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.


  1. Good tips Dec! On the duos front, I found a copy of a book of EGTA duos for classical guitar in a discount bin at a local music shop. I haven't splashed out on the whole series as most of my pupils are electric/steel-string at the moment, but they looked pretty decent and had some interesting works!

  2. Good call Matt - shall give that one a spin! I believe the word is "yoink"!