabh Russell. Once again the book comes with a CD to help with the learning process - and like Bridget's book , the CD is quite nice to listen to regardless of whether you are learning the music or not.

In summary this is a really great book if you fancy learning some short pieces of traditional music that are not only fun to play but quick to learn.

Available to order from
YouTube Channel: StuartRyanMusic

Matt Palmer
'The Virtuoso Guitarist - Volume 1: A New Approach to Playing Fast Scales'

I first saw US classical guitarist Matt Palmer in Germany competing in the Koblenz International Guitar Competition back in 2006 and was taken aback by the intimidatingly effortless speed with which he was able to play his repertoire – his performance of Villa-Lobos’ Etude No.2 left me slightly stunned; so much so that when I recently chanced upon a YouTube video of Matt playing that same piece (see the video below) I immediately became curious to see what he has been up to since the days of Koblenz.

After a quick Google search the first thing I came across was this book. Now, this book doesn't quite fit in with the "new books by UK guitarists theme" but it's just so good I couldn't leave it out...

It is important to note that at this point that, as a guitarist, you never truly feel that your technique has hit its peak (well, I haven't met a guitarist who has said otherwise!) - it always has room to grow, which is why as soon as I saw this method book I had to order myself a copy. I'm glad the book came so quickly in the post as within 2 days of working through some of it I was able to do things I never thought I'd be able to on the guitar (more about this below!). 

Before studying the classical guitar, Matt spent over a decade of his youth studying the electric guitar, becoming an accomplished virtuoso on the instrument, and it is the 'outside-the-box' wisdom he has to impart from this experience that makes this book such a worthwhile investment for any classical guitarist. *I'm going to get technical now, so the non-guitarists amongst you might want to skip the rest of this paragraph.* The book is centred around the idea of grouping scales into three notes per string and using the annular, middle, and index fingers to quickly rattle through them in consecutive bursts of three notes. Tone can be an issue when it comes to playing this way, which is why Matt dedicates a lot of the book to exercises that improve this aspect. Personally I found myself better able to bring scales up to speed if I replaced my annular finger with my thumb such that, after only 2 days of including it in my practice routine, I was able to reel through a 2 octave D major scale lightning fast – check out my 12-sec video:-

In summary, this is a miracle book for enhancing your virtuosity as a guitarist, although let it be known that this is a stave-only book so any TAB junkies will need to get a basic idea of how to read from the stave before approaching this one.

Available to order from

YouTube Channel: MattTheGuitarist

Chris Woods
'Percussive Acoustic Guitar'

Finally someone has gone and made a method book for getting into percussive fingerstyle guitar music! I have constantly had pupils in the past wanting to learn music by the late Eric Roche, Thomas Leeb, and Jon Gomm, but the problem is they have not had the proficiency as a player to approach ithe percussive elements technically and, more often than not, have been frightened away from the style altogether – their reaction to seeing a percussive fingerstyle score could be likened to that of a dog being shown a magic trick *tilts head*.

This book is for experienced guitarists who already know their way around the fret board to some degree of proficiency, and is a means of building up the coordination of one's percussive abilities through a series of exercises and pieces. Chris thoroughly covers basic string slapping and body tapping in conjunction with plucked, strummed, and slapped notes and harmonics, all in great detail.  For the uninitiated this book is invaluable, and for the already-initiated Chris goes into details about advanced percussive trickery which I am sure will be useful to writers and arrangers seeking to embellish their music.

I find that the concept of a tuition DVD can sometimes be a bit of a red herring as far as tuition is concerned - having the TAB/stave available is enough for many guitarists, and what is in fact helpful is just having the music on CD - not something to take your attention away from the music in front of you (like Bridget and Stuart's books earlier on!); this is simply so that the player has a clear idea of what the piece they are learning is meant to sound like. In this instance however, because of the gesticular and visual nature of percussive fingerstlye playing, being able to see what you are learning is half of the picture. The interchanging movements of the hands and arms could be likened to a dance involving only the upper body and so a tuition DVD is essential. Chris' DVD makes it extremely clear where the hands should be laterally positioned as you progress around the various exercises and pieces. The notation in the book is super clear too, making it a really easy book to work your way through.

To summarise, this book is the missing link in percussive guitar pedagogy - I will personally be recommending this to all my pupils and friends looking to get into this style of music!

Available to order from

YouTube Channel: ChrisWoodsGroove

As you can see, there's a lot of stuff to learn out there so go and update that Santy list before its too late!

Happy holidays guys and thanks for reading!!


Contact/Social Media links for Declan:-
Official Website