Liberating students from reading troubles

I previous wrote this article back in 2009 but wanted to republish it here and update it. It’s about my two volumes of teaching methods, Classical Guitar: A Method for Students & Teachers Volume 1 which is free and Volume 2. These books, contrary to popular selling methods, are not self-teaching methods and have almost no fingering included. They are designed as much for teachers as for students. In Vol II, key areas are presented, similar to the Carcassi Method book but modernized by including triads and common chord forms, Shearer-like scale patterns, solos from various time periods, and duets. Following this method area is a section devoted to rhythm (think Berklee/Leavitt style), a technique section, and a jazz oriented section focusing on shapes, patterns, and supplemental materials etc…

I don’t want to spend this time plugging my own stuff but there is a point about readings and fingerings I’d like to make. When I started using my own materials I switched my teaching method from goal based teaching to concept based teaching. With no fingerings to guide the students they had to remember the concepts of fingering associated with keys and scale forms, triad studies, and practical shapes. With no right-hand fingering included they had to rely on the right-hand concepts we’d practiced to guide them through the music – I always make them provide an answer for their choice in fingerings the next lesson. Of course they need to complete some basics in technique to get the concepts down.

If any of you have practised the Pumping Nylon by Scott Tennant cross-string exercises (he names them Right-hand Tarrega Studies) then you know that becoming comfortable with repeated i, m fingering can simplify life. Once a concept is in place, such as repeating i, m, learning where an extension requires the a finger is a simple lesson. When I look at books such as the Royal Conservatory Toronto Series, all I see is a contradiction between technique and practical repertoire execution. Students get overwhelmed by the amount of information on the page – right-hand fingering, left-hand fingering, dynamics, phrasing, articulation, position marks etc – and they learn a very non-musical visual association with the work. They no longer see scale passages but just see fingerings.

Learning to recognize the common shapes in music is what students need: seeing the intervals, recognizing triads, noticing when the music is presenting a pattern. Once a student learns that F follows E by one fret they can learn to read every E to F on the all six strings. That is why fingering must be eliminated from method books. Notice I said method books, not repertoire. We play a difficult instrument and often in a difficult work a fingering, here and there, is welcomed.

When I first started teaching my studio was filled with a mix of classical players, steel-string players, and electric players. Using electric books such as the Berklee/Leavitt I noticed how much students were forced to read conceptually rather and locating individual notes. The first thing a student learns in those books is a full C major scale, just like that, bang, a whole scale across multiple strings. Amazingly, the students learns to read music based on their knowledge of the scale and not necessarily the individual notes they are playing. I’ve noticed that this method of learning promotes anticipation of upcoming notes as well as visualizing multiple notes as a concept rather than say, six individual notes. I like to make the comparison to learning to read English: When you first learn to read you spell it out “D-E-C-E-M-B-E-R” but eventually you just read the word “DECEMBER”. Similarity, a student should not be reading C-D-E-F-G but instead be seeing it all as a scale passage and executing the material.

What are your thoughts on reading music? Leave a comment below.


Leave a Reply