Reader Feedback on Teaching Guitar

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Every guitar teacher has an opinion about the best method of teaching guitar.

A Guide to Teaching Guitar Workshops” might’ve more aptly been titled “Take the Money and Run.” It contains just enough truth to sound good: formal guitar classes using traditional methods can be discouraging and teaching should be demystified, a “passably fair” guitarist is perfectly able to teach fundamentals to a beginner (mainly because he still remembers the problems he had as a novice), the key of C is the wrong one to start with, and teaching guitar is a good way to supplement income (as well as a satisfying way to make a living).

But just as I want value for my money, I feel a responsibility to give others due value for their money. A music teacher must not mislead or frustrate his students, underrate their abilities, or neglect to convey the joy to be found in making music. An initial bad experience can be enough to put a student, particularly a young one, off the subject for life.

Aside from objecting to the attitude expressed in the article, I know the lesson plan as set down is unworkable. First, a four hour workshop! In my experience after one hour the beginner’s fingers are so sore he’s looking for a finger bowl!

Second, tuning everyone’s guitar yourself before you begin … so that’s how you spend three of the four hours! A better way to get the initial tuning done is to have the students match the strings of your guitar as you pluck them one by me (“Turning the peg away from you raises the tone, and toward you lowers it”).

Third, beginning the students on A and E7, with “Tom Dooley” as an illustrating song! Any guitar teacher can tell you that changing chords smoothly is a most difficult thing for the beginner, so either start with one-chord songs like “Roving Gambler” or “John Henry,” or teach a key with easier chord changes like D, whose chords (D, G, A7 ), along with E minor, are more versatile than the ones in the article anyway. From them, other chords can easily be learned — such as D7 and D minor from D, G7 from G, A major from A7 , E major and A minor from E minor, even C from A minor — enabling the student to change keys without a capo and understand transposing much easier. A capo’s important, but as a tool, not a crutch.

Further, what’s to be gained by telling students that they now know all they need for “99 out of 100 folk songs” so they “can safely skip” the chords they don’t know? They’ll be mightily disappointed, perhaps even angry, when they sit down to play “House of the Rising Sun” or “Shenandoah” or even “Jingle Bells!” Better to tell them to look up chords they don’t know in a chord book or in the back of a songbook.

May I remind you of the saying, “Give me a fish and I’ll eat for a day, teach me to fish and I’ll eat always.” That’s what teaching (and MOTHER EARTH NEWS) should be about. See to it that your students learn because of your method, not in spite of it.

Johanne Reiser
Brooklyn, N.Y.

Feedback on the Feedback: A Response from the Author

In answer to Johanne Reiser’s objections to my article on teaching a guitar workshop, let me first say that my only surprise is that there haven’t been more like it. One of the major characteristics of guitar teachers (like any other kind of teacher, I suppose) seems to be that we all think our way of teaching is the one and only, usually because it works for us and we judge by our success. (Which bears out a contention that I’ve formed over my five years of teaching: any method works just fine if the teacher is conscientious and loves teaching the students and the subject. Period.)

My one real objection to Miss Reiser’s remarks is the opening sentence which says that I should have called the article “Take the Money and Run.” This theme gets carried on in the first sentence of the second paragraph, where she claims that she feels a responsibility to give others due value for the money (whether it’s run with or not) … the implication being that I feel no such responsibility.

Now Miss Reiser doesn’t know me or she’d know how wrong she was when she attributed this attitude to me, so she can’t really be blamed. Apparently, something about the way I wrote the piece gave her this mistaken impression, so I’ll ignore the whole business and try to answer her specific objections as well and as far as I can.

Miss Reiser says she knows the lesson plan as set down is unworkable. I’m afraid I’ll just have to differ, because I’ve used it some forty times and it’s always worked for me. She goes on to say that “after one hour the beginner’s fingers are so sore he’s looking for a finger bowl.” I agree. After four hours of playing, even my fingers hurt and I’ve been at it for thirty years. The point is that if she will just try the lesson plan as outlined instead of assuming it’s unworkable. She’ll find that the beginners spend very little time actually playing.

Out of the four hours, students will put in perhaps half an hour in the morning and half an hour in the afternoon playing time, total. All the time that you, the teacher, are explaining and demonstrating and singing and all the rest of it, you certainly don’t have the whole class just sitting there madly playing over and over the two songs they know. You’ll have a hard time keeping some of them from doing just that, as a matter of fact. But they’ll usually subdue themselves if you explain to them — as any teacher knows — that if they insist on practicing while you’re talking and strumming and through the lunch break they won’t be able to touch a guitar again for six weeks.

Now, second point. Miss Reiser objects to my idea of tuning all the guitars myself and says “so that’s how you spend three of the four hours!” In answer, I refer her to page 44 where I say, “I limit my classes to ten people” and suggest that others do the same (not a likely technique for the sort of ripoff artist I’m supposed to be). I don’t know how long it takes Miss Reiser to tune ten guitars (eleven, counting her own), but it takes me about ten minutes total.

On those grotesque occasions when I’ve had classes of 75 (yes, Virginia, if you teach for an adult high school this can happen to you) I have used her suggested method, having everyone match his strings to mine one by one, and I know nothing that frustrates the students more than being reduced to this.

They can’t hear it, you see, when their strings match yours. They don’t know whether to tighten or loosen to make it match. They forget which way the tuning pegs turn. The whole thing becomes, almost immediately, an initial bad experience which, to quote Miss Reiser, “can be enough to put a student, particularly a young one, off the subject for life.” I agree. That’s why I tune the guitars myself.

Third objection. Miss Reiser doesn’t like my selection of chords, and that’s fine. She should use her own selection. I too know that changing chords is rough for beginners. That’s one of the reasons I teach the chords I do and my beginners seem to have very little trouble with them. I also happen to believe that G — G, of all things! — is one of the hardest chords there is. Never, never, would I lay a G chord on a beginner. (And I plead ignorance. I don’t know any one-chord songs. I do “Roving Gambler” and “John Henry” with three apiece.)

I think this particular bit of argument is strictly an infight among musicians, and I don’t intend to carry it any further.

One thing more along the same line, though. Miss Reiser says that her chords are “more versatile” than the ones in my article. I don’t think so. Nor do I think my selection is more versatile than hers, either. As long as a song can be transposed from one key to another, all chords are just about equally “versatile.” Some are harder to make than others if you’re just starting, but more versatile? Why?

Next, Miss Reiser objects to my telling students that the chords I teach are all right for “99 out of 100” folk songs instead of telling them to look up the chords they need. Well, I play “House of the Rising Sun,” “Shenandoah,” and “Jingle Bells” (chorus not verse, obviously, on “Jingle Bells”) with just those chords I recommend teaching and nobody complains. In fact, I’ve been singing “House of the Rising Sun” in coffee houses and concerts using A minor, D minor and E7 th, for the past fifteen years and I’ve never had a complaint yet.

I think Miss Reiser basically misunderstood me, and that’s probably because I didn’t make myself clear. I do sincerely feel that the amount of guitar ten people can learn from me in four hours for $5.00 is a bargain, not a rip-off. I think they understand, when they come in for a one-day workshop, that they’re going to get the minimum course because that’s all they can get in one day. I don’t think they go away feeling they’ve been had. They go away equipped to play two or three songs the rest of their lives—if that’s all they wanted—or to add to the foundation I’ve laid, either from books, other teachers, other classes, friends, or whatever.

I make it very clear to my classes, and thought I’d made it clear in my article, that I’m not there to turn them into experts in four hours. I’m there to show them how to have a good time with their guitars, and, to quote Miss Reiser again, to “convey the joy to be found in making music.” She’s right. That’s what they should be learning, and that’s what I try to teach.

I guess that’s about as far as I can go with answers to Miss Reiser’s remarks. I feel badly about the way I made her feel, and I feel a bit inadequate that my article could have given her the impression it did about my attitude. I’m not about to “take the money and run.” It makes me feel better to know that none of my students has ever complained, and I don’t think I’m so frightening that they just didn’t dare to do so. They’ve all been pretty happy about the whole thing.

— Suzette Haden Elgin