The New Guitar Class: Reading Music

By Haley, Randy | The Canadian Music Educator, Summer 2007 | Go to article overview

The New Guitar Class: Reading Music


Haley, Randy, The Canadian Music Educator


Imagine the following scenario: you've been asked to teach a newly established music course at your school. Several classes of eager students have been registered and a room full of new instruments has been purchased. As September nears and you begin to formalize an implementation plan, feelings of anxiety materialize as you consider the following circumstances - you have no repertoire or group methods, no opportunity to share curricular discussions with colleagues, and you've likely received no pedagogical training on the instrument you are about to teach! You must begin this new teaching assignment with virtually no available support network. An improbable scenario? Unfortunately, the reality facing classroom guitar educators across Canada often parallel these dire circumstances.

While the demand for school based guitar education continues to increase, quality resources remain sorely insufficient. As a result of necessity, guitar educators have become adept at arranging ensemble music, developing class methodology, and in some cases creating course curricula. As can be expected, classroom strategies and outcomes vary significantly in guitar classes throughout the country. In the absence of reliable, trusted resources, where does a guitar educator start? What are the components of a successful guitar lesson plan? How do I achieve effective rehearsal techniques? What level of performance should I demand? Should the students present concerts? What technique should I promote? Optimal balance between solo and ensemble play? How do I teach reading skills? Should I teach reading skills? These are but a few of the questions the conscientious educator must address. Over the next several issues, I hope to confront some of the challenges facing the classroom guitar teacher. To begin, I would like to broach the topic of music reading in the guitar class.

One of the common frustrations shared by guitar teachers is the challenge in developing music reading skills. Why read music? Reading is an integral aspect of music study. The ability to understand notation provides the guitarist with an opportunity to explore a significant number of musical styles, allows interaction with other musicians, and is essential to building solo and ensemble skills. Reading literacy is invaluable and will serve the guitarist regardless of their musical pursuits. In the Guitar class, students with limited reading skills will find it difficult to contribute during ensemble play and may become frustrated or worse, a distraction to the committed readers.

Although students may be tempted to resort to tablature if given the opportunity, very little music is available outside of the popular genre and "tabs" generally neglect to incorporate rhythms, dynamics or articulations. My suggestion would be to avoid the use of tabs as the primary source for reading music in the classroom. Tabs can be used as a quick fix during a pop unit. However, when adopted as the sole method of reading, they only serve to isolate guitarists, further distancing us from the larger musical community.

Why do so many guitarists struggle to read music? I've discovered a variety of reasons. For many students, especially those playing exclusively popular styles, tabs are readily available on the internet for virtually any song. A significant portion of popular music is guitar specific and students usually focus on the interesting guitar riff, solo section or chords - all areas of strength in tabs. Students interested solely in popular styles have very little use for standard notation while the trend in guitar publishing is to offer increasingly fewer notated titles. As a result many guitarists often spend little time outside of class using, and thus developing, traditional reading skills. In comparison, the clarinet student interested in supplementing class material, will further her reading ability by delving into the many available titles, both pop and otherwise, offered in standard notation. …

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