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The first guitar lesson

I want to write about the first guitar lesson that a student has because I think that this is a very important moment in his or her music education. We must consider that for most students this is the first practical contact with a musical instrument: a very special moment in which they cross the threshold of simply listening to music and start playing music.


As part of my job, every new school year I start teaching the guitar to new students; in my school the guitar-course lasts 7 years. For this reason and also because some students leave before they finish the course, I always find myself with new students. For the first 3 years new students have an individual guitar lesson of thirty minutes (or 2 students for 1 hour). Thirty minutes is sufficient time to get good results with them; it is not too short, it is not too long. For this length of time students can concentrate on the lesson without becoming tired, I can also work without getting bored and, obviously, my employer is happy because I teach more students.


All musicians know that when you start studying music you begin an unending activity: studying music means practising daily, never being able to say "I have finished", and always having something new to play. Playing an instrument well is very dificult and generally requires a long time, the sooner you put your hands on the instrument and start playing the better!


In fact it is important for the teacher not to waste time talking or explaining, but to get the student to play, to train his fingers, and his finger-muscles: the first step of a long journey. In this first lesson it is not very important for the student to know how to read music, nor to know the history of the G-clef, for example, nor to know the long interesting history of  their instrument. Believe me, these things are not necessary at the beginning; all your student needs is to play as many notes as possible!


Many musicians can play very well without reading music (and someone of them earn a lot of money, indeed), but despite this I think reading music is very important and all of my students can do it.  The problem is to make sure that knowledge of music theory and music reading develop hand-in-hand with technical ability.


The secret is to divide what you teach into little units, and give your students one or more units depending on their level of coordination and the amount of work they are able to do, so you will obtain the best from everyone.


When I start teaching the guitar, I prefer to start with the “apoyado” technique, because I think that  fingerpicking is too complicated for students at this early stage.


Well, in the first guitar-lesson I invite the students to sit correctly on the chair, to use the footrest (for their left foot, of course), to put their right arm correctly on the guitar body so that their right hand is positioned over or near the sound-hole. After I tell my students to use their index-finger to pluck the first string stopping the movement of the finger on the second string, and to watch me, and I show them the movement with my index-finger. I ask them to imitate my movement and to play some notes on the first string; rhythm is not important at this moment, but the hand position, the movement of the finger and the actual sound produced are very important. After this, I ask them to do the same movement on the first five strings in turn, then to repeat this exercise with their middle-finger, and finally to do the same but alternating the index and middle-fingers.


After these exercises I usually teach the students how to play the first song in my guitar tutor “Play now” (Song on three strings). This is a very simple tune, based on the notes E, B and G (the first three strings of the guitar), and with one, two and four crotchet-note patterns. I give my students only these basic theory elements to start with, because this is all they need for playing the guitar at the moment. A little tip: sometimes for young students it is too difficult to undestand the concept of subdividing time, so I tell them that one crotchet is one second, two crotchets two seconds, and so on; this is easier to understand!


If the student is smart I will go ahead, teaching the other open string notes or even teaching how to use one finger of the left hand. I can then introduce them to one of my “Songs for one finger”, which require the use of one finger of the left hand and the open strings. This depends on the student, but I know that it is always better to teach a few things well rather than a lot of things which can cause confusion.


The end of the lesson is very important: you must persuade your pupil that it is necessary to practise the pieces given a few times before the next lesson; you can suggest how many long and how often he or she should practise per week to get good results, but you cannot practise for them and from this moment you can only wait and hope!


It is very important to do this because if your students understand that they need to study now, they will think that playing the guitar daily is the right way to make good progress. Play now, play forever!


Stefano Masera

Rovereto, 15 February 2013

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