On-line vs Face to Face Tuition

There's no doubt that the proliferation of online tutorials presents a challenge to the traditional music teaching business model. But the web is an even handed enabler, and it is by no means "all over" for face-to-face tuition.

While my own teaching focus is on classical guitar it's not musical taste alone that steers me in that direction (i.e. I will rock out at the drop of a plectrum :-). No, what makes me want to teach classical is my repeated experience that that's what works. If I may quote my own words:

Learning an instrument requires sustained focus over a period of years with incremental steps taken as the student becomes ready for them.

A proposition easily appreciated but difficult to realise in practice. The caveat "as the student becomes ready" highlights a key music teacher skill: to mediate repetoire and student. Of course a teacher must have repetoire knowledge, acquired through their own playing hours. But knowing when and how to introduce a student to a particular work requires a unique combination of practical and psychological insight which can only be acquired through experience. Experience in the form of teaching hours generally and, as regards the particular student, sufficient face-to-face time to develop insight into their taste and capability. For the teacher the cultivation of this mediative skill calls for a certain vocational dedication which itself draws on the psychological support of the student/teacher relationship.

These truths are well understood in the world of traditional music pedagogy, an environment in which the guitar has established its niche over the past 120 years or so. There exists in consequence a wealth of quality teaching and performance material that teachers can draw upon to take students through a graduated programme. This happy circumstance is much less the case with respect to contemporary popular music, and I would offer two main reasons for this relative deficiency: one being the simple fact that contemporary/pop music has not been around so long; and secondly (at risk of slight controversy) due to the characteristics of the genre itself.

It's beyond the scope of this article to adequately qualify these statements but I do offer the following observations.

Pop music rarely calls for a high level of instrumental skill but places much greater emphasis on (i) sonic textures achieved through sound processing hardware/software and (ii) the manifestation of pop culture itself in the ideas communicated through song lyrics, attitudes implied by the style of vocal delivery and so on through to the full catastrophe of fashion, visual media and celebrity.

Trying to teach music to someone whose conception of the art/craft derives largely from pop culture presents a small ethical dilemma for the teacher. One one hand it is well nigh impossible to give these students what they need, namely a graduated programme, if one is obliged to draw solely on late 20th/early 21st century rock/pop/jazz repetoire. On the other hand it is ridiculously easy to give them what they want. Usually the focus is on playing a facsimile of the recorded version of a particular song rather than mastering a style (bluegrass, jazz, metal etc) and for that purpose the instruction methods of the web (tab and video) are just the ticket.

I have a student Dion, now 13 years old, who has excelled at classical guitar after some two years studying with me. A few months ago I gave him a simple arrangement I'd made of the Titanic theme (Our Live Will Go On) - just by way of light relief from his classical examination programme. He came back a couple of weeks later playing a more advanced arrangement he'd learned from a tablature he'd found on the web. Not only is the arrangement in an open tuning (DADGAD), but it also calls for a capo shift in mid stride. (There are special capos to facilitate this bit of meta-technique, of which I confess to being entirely ignorant prior to Dion's seamless demonstration.) I'm quite chuffed with the development because it illustrates the cultivation of individual creativity that often remains merely aspirational and also because it demonstrates how differing agendas can be satisfied with a bit of flexibility on either side. We would never have found our way to that arrangement following the path we were on, largely dictated by the AMEB exam programme. But had Dion not developed his technique through the exam programme there's no way he would have been able to cope with the arrangement.

Finally: an issue for some whose first foray into guitar is via the contemporary music route is the tendency to repeat themselves, playing the same not so challenging bits of repetoire over and over again. If you don't push yourself to acquire some technique in your early enthusiasm then you probably never will. So it is not a bad idea to take some classical lessons to begin with, even if your longer term objective lies in other genres.


True generosity toward the future consists in giving everything to the present. ~Albert Camus, L'homme révolté

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