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 Hello, this is just to introduce myself and tell you about the guitar lessons we will be having at your child's school. Please read it carefully and take the advice seriously, as it is intended to help make the best use of your investment in these lessons.

My name is Stephen Kenyon and I moved to the Dorchester area in 1997 after several years in London, though I am originally from Poole. I have been teaching guitar since about 1980 and am involved with a wide range of performance and composition activities as well as teaching around the county and further afield.

Our lessons will follow a standard classical guitar syllabus. Whether or not your child is interested in classical music or has ever heard classical guitar (sometimes called Spanish guitar) music being played, long experience shows that this approach gives the best opportunity for the young player to make a good start. This is because classical guitar:

* gives the most developed and reliable curriculum and programme, developed over many decades

* gives a firm grounding in musical literacy and theory,

* makes for full familiarity with the instrument,

* develops the fingers of both hands

* quickly produces a repertoire of small, self-contained solo pieces that are satisfying to practise and fun to play for others,

* provides plenty of opportunity to play with other guitarists and indeed other musicians, like recorder players and flautists,

* allows musical development to take place with investment in only a small, relatively cheap instrument compared to the equipment needed for "other styles" of guitar,

* develops general musical skills so that in time the player can decide to broaden out into other stylistic disciplines if they so wish, when they have gained a bigger picture of the musical world,

* gives access to the range of music examinations, as exists for all the other instruments.


 Playing guitar is ­ and certainly should be ­ a lot of fun. But it's like anything; you don't get any fun out of ball games if you don't have the co-ordination in your legs to run about; you can't have fun riding about on a bike if you haven't the skills to ride one. Just the same, the guitar becomes fun when the fingers have performed the necessary movements enough times that they become automatic. This is called


...and this is where a little bit of help will come in very handy and help make the most of the investment we are all putting into these lessons. The parent's role does not end when the lessons cheque is written, at least, not if that investment is to be fruitful.

The most important thing a young guitarist needs is; a quiet, private space in which to play. The guitar is a soft sounding instrument and needs full concentration to make sense of what is going on, so a noisy environment with distractions and interruptions is a recipe for zero progress.

Next they need a regular routine. This is usually a particular time of day which becomes "practice time". Everybody else knows when this is and respects it.

Positive support and encouragement is needed, not just from parents but especially also from siblings, friends and other relatives. This means respecting the player's practice time and not barging in as though it doesn't matter, not being unnecessarily noisy in other parts of the house. It also means taking a positive interest in the player's progress, such as where they are in their book, what pieces they are playing or what their report said. Every so often, ask if you can listen in on a practice session.

Encourage the player to tell you when they have got something "good", and to play it for you. As confidence builds, encourage them to play for visiting friends and relatives.


 Above all, a heavy-handed approach is never beneficial.

Most if not all instrumental students go through bad patches when they question what they are doing, whether they are making any or enough progress, whether they should keep going or stop. A youngster who feels they are supported at home is much more likely to keep at it, in so doing not just learning some sticking power in relation to the guitar, but also developing a more disciplined personality that will hold them in good stead in all areas of life, no matter how far they end up taking their guitar playing.

So this "home support" means;

* organising and maintaining the private space for practice,

* keeping to the routine and if necessary supplying reminders until it becomes established and automatic,

* seeing that other siblings, friends etc do not get away with negative or destructive remarks (like every instrument, you can't expect a guitar to sound brilliant right at the beginning!)

* prioritising the guitar fairly, in relation to all the other things going on in the youngster's life, regarding it as part of the range of outside-of-school-time activities that would include sports, homework, projects, visits etc.

If we can make progress in these areas we are giving the student the best chance to make the most of the learning progress that goes on in the class.


 Here are some frequently asked questions:


 How long should my child practice for?


At the very beginning 5 minute sessions are enough, because there is relatively little to play at this stage. Within a couple of weeks this can increase to 10 minutes and then 15 minutes by the middle of the first academic year. These figures are general; the student needs to go over the material enough times to consolidate the familiar, and to examine and make progress with the new.


 Should they practise every day?


 Not necessarily. So long as at least 4-5 days per week see a practice session there is a good foundation for progress. A day off a week can be constructive and mean better progress, especially once sessions get longer. If practice falls to 3 or fewer times a week progress is likely to be negligible.


 What books will they be using?


The course books are the Guitarist's Way (GW) series which runs to four volumes. These are without doubt the most widely used books in the UK. In general, most learners get through almost the whole of Book I in the first academic year.


 Should they practice from the front of the book each time?


 At the beginning, yes. They should always cover the material on the preceding couple of pages to the current new pieces. Every week or so they can usefully revise everything from the beginning (if only to discover how easy the early stuff now seems...!)


 Should they jump ahead?


 No, this risks getting confused and put off by unfamiliar concepts.


 What difference does the kind or quality of guitar make?


 It makes a very great difference. First of all it has to be a 'Classical" or "Spanish" type of guitar. Three of the strings will look just like fishing line, the other three are a wound metal wire on a nylon core. The use of pure metal strings is to be avoided at all costs; they are very painful for young fingers and can cause the guitar to fall to pieces if fitted on a classical guitar. Equally, fitting nylon strings to a guitar designed for metal ones is not an option, though this would not inflict harm on the instrument.

 The guitar is a very cheap instrument to learn compared with many others, but there is always a temptation to make do with a cheaper, or old instrument, especially as differences between good and bad are not often obvious.

If you are buying a new guitar, go to a music shop, not a general household goods discount store. The latter may give you a cheaper product but there are serious problems;

* they do not have the experience to know whether it is the right kind or size for your child,

* whether it has been properly set up to be easy to play,

* and if a fault develops in it they are unlikely to be in a position to put it right.

It will also, quite simply, sound bad compared with a well selected music shop guitar, giving a poor experience and little encouragement to the player.

You may well find that you have a guitar around the house, or a friend or relative lends you one. Firstly establish that it is a classical guitar. It may have metal strings on but not have suffered lasting damage and they can be changed if so. Older instruments can suffer from a variety of ills which make them unusable and many faults are not apparent except to the experienced eye.

Then the guitar needs to be the right size ­ just like a bicycle, you can't learn on one that's too big, or indeed, too small. Depending on their build, children under 11 or 12 should never start on an adult size instrument, and the tiny size instrument sometimes used as nothing more than a toy for 4-5 year olds, is hard to play once the fingers get bigger, as they cannot properly get between the strings. Instruments are available in 1/2 and 3/4 quarter sizes, and having the right size makes all the difference between success and failure.

Looking at all this you may well be thinking it is very complicated buying a guitar ­ I can only repeat the advice every other kind of instrumental teacher would give; to go to a music shop!


 What if the strings make the fingertips sore even on the right kind of strings?


 Once the player starts using the left hand (fingerboard hand) more, the tips can at the beginning get sore . If this becomes an issue, it is best to encourage a "little and often" approach until it goes away, when the finger pads have toughened up. In other words, get them playing only for a couple of minutes, or less, at a time with the left hand, before either a short break or some concentration on right hand only material at the beginning of the book.

All string instrumentalists can suffer from sore fingertips, wind players from sore lips...


 What if my child is left handed?


 Some left-handed people use a left-hand strung instrument, however, many left-handed players actually play right-handed, and there are many good reasons to do so if possible. I always try to get beginners who tell me they are left-handed to at least try playing right-handed to see if they can, and many can.

For players who do have to play left-handed, this means taking a right-handed instrument and reversing the order of strings, and also reversing the saddle - the strip of plastic in a groove that the strings pass over before they are tied off on the bridge. If in doubt consult a music shop.


 What if a string breaks?


 Strings only very occasionally break, especially if they are very old or if the winding breaks, exposing the soft nylon core of a bass string (the ones that don't look like fishing line!). If the break is very close to the end of the string it is often possible to re-use the rest of the length. I do always carry spare used strings for emergencies but if it is a long time to the next lesson it would be wise to replace the broken string to save ruining the student's practice. If you are bold enough to attempt a string replacement, copy the way the others are fitted as closely as possible. In particular note and copy the way they go around the tuning pegs in the headstock (the bit of the guitar on the end of the fingerboard, with the knobs for tuning). I have a comprehensive instructional video on string-changing on YouTube (on the JacarandaMusic channel).


Do the strings wear out?


 Over time the strings start to discolour where they rub on the frets and the tone goes very dull, the wound strings eventually wearing through the winding. This is a function of the amount of playing going on so strings that still look new after a long period of time, are a bad sign! However for early stage players it is usual for the first set of strings to last at least a couple of years.

Should the instrument be an old one, either inherited from somewhere or found in an attic, it is quite common for the strings to be very dead indeed. In case they really should be changed, as the sound the player produces is closely linked to the state of the strings (as well as the quality of the instrument) and the dull, uninteresting sound from old strings is extremely disheartening. For a positive, enjoyable sound that rewards practice and continued effort, a good instrument with decent strings is the only sensible alternative.


 What about tuning the instrument?


 Your guitar will be tuned in every single lesson. Unfortunately they do go out of tune on their own. The main reasons for this are:

* younger siblings interfering with the tuners

* leaving the guitar in very hot or cold places

* people knocking the tuners when the guitar is carried about, especially on buses or in cars

You can see from this that there is a lot can be done to stop the instrument going out of tune by giving it a bit of respect, and not allowing it to be a plaything for toddlers.

During the course of the first academic year, we will start to talk about how to tune the instrument as part of the normal process. If you have an in tune piano or a keyboard, you can find the tuning for the guitar inside GW I - bearing in mind it is in fact tuned ONE OCTAVE LOWER than the actual written pitches on the piano.

A tuning fork on its own is not a lot of use, and few people have success with pitch pipes (though by all means try!) The nearest thing to a foolproof solution is the purchase of a digital tuner, but these are relatively expensive at normally £15-£25 and are not always easy to use without some experience. They are worth considering especially if you have a lot of young players needing to tune instruments, but in that case you really need a chromatic rather than a guitar tuner (which a guitar can still use of course).


 What happens with exams in guitar?


There are exams in guitar just as in all other instruments. Students are ready to start preparing for Grade I guitar when they are getting into GW Book III. At least two new books are required and the current Grade I exam fees available on request.

Remember that different instruments take different times to get near to Grade exam stage at the beginning; flutes and violins tend to get there fast, guitars and piano always take longer.

Some guitarists have long nails. Is this necessary?
 A:  Not at the beginning. For best results, more experienced guitarists cultivate the nails on the hand that plucks the strings, while for all guitarists it is necessary that the fingerboard hand nails are kept short. In general it is best to keep both hands' nails short, especially as younger players cannot be expected to keep their nails from breaking. When it is time to start thinking about developing the nails the subject will arise naturally in lessons.
 Some guitarists hold the instrument at an angle with a foot on a footstool. What's this for and what do we do about it?

 Just as violinists use a chin-rest to hold the instrument at the optimum angle, so the best way to hold the guitar is with it raised at an angle of about 45 degrees. The traditional way to achieve this is to put the left foot (assuming a right handed player) on a stool or box about 5-6" high. The guitar then rests on the left leg, with the right knee moving out to the right to accommodate it.

The reason for this is that access to the whole fingerboard is much improved at this angle, and so when the player begins more advanced music, they start very much to need this different position. Strictly speaking it is not necessary for the first year or so, but players who get used to holding the guitar on the right leg and then have to convert their posture and get used to holding it differently, usually regret not adopting the more formal position from the beginning.

One distinct complication to this issue is that girls, often required to wear skirts as part of their uniform, frequently feel very self-conscious about holding the guitar in this, "proper" posture. It would be clearly unfair for girls to be disadvantaged unnecessarily by being forced to retain a right-leg position for the guitar, and of course as the teacher I have to do everything possible to work with the school to help the situation. Above all, this should not be taken as a sign that the guitar is not an instrument for girls; a great number of today's most promising guitarists are girls. But it is an issue that needs thoughtfulness and consideration, both by seeing if it is possible for girls to wear trousers on guitar-lesson days, and by taking it seriously if it becomes a worry for them.

It is important that they are helped to find a foot-rest for practising at home; often a couple of old phone books work well to begin with. It would be a real block to progress to practise with one position at home and use another one in lessons.

 What accessories are necessary?

 A: The obligatory items are only the guitar and the tutor book. The book can be rested on a table or a bed, the foot if appropriate can be raised by old books. The ideal though is a collapsible music stand, and an adjustable footstool, and it would certainly be usual to start investing in these once the young player was showing a reasonable degree of commitment and was working towards their first exam.

Various tuning devices exist, as already mentioned, and these are much more optional, though at some stage all guitarists will have at least one variety of tuning aid to hand.

For beginners' guitars a soft case, made of vinyl with carrying handles and a zip, is sufficient, though they don't last very long. Bin liners and other varieties of plastic bag keep out the weather and protect against knocks only rather badly, and so a soft case is a very wise asset. Better guitars are best transported in hard cases, but this needs to be suited to the value of the guitar.

Probably the best and simplest optional extra would be a folder to keep the tutor book and other pages of material supplied in good condition.


There are many benefits to a youngster's taking up an instrument, no matter how far they take it or with what apparent outward success they may impress. My job is to give them the best help to work with the guitar as best they can; I hope you can see how you can help in small but useful ways as well.

Stephen Kenyon
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