Some thoughts on guitar teaching

I have been teaching guitar for over 20 years, and although it has not always been a full time occupation during that time, it has always been an activity that I have been drawn to, instinctively wanting to help people with their playing.

Since moving to Dorchester in 1997 I have built up a thriving business both here at home and in various schools and music centres in Dorset - as well as maintaining a busy recital schedule, composing, engraving music, and even finding time to play badminton once a week.

Lessons take place in my studio, an attractive room with specially laid laminate floor, and no soft surfaces to soak up sound: so students get a strong idea of the sound they are making.

The great majority of my musical experience lies in the field of classical guitar, and though I am happy to teach acoustic folk guitar at home, it is always the breadth and interest of the classical repertoire that is preferred.

Often beginners have little idea of the meaning of words like 'classical guitar': its not something that gets very much media exposure in recent times, and usually people come across the sound and music of the classical instrument by knowing somebody else who plays.

Whatever the route people travel in their musical experience and understanding that leads them to want to learn guitar, I hope they find with me a teacher who is always keen to emphasise musical values, and the manageable transition from step to step in technical terms.

Everybody needs technique. It is no end in itself, but the simple fact is that musical ideas can only be expressed through the mechanism of an adequate technical base. So lessons are usually a mixture of musical observation and such technical matters as are necessary for the music at hand and for future development.

There is a professional association for guitar teachers: the European Guitar Teachers' Association (UK), which is the guitar equivalent of sister organisations for piano (EPTA), strings (ESTA) etc. I belong to EGTA and regularly attend meetings to top up with new ideas and the renewed enthusiasm and insights that come from sharing ideas with colleagues. In fact in the mid-1990s I was on the EGTA committee in the capacity of editor of its annual publication, then titled Guitar Journal, and now under its new editorship, Guitar Forum. There is no entry requirement to join EGTA, just as there is no statutory exam requirement to teach guitar, but in practice, those who join are serious musicians who intend to improve the quality of their work with students and to share their knowledge and experience with their fellows.

Unlike the fairly standard route into normal classroom teaching, there are many ways people find themselves teaching an instrument for a living. In particular, whereas a classroom teacher needs both a degree and a teaching qualification (either separately or in a combined teaching degree), there is no legal qualification basis upon which somebody joins the instrumental teaching profession. As a result, whereas many teachers are excellent and well qualified, there are some who have little playing ability or experience, weird personal notions of how to impart what knowledge they do have, and who get by on personal bluff and the students' lack of understanding of the situation.

In formal settings like school lessons or music centres, this is normally less of a problem because the authority in control undertakes an interview procedure as well now as a thorough background vetting procedure. So the candidates' CV can be examined and checked, and there may be other teachers on the interview panel who can probe their background, approach and understanding. Having been on interview panels for potential colleagues its actually quite an interesting process, because of the way it forces one to measure one's own teaching up against the questions asked of the candidates!

Private lessons at the teacher's home offer none of these checks and of course while the great majority of teachers are highly professional, it is normally wise to avoid those who have no academic background, either from attendance at a university or music college or from independent acquisition of qualifications. Such qualifications can be very valuable, and offer a route to those who did non-musical degrees, or perhaps none at all and who are coming into teaching at a later stage in their working life. Such teachers can be just as good as anybody else and are not to be spurned! In fact some would argue that seeing a bit of the real world is of use to one's insight into people.

In my case it was a bit of both. I studied with a local teacher in Poole from the ages of 7 to 17. I did a degree (English and Media Studies) that had some musical input but certainly not in a very formal or important way, and it was in my 20s that I started studying with seriously good people in London, firstly the Norwegian guitarist Arne Brattland and then his main influence, Gilbert Biberian. So it was eventually that I enrolled as a post-graduate at Trinity College of Music in London under Gilbert's instruction in 1990. I stayed there for four years, and to the various external diplomas and teaching qualifications acquired before that, added the Post-Graduate Certificate in performance.

The experience of being at Trinity for that time was very complex and varied. As an opportunity to study in great depth with one of today's great professors it was invaluable, and the variety of performance opportunities, the contact with students and professors from other institutions as well as those from Trinity, was a rich and stimulating experience.

Here is a run down of the musical experience gained since then:

solo recitals in UK, France, Germany and USA

compositions performed in all above countries, incl:

Concerto no III in Germany, February 1997

Organised and conducted first performance of Concerto I with Oberon Chamber Orchestra and soloist Fabio Zanon, 2003.

Music for Dance, Breathing Still, Bournemouth University, 1993

chamber music with Quartetto Concertante (guitar and string trio) and Kokoro (the Twentieth Century Music ensemble of the Bournemouth Orchestras), and with a variety of other ensembles and duet partners.

three performances with the Bournemouth Symphony Orchestra of Mahler Symphony no 7, and (wearing a dead man's tuxedo!) the electric guitar Bond theme, 2004.

Committee member of European Guitar Teacher's Association (UK) as Editor of annual EGTA Guitar Journal (1995-97)

teaching in schools, AE classes, workshops and masterclasses, and privately

conductor of the London Guitar Orchestra (the only professional large guitar ensemble in the UK) 1992-96

masterclasses and workshops in UK, USA and France

adjudication for festivals in UK and competition jury member in Italy

work for Ravi Shankar on transcription of Sitar Concerto, 1992-3

Principal London Reviewer for Classical Guitar Magazine 1995-97, reviewer of editions, concerts and CDs to this day.

Musical Director, Brownsea Open Air Theatre productions of Twelth Night 2001 and Much Ado About Nothing, 2006.

Musical Director of the Dorset Guitar Society

Publisher of editions by Jacaranda Music, including pieces on all the exam syllabuses.