Sunday, September 24, 2006

Guitarzan ...

Thursday before last, I went for my first guitar lesson. Local guitar store has four or five teachers on tap, and I picked one who plays stuff I like. Got there just as the skies opened up, wind, rain, and met the teacher, a guy maybe my son's age. He saw that I had a classical guitar, went out into the shop and collected one, tuned it, and asked, "Okay, what do you want to learn?"

The teacher is in a local band, has CDs, and plays a wide range of material.

I was, I said, interested in fingerstyle playing, (fingers instead of a flat pick) classic rock and blues, with some odds and ends pop stuff. Beatles, Simon and Garfunkel, Buddy Guy, like that.
I also wanted to learn a specific technique, called tremolo, more about which later.

I didn't have a book I was working from, which is how a lot of students approach things. I did have a fresh piece of music with TAB (a system of notation created by luteists and often applied to the guitar in lieu of standard cleft-and-notes). He looked at it, played it, and demonstrated that he had the musical chops to be be teaching.

The piece -- the theme from the movie The Godfather -- had in it some tremolo, which involves rapidly picking a single string with several fingers to produce a quavery sustained note. (A violin string under a bow can make a long, echo-y note, but plucked guitar string notes decay rapidly, thus tremolo. If you've ever heard a good mandolin player do Russian music, you know the effect. And if you have ever heard the classical piece Recuerdos de la Alhambra, you also know what it sounds like.)

I'd been trying in on my own, but hadn't managed to get it right.

The teacher demonstrated that could do the effect. He brought out a piece of classical music by Carcassi that wasn't too hard and suggested I try that. Then he showed me a nice Chicago blues groove, that sounded a lot like the background music of a TV commercial for Cialis, the, um, anti-ED drug. He wrote out some different key progressions for 12-bar blues, ( I-IV-V chords, since all you need for blues is three chords and a turnaround, though you can add in 7ths and 9ths to make it sound better. Showed me a nice turnaround in the key of A.)

This being an introductory half hour lesson, that was it.

It was a good experience. I enjoyed it. The teacher obviously had skill, knew his stuff, and he was pleasant, but there was something ... missing ...

The first thing was, he didn't ask me to play anything. Not being a teacher, I don't know if this is normal, but had I been in his seat, I would have wanted to know what the student knew, and I'd have asked questions and asked to hear something so I could tell. No big deal, but that makes sense to me. If I laid something out, then maybe he could have pointed to places where I could have fingered the piece differently or better. Made comments on the tone or resonance or somesuch. Was what I already had any good? How could I make it better?

That would have been my first order of business: What kind of music do you like? Play something for me.

Second thing was, he didn't really show me anything I couldn't have gotten out of book or offline on my own. I've been doing that for a couple years and while I'm not a good player, I am still making progress.

I'm not sure what I expected, but whatever it was, I came away less than satisfied.

It isn't the teaching per se; I've been studying one thing or another all my life, I have no problems having somebody offer knowledge I have to work at learning. I've been in a silat class coming up on a dozen years, started a yoga class this summer.

The question now is, do I try again? Give the guy another shot? Or maybe try another teacher?
When I got a new guitar, I resolved to give it serious attention, and taking lessons seemed to way to go. Now, I'm unsure.

Maybe the autodidact in me wants to make a point. And I wonder, does he have a valid one?


Bachalon said...

Personally, I play the drums, but I've looked into guitar. If you want to see some incredible fingerstylings, check out Preston Reed and Adrian Legg on youtube.

You're right to notice what wasn't there. I've taught on occasion, and the first thing I focus on is technique, how the other person holds the sticks or uses their feet on the pedals. Believe it or not, that can make a world of difference.

To start off (I'm speaking from experience watching one of my brothers learn classical guitar), I'd recommend getting a book of scales and arpeggios along with a metronome and learning that.

Are you working with an acoustic guitar or an electric guitar?

Tiel Aisha Ansari said...

Why don't you speak to the teacher about your concerns? It sounds like he's fairly young, and maybe not that experienced at teaching. He might even welcome the advice. (Of course, he might just get huffy and offended, in which case he's not really the teacher you want anyway.)

Steve Perry said...

From everything I've heard, music teachers are a lot like spouses -- either you resonate or you don't -- and a big part of it is chemistry. This guy was good, there wasn't anything really wrong, but I just didn't get that "Oh, wow!" rush that sometimes happens when you find a teacher.

Like when I saw Stevan Plinck do a silat demo all those years ago and my "Whoa!" factor went through the roof. Todd and Tiel had told me about the guy, Steve Barnes had waxed eloquently about how good he was, and I shrugged that off -- yeah, right, uh huh.

Then I saw him move in person and I couldn't sign up fast enough ...

Bobbe Edmonds said...

If the pup can chime in here for a sec...

I think I have a lot to offer people as far as martial knowledge is concerned. But my first and second year students will attest that six years ago, it wasn't too apparent. I had a lot of my life dedicated to LEARNING a skill, and almost none of it dedicated to learning how to PASS ON that skill. So I fumbled through the first two years with lots of "Uh...Yeah...You need footwork...ummm...blocking's inmportant...Oh, that's right. there's a thing called sapu..."

...and so on. I think I have a much better approach now, after studying teaching methods and applying them in my classes I have the combination of experience with knowledge to present the one thing many teachers (martial or otherwise) don't have: A curriculum. An orderly progression of study. A system calculated to bring a student from A to Z and emerge with all the tools necissary to be good at the martial arts that I teach.

HAVING SAID THAT, I don't know if this guy teaches professionally or not, but you may be just as much a trial balloon to him as he is to you. Also, since when do we, as Americans, not love to get different flavors of ice cream? Go to a FEW different instructors, and get different opinions about things. Get some basics down, gain a little flair of your own, and maybe you will find this young guy will be more up your alley when you are more skilled & can speak roughly the same language musically.

I am currently trying to learn the violin, and it's harder than Chinese algebra translated into Greek. I have three teachers in this, one classically trained, one is a bluegrass fiddler and the third is a wonderfully patient woman from Ireland who specializes (obviously) in Celtic fiddle. I am not sure what "style" I want to play just yet, they all appeal to me. But I find that I prefer varying points of view in anything that I study, it allows me greater stores of knowledge to draw from. And it's easier to do that in music than it is martially, music teachers aren't as, shall we say, "Territorial" as Kung Fu teachers.

..Anyway, that's just my Dos Centavos. Good luck with you lessons!

Mark A. Quinn said...

Classical guitar is nice, in that the sounds resonate in machine gun fashion, as you say, and you create and destroy beauty at an alarming rate, hence the tremelo.

I like the sounds produced by Martin guitars and the classical ones, in that my ears want to listen to them. Sure, I like "Hit Me With Your Best Note" as much as the next guy. However, once a year or so.

But if you want to move into another realm, or you don't want to learn standard notation, get another teacher.

I had a similar experience to yours, I got this older guy who said, immediately, when I told him I wanted to work on my stage right,
"I'm not a psychologist."

Excuse me, but I've played -- music -- and stage fright is one of the things I've been concerned about during my music career.

I went to this kid, and five minutes later, he recommended some books and techniques to deal with it.

When music teachers come off as crazy or inflexible ... time to get a new one. If you go to one that's not suited to your style of play or is going to sit there jamming during the lesson and sit there furtively looking at you Clockwork Orange style through his eyebrows ... time to give him the Ludovico technique and walk away.