The Trend In Guitar Teaching

by Leon Block
reprinted by permission of
 "Frets" magazine

About the Author

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The teaching of guitar today has a challenge and a potential that is unique in the history of music pedagogy.

If one goes back thirty or forty years to the beginning of guitar instruction in this country, he would find an approach that followed the formal procedure for teaching violin and piano.  These two instruments were weighed down with a burden of heavy pedantry that all but smothered even the most inspired student.  The method books were oversized tomes that were a printer's nightmare, not to mention their stultifying effect on the student.  The pages were crammed with double-beamed (sixteenth) and triple-beamed (thirty-second) notes running in parabolic frenzy from the thundering depths of the instrument to the squeaky upper partials.  For some mysterious reason the note values of a quarter or more were eschewed as if even a momentary pause would indicate weakness or degeneration.  The pupil took a deep breath before starting and he didn't enjoy the luxury of collapsing until the loop-de-loop ride was over.

The foundation of the instruction was the scale.  Never in the long history of music, and this includes the Greek period as well, can one find such worship, such preoccupation, such dramatization of eight notes strung together in the most insipid, unimaginative arrangement: do-re-mi-fa-so-la-ti-do.  Why even the most unmusical mother trying to improvise a lullaby for a dozing infant would have to be helpless and desperate before resorting to this last thread of out-worn musicality.

Just in case any divine spark of musical life happened to survive these dull symphonies of tautology, our diabolical mentors devised a tiny but deadly trap guaranteed to extinguish forever any traces of dying embers.  This little gadget was known as the 'drill'.  Its recipe was simply: a few notes repeated a trillion times.  Today this psychological terror is universally deplored as "brainwashing."

I realize that it can be easily argued that this method of teaching produced great artists: that if technical expertness is to be attained rigid discipline must be maintained.   However my point is that for every artist made -- tens of thousands of potential players were musically annihilated.  These were the droves of 'ordinary' human being who loved music and desired to play an instrument for the sheer joy of it.  The didn't aspire for the recital hall;  they just wanted to play for themselves and possibly for their families and friends.  By forcing a  course of instruction geared for artists on the amateur, music teaching in this period never realized its opportunity for mass acceptance.

Today all eyes of the music world are on the guitar.  We no longer follow the tiresome pedagogical paths which have proven so disastrous to the individual's drive for a richer life.  We are now the innovators and the leaders.  All other instruments are patterning their instruction after our example.

Teacher's Reaction
Now let us examine the reaction of the guitar teacher to the overwhelming wave of students.  His first realization was that results had to be evident on every level; the pupil was not interested in sacrificing the immediate present for the distant future.  If he learned a few notes -- why couldn't they be fashioned into songs?  And if we have songs, it would have to be lots and lots of songs of all kinds so that everybody's tastes would be satisfied.  The second resolution made by the guitar teacher was that these songs in addition to providing pleasure and motivation should contain the ingredients for technique development.

Since the guitar is by nature a harmonic instrument it implies the mastery of chordal combinations.  (Therefore the teacher has become constantly alert to new publications in his search for material that excites and educates.  While his predecessor was content with a fat method book, the modern instructor places more emphasis on his selection of supplementary material.)

The third conclusion he arrives at is the necessity for substituting the drill with a number of songs containing the same musical idioms; if we need the strength and control that comes from finding the same problem in different songs.  The pupil gets his exercise without becoming bored.

The inclusion in the field of music pedagogy of forces of interest, motivation and drive is new to us, but it is an old story to the psychologist.  We all learn from one another and the intelligent teacher is well aware of this give and take.


About The Author

Leon Block was one of America's most respected figures in the world of the guitar.  Known as a performer, educator, and writer, his reputation rests on half a century of solid and innovative achievement.

Mr. Block, held degrees from New York University, has taught at Brooklyn College's Adult Education Division since the 1950's.  He had written widely on various subjects related to the guitar--criticism, pedagogic theory, and works of direct instruction, both for individual and class use.  Among his various works, which number some 400, many have been translated into various languages, including Swedish and Japanese.  Mr. Block passed away  recently and his contributions to music education will be sorely missed.  His technical contributions include the development of light steel guitar strings and a high intensity lamp for music stands.