Those Scales and Techniques!?

Some of the classical guitar students will find practicing their scales kind of pointless and boring. I can understand that up to certain extend. The student, especially a beginner, may find it hard to believe or accept that playing a line of consecutive notes over and over will eventually improve their overall performance. Sometimes we, the teachers, get too busy putting together “those three pieces and that bunch of scales” for the coming exam, that we totally forget about the student. Usually what the student or the parent hears is something along the line of: “He should practice more his scales!”, “He needs more practice!”, “She needs to be more focused!”, “When are you going to finally learn your scales?”, “If you don’t know your scales you will fail the exam”… and so on…this is the cloud of comments that surrounds each guitar lesson. Myself, not being an exception from the main stream guitar teaching, often used to give (and I still do sometimes) such comments and “guidelines”. I know that by saying that we just postpone the problem to the next week…However some students / parents expect you to say that and you as a teacher can feel it. We live in an extremely tensed time, pressured with so many things regardless how old we are, I will say. Doing small routine things is difficult and sometimes frustrating for most of us…

I remember several years ago I was contracted to play in a shopping mall. Part of my contract was also to interact with people. If at any time someone approached me to talk, I should stop and give them my attention – that was the agreement. On the second night I was approached by an young gentlemen fancy dressed and keen to express himself “Wow, great music man” he said with a nice genuine smile on his face” “Thank you” I answered “glad you like what I am doing” “Hey, can you play for me that song (Ta ta ta ta ta ta)” he sang the beginning of “Asturias” by Isaac Albeniz. Being already overwhelmed by talking with people, I decided to make a small experiment: “Yes, I will play it for you with pleasure, but I have one condition: I will appreciate if you listen to the whole piece which is around 8 minutes.” The man looked at his watch then looked at me saying: “I completely understand you, I would love to listen to the whole piece but, my friends are waiting for me in the café…” We wished each other all the best and he left…

Yes it is hard even to listen to a whole classical guitar piece, people don’t have patience and this is because of our life style. How about that little boy or girl that should spend their time doing nothing else but scales!? Obviously that applies to them as well.

The following are some of my thoughts on “how to” try to manage such cases:

  • One of the main things, in my opinion, is that the teacher together with the parents should work on building up the student’s understanding about how the music works and what actually means to practice.
  • Creating an enjoyable practicing routine. There is nothing wrong, time to time, to turn some lessons into actual practice sessions. This can give the student a better understanding on how they should practice.
  • Writing exercises or pieces that are based on the scale that the student will learn later, which is opposite to the most teaching manuals, where the scale is presented first then followed by a piece or an etude as an example.
  • The student needs to be given a chance to experience the benefit of playing a scale or a technical exercise, for example just practice one scale, not a bunch of scales or all of them, this is also in line with Emilio Pujol’s “Guitar School” based on the principals of Francisco Tarrega.
  • Trying to present the scale itself as a small piece of music i.e. using a known scale to learn and experience different rhythmic combinations, articulations, dynamics etc…that allows the student to concentrate and work on a particular aspect of the performing, rather than on the scale itself. Supposedly such an approach will cause a click in the students’ mind that scales as a part of the music education are important, which eventually will contribute to the overall motivation of the student.
  • It should be avoided to give students the wrong impressions about the techniques, using statements such as: “The technique doesn’t matter”, “This is just a technique”, “Speed is the least important thing in the music”, “It is important to play with feelings, with your heart”, “Music is not a sport” and so on…. Well, to me this sounds like a mathematics teacher telling their students that learning the multiplication table by heart is not important or that they can become great mathematicians without learning and knowing how to implement the Pythagoras theorem or the axioms… Everyone agrees that this is insane and if this is your child’s mathematics teacher- you will pull of your child out of that school in no time… Technique is important and this has to be shown and pointed out to the student at every possible situation.
  • Working on the understanding that the exam, the concert, or the performance is just an outcome, a result of the other 99.9 percent of the time that we spend with the guitar, which is in fact practicing and working on the techniques. That said it’s obvious that we need to put efforts to make those 99.9 percent of our time enjoyable if not for some other reason, just simply because it’s too much. Once we achieve that joyful, steady and consistent practice time the results will come by themselves.

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