I teach about 30 regular students year round and some ensemble classes too. I’ve been teaching at the Victoria Conservatory of Music up in Victoria, B.C. for around 16 years. I often get asked how I approach teaching classical guitar. The truth is that every student learns in a different way so I can’t give you a set way to teach. However, I do use some materials and loose plans with all my classical guitar students so maybe you’ll find this interesting or helpful.
How I organize the lesson
I split beginner and intermediate lessons into three main sections as listed below. This also resembles how the student should organize their practice session. It’s important to be consistent with this as the student should go home and practice in the same order as the lesson.
- Skills – Cover this first when the student has the most concentration. The skills discussed here can be referred to all throughout the lesson to create a logical flow in the lesson and serve as reminders. It’s an opportunity say later in the lesson, “this is why we worked on that earlier.” This is usually technique work, reading skills, fingerboard knowledge, ensemble music, or something specific that the student needs to work on.
- Repertoire – This is repertoire that I choose for the student but sometimes I’ll give them a choice of a few similar pieces that will accomplish the same skill. This is almost always connected to the skills that they need to learn. It might be etudes or concert pieces but it’s something that will stimulate conversation and prove progress after completion. On occasion this might be a crowd pleaser with the specific purpose of boosting the student’s confidence.
- Student’s Choice – This is something the student wants to do and wants to work on. Sometimes I’ve influenced the choice but it is something that the student is excited about.
I do this to keep my lessons organized but also because it ends the lesson on a positive and exciting note. The student leaves the classroom having covered a ton of information but also ended it on something that made them happy. They will leave with a smile and look forward to the next lesson. Even if a less-than-enthusiastic student hates the first two sections they will probably forget it during the final section. If you are super consistent with the format the student will expect it and actively take part because they want to move on to the last section. Plus, if you can refer back to the skills and repertoire during one of their favourite things they might recognize the value of the first two sections.
A path and goal for every student
My plan is simple, to take the student to the level of intermediate with the basic techniques and skills that will serve them for a long time even if they quit lessons. Keep these in mind as you teach a student. Write them down and put checkmarks on their strengths and weaknesses. Re-evaluate them constantly.
Technique Goals – This is the technique that will allow them to play most basic guitar works. I know there is more to it but getting the student to this point is real accomplishment. Tackle them one at a time but once they can do these their musical life on the guitar will be in working order.
- Scales – Free and rest strokes with i-m and m-a alternation.
- Arpeggios – The basic set of Giuliani arpeggios or equivalent
- Slurs – Ascending and descending
- Barre – This is a tough one to iron out but worth it
- Stretch – Just some basic counterpoint exercises to check their hand position (such as Odair’s Favourite Drill from Pumping Nylon)
Skills and Musicality
- Reading music – It’s easy to create weak readers but this will kill them at the grade 5 and above level when the repertoire gets thicker and upper positions start playing a larger role. I would say poor reading skills is the number one reason for students quitting music. Imagine trying to study really hard for your test but your textbook is in German and you don’t read German.
- Playing by ear (to an extent) – Even in the sense of jamming on chords, improvisation, and imitation of phrasing and musicality
- Phrasing and playing legato melodies – If a student can’t play a nice legato melody how can they play it when it has accompaniment. Violin and other string players spend a lot of time crafting their melodic playing and we should too.
- Musical Balance – Bring the melody out of the texture
- Dynamics – The idea of contrast and shaping should not be ignored in favour of a pure focus on loud playing.
- Basic theory and fingerboard knowledge – Does your student know how to count up and down each string using the musical alphabet? Do they know that chords are built from scale degrees?
Method Books I Use When Teaching Classical Guitar
Keep in mind that I heavily supplement all of these books as I go. No book will please every student so they need special side projects to keep them feeling excited. Also, don’t create students who can’t strum some chords, jam with friends, play by ear, or improvise. You’ll regret it later if they can only play strict classical. Especially when kids become teens! Classical guitarists should be able to do some basic stuff that every other guitarist can do.
- Classical Guitar Method – Vol. 1 – This is how I start beginner students. They learn to read music and play solos, duets, and chords. In the lessons we study this book for almost half the lesson. I supplement it with whatever they want. Sometimes that is pop chord strumming, rock riffs, or whatever else keeps them happy and interested. They will survive this book if they have other things specific to their happiness. But they need to know that half of each lesson is using the book and there is no escaping it. Be consistent, they read music with good technique and musicality for half of every lesson no matter what.
- Classical Guitar Method Vol. 2 – This continues with the above content but introduces key signatures and some upper position stuff.
Post-Beginner – Sometimes students don’t remember some of the things they learned early in the process. Or they have gaps in their knowledge. Sometimes I forgot something or we got distracted along the way. That is why students use the below book after my beginner methods. They review everything during the first 5 minutes of each lesson and practice session. It’s an opportunity to fill in the gaps before moving on.
- Sight Reading for the Classical Guitar, Level I-III” by Robert Benedict – teaches the student about form, phrasing, dynamics, and how to sight read. Excellent for a solid education. I use this with students who need a bit more reading practice after my method books.
- Classical Guitar Technique: Essential Exercises, Scales, & Arpeggios – After my students complete my above methods I use this book to start ironing out all their technique.
- Classical Guitar Repertoire Lessons Grade 1 – Dedicated lessons for each piece.
- Classical Guitar Repertoire Lessons Grade 2
- Classical Guitar Repertoire Lessons Grade 3
- Sight Reading for the Classical Guitar, Level IV-V” – by Robert Benedict, a continuation of the previous book.
Mid to Late Intermediate
- Classical Guitar Repertoire Lessons Grade 3
- Classical Guitar Repertoire Lessons Grade 4
- Classical Guitar Repertoire Lessons Grade 5
- Classical Guitar Repertoire Lessons Grade 6
- Ten Classical Etudes – My intermediate students go through this book to test their skills.
- Scale Pattern Studies by Aaron Shearer – Very comprehensive, scales & sight reading. Slightly numbing but does the job better than any other book.