Tips For Teaching Class Guitar
These days more and more middle and high schools are offering class guitar, which is a healthy sign of the growing legitimacy of our instrument in music education. However, many young teachers, especially new graduates from universities and colleges, may be inadequately prepared for the challenges faced in a classroom environment. To begin, consider the task of simultaneously monitoring 15-20 seating or hand positions. How does one control/manage/evaluate such a large group of students, and what is the best teaching method to get the job done?
The Shearer Method, Book I: Classical Guitar Foundation is particularly well suited for the classroom, offering a seamless sequence of technique, fresh musical examples, multi-media (audio and video) support, and a unique procedure that promotes mindful learning. While the choosing the right method is fundamental, there are a host of other considerations necessary for successful class guitar teaching. Here are just a few of the important ones:
Class size: absolutely no more than 25-30 per class. This is really the practical limit for anything taught in the classroom. If you absolutely must teach 30+, ask your school administrators about bringing in a Teaching Assistant. This could be one of your best upper-class guitar students (a high school senior who, upon the approval of the guidance department, would receive honors class credit for the work), or maybe a guitar major from a nearby college or university who’s looking for internship experience.
Days-per-week meeting: 5 days, if possible. Anything less, especially for a foundations class, would require additional media support (as available in the Shearer Method) to reinforce concepts taught in class.
Classroom Policy and Expectations
Teaching guitar in a studio vs. classroom environment is like night and day. The biggest difference of course is that in classroom there are issues of group management, evaluation, and tending to the needs of many guitarists simultaneously. To these ends, you’ll need to devise a well-thought-out syllabus which should lay out clear policies and expectations of class rules and grading. Here are some important considerations:
If students use their own guitar and equipment, make sure they label it (guitars, cases, foot stools, tuners, books) with their name. In addition, they shouldn’t be allowed to use someone else’s equipment without permission. If students are using school equipment, consider having their parents sign a liability form in case of damage.
Establish and strictly maintain a play-on-demand policy. The strength of your instruction depends on students giving you their undivided attention. Students should never jam or play during this time. In addition, students never be allowed to play while someone is performing
Stay on Task
One of the central goals in classroom teaching is to get students to stay on task; so when students practice in class, strictly enforce them staying with the materials. Do not allow students to stray or jam. Unenforced, this can be a “class killer.”
Assigning daily performance evaluations keeps everyone on task. This could be as simple as preparing an 8- or 16- measure phrase from a longer solo. For the evaluation, it’s recommended to have each student play in their own seat, moving through the class roster as efficiently as possible. Playing in front of the rest of the class is beneficial for several reasons:
- While students are concentrating on playing for you, (the “evaluator”) they’re indirectly developing the ability to play in front of an audience (their classmates)–a skill they’ll eventually need as developed guitarists.
- Evaluating a student away from the class (as in an office or side room), can seriously compromise classroom management. “When the cats away…”
Another option for performance evaluation, is for the student to record an assigned phrase or segment on video or audio at home, and then upload it to a cloud for an assessment on your own time. It’s highly effective classroom management, but at a cost to your free time.
Throughout the school year, students’ needs change and grow. For a Guitar I class, the first month should be about getting comfortable with the guitar, and most importantly positioning and setting the hands. In following months, a routine should begin to emerge that may follow something like this:
- Group warm-up (without music)—coordination study, no music reading. (about 25% of class).
- Group study (with music)—visualization, vocalization, air-guitar, right- and left-hand isolations and clarifications (about 60% of class).
- Individual assimilation and practice time (about 15% of class).
Constantly check seating, posture, and hands. Once technique is introduced, be vigilant and continually scan all students as much as possible. Try to memorize any teacher accompaniment so you can watch students while playing. This is the most critical during the first quarter of a Guitar I class when positions are setting
Before students can begin reading any music they must learn movement vocabulary. Create a variety of simple technical isolations that prepare the student for specific challenges of a newly introduced piece.
For example, students must thoroughly understand how to properly use p, before applying it to a piece of music. Devise for them a simple repetitive pattern (perhaps on 3 adjacent strings) while you strum a creative chord accompaniment. All the while, you scan/tweak their posture and movement as needed. When you see a greater consistency of correct movement, then have them apply to a piece. This way, they’ll be less distracted by the technique and more able to concentrate on the challenges of the music.
The practice of clarifying what you do, before you do it is not only a secure learning approach, but it’s a great classroom activity. As a preliminary step to learning new music, students should count and clap, vocalize note names, and air guitar. This should be applied to the music, one segment or phrase at a time. This process is called visualization (for more on visualization see the Aaron Shearer Foundation).
Engage all the students to vocalize and air-guitar the music and then isolate any technical issues—playing right-hand only on open strings or blocking out left-hand shapes by strumming them as chords. Clarify any left-hand finger connections from shape to shape, or finger placement priority.