Thursday, 23 August 2007

Group Teaching in Primary Schools:

My introduction to teaching guitar was probably no different to any other tutor’s: basic riffs, chords and songs for beginners, most often teenagers, in my local music shop. As things have progressed however, I find myself more and more in demand as a tutor of primary school children. When I started working for my local music service, it became apparent that the lion’s share of teaching hours available would be in primary schools, given that every secondary school has several “feeder” primaries. However, communicating the skills necessary for playing a musical instrument to a 6 year old is a hugely different and at times complex job; especially if you are teaching a group of them! It’s been probably the biggest challenge in my career. How might we best approach a task that is sometimes closer to the role of a primary classroom teacher than of a guitarist?

Communication and Praise:

When working with an individual student, it is almost a given that they will try to follow instructions, behave well and work hard. Perhaps these lessons take place in a shop, at your home, or in a specialist music school. It’s your teaching space, your turf. In a school, all this changes: you’re entering a small community that you need to connect with.

You may have noticed in the process of teaching that your movements are more animated and your voice changes: perhaps you speak more clearly or slowly, and use a very positive and enthusiastic tone of voice (“dotted quaver! Yeah!”).

Teaching groups of young kids is not hugely different in this sense. I think of my home and school teaching personas as being in the former case a television actor, shot close up so the camera and microphone catch every nuance of voice and facial expression and in the latter the equivalent of an actor onstage in front of a large and sometimes restless audience. This second persona has to be larger than life: I need the student sat furthest from me to be able to hear me clearly, observe my body language, and remain engaged: I speak loudly and fairly slowly, varying the intonation used, employ expressive hand gestures, and raise my eyebrows or widen my eyes to highlight particularly important points: typical mannerisms become exaggerated.

I smile a lot and praise the kids to the skies for the smallest achievement or effort. Stars are handed out in a system which encourages further progress within the lesson; for example a colleague of mine tells her students that four gold stars earned at various points in a lesson merits a red star, with which the students can claim a house point from their class teacher. This is a reward for consistency as the students must be on task throughout the lesson in order to fully benefit. The stars are also like staging posts or ad breaks that divide the lesson into sections.

Another reward I like to use is a 3 minute “free play” session at the end of the lesson; the students are allowed to play whatever they want, including strumming open strings as loud as they like, or tapping percussively on the guitar. Primary teachers often use “golden time” at the end of the week as an incentive for students to work hard; this is my version!

Creating Focus:

I have a few techniques for when I want a group to be ready to learn. The old trick of counting down from 5 to 1 always seems to work, perhaps because many classroom teachers also employ it. We could have a signature rhythm to clap which the students repeat, and know that it means silence. Lining the group up outside the room to create a sense of there being a clear difference between being in guitar lessons and out of them could also help. Praising the students who are sat quietly encourages others to follow suit. This is a nice approach as we are reinforcing good behaviour and rewarding it, rather than punishing bad behaviour.

When directing a group, I use the present participle a lot; i.e. I say “listening, sitting, ready, well done” or “we’re listening” rather than the bossier imperative “listen”, “sit down” and so on. The former implies that the instruction I have given is already taking place, we’re already all moving in the same direction. It’s interesting too, how the word “please” can transform a group’s response. Perhaps children associate the word with being co-operative, or they simply like to be spoken to politely. After all, most adults crave respect and status – why would children be any different?

When teaching a new group my priority is to instruct them on their conduct in lessons through a question and answer session along the lines of “when the teacher is talking, what should we do?” The answers will hopefully include things like sit still, don’t talk or play the guitar, look at the teacher, put your hand up if you have a question and so on.

In this way the students contribute to the rules we follow in lessons, and have made a personal investment. Implementing this system from the very beginning saves a lot of time and stress later on! Good behaviour is a result of consistent reiteration of the rules, just as we practise our instrument regularly in order to improve. If we keep repeating our expectations, they will eventually be met.

Sometimes if a point needs explaining I will ask another student to explain it rather than doing it myself; in this way I get to see what kind of language children use when speaking to each other: also by explaining it themselves they understand the process on a deeper level: it’s often said that the best way to learn how to do something well is to teach it to somebody else.

Solo or together?

For performance, several students playing a piece together sounds great; however if all you’re doing is playing tunes together in lessons then there isn’t as much opportunity for individual progress or expression. The advantage of playing tunes in a group is that students develop a good sense of rhythm and work on sight reading.
This is a hot topic, and some teachers argue vehemently against a “series of concurrent individual lessons” where students work independently, and that we should all be playing together. I am still unsure of my standpoint on this issue, other than to say that it really depends on the context. Certainly working in this way reminds me of spinning plates in that you have to be constantly moving around the room checking on each person’s progress. Is it wrong simply to set a student a task and then leave them to get on with it, uninterrupted? Some would strongly oppose this kind of approach, whereas others would argue that it encourages independent learning and develops that person’s initiative, and not just in a musical context. When I look back on my own study of the guitar, some of my biggest breakthroughs were made with no-one else’s help. I am also wary encouraging too much of a “chick in the nest” mentality among students, where the bird sits with its mouth open, waiting for the next meal to be dropped in; it’s nice if they can develop the ability to learn without being constantly prompted. One of the hardest things to avoid for me as a teacher is the tendency to interrupt, and sometimes the best learning happens when I am not directly involved with the student at all, when I give them space to concentrate.

A common complaint from teachers and parents alike is that when students are all playing the same pieces together in lessons, the group moves only as fast as the slowest student. Said student may feel embarrassed or upset that they are “holding the others back”. On the other hand, individual work limits the amount of time the teacher can spend with each pupil, and can lead to more able students feeling marginalised should the teacher not divide that time evenly. Pairing students of similar ability can be one solution to this problem, and in particular the creation of pieces with a simple melody that the whole group can play but also include more complex parts for the more able members. Improvisation tasks can be very successful; five or six notes from a scale can be stickered onto the fretboard for the students to use in whichever combination for solos while the teacher strums a chord sequence and the group repeat a simple “head” motif, taking it in turns to solo. One of the attractions of this task is that provided the soloist stays within the scale, there are no wrong notes. It is also more personal; with improvisation, the students are playing “their” notes, rather than simply. Improvisation can also be a very personal activity, whereas when playing from the page, we are reproducing someone else’s music. Simple chordal accompaniment could be provided with open A5, D5 and E5 power chords; in this way the children only have to memorise one shape and move it around. It is accessible to everyone. The next step could be to use E minor to Asus2, which is again an identical shape.

Visual and Imaginary Aids:

Teaching someone one to one, it’s easy to point things out on the page: you just lean over! With a large group, to go around to each person and do this is time consuming and boring for the people who are waiting to have it explained. Rather than saying “play the middle section” or “play from bar 16” I will pencil in a symbol at the point in their pieces where I would like the group or person to start; a triangle, a square, a circle, a star and so on. This means that everybody knows where they are straight away and saves a lot of time and distraction. “Play from the triangle to the square” is a simpler direction than “play from bar 32 to bar 38”.
Guitarists play two distinct types of written note: open string and fretted. I colour in the fretted note with a highlighter and refer to it as, for example, a “pressing C”, whereas an open B is a “lifting B”. A colleague of mine uses different highlighters to colour in repeated bars in a tune: for example where the final four bars in “Twinkle Twinkle Little Star” are identical to the first four: this breaks the tune down and shows the student that it is not as difficult as they thought.

I prefer to limit my use of guitar jargon: very often I’ll refer to a fret simply as a box: i.e. “second string, first finger, first box.” A rest stroke is simply “walking resting fingers” whereas the free stroke would be “walking fingers, lifting away.” I illustrate the actual action of the rest stroke by talking about a monkey at the zoo swinging from a higher branch down onto a lower branch and hanging there.

A common problem when students first begin to fret notes is their tendency to place their fingers at the headstock end of the fret, producing a lot of fretbuzz in exchange for a lot of physical effort. In order to get them fretting correctly, we can put two stickers on the neck; a green one in line with the body end of a fret and a red one in line with the headstock end. Using traffic lights as an analogy (go or, danger! don’t go) we can illustrate to students that by using “green fingers” they can produce “clear notes” rather than buzzy ones. In terms of finger angle, I use the example of a table leg to illustrate that our finger should be pretty much at a right angle to the fretboard if we are to avoid blocking off other strings.

If a student has trouble fretting, for example, a 5th fret high A, due to remembering where it is (as a Spanish guitar has no markings) then a sticker placed in the correct spot usually puts them on track. Similarly, thumb positioning problems are swiftly resolved with a “Thumb Target” sticker on the back of the guitar neck. In terms of other aids, the old classic of the imaginary “piece of holly” stuck on the soundboard of the guitar is a favourite: if we flatten our wrist to rest it on the soundboard (impeding free movement) then we might get prickled!


At such an early age some students have a great fear of “getting it wrong” and especially in the initial stages of learning can get very nervous about making mistakes. Some children can become very upset if asked to repeat tricky passages too many times, so one of the first things I discuss with a group of new students is whether it is a big deal if we make a mistake – does it matter? I use various analogies to make sure they feel comfortable enough to ignore any slip ups: A favourite is to show them a picture of a mountain and talk about climbing it wearing a safety harness and hat – if we slip and fall off, we just swing back on and keep climbing – and we can have as many goes as we like!


I think of myself simply as a “guitar teacher” rather than a classical guitar/electric guitar teacher. In the early years students seem to make the best progress using classical themed books and guitars (nylon strings being easier to press down on) – in my case I use the Guitarist’s Way series. The ability to read music gives our students a lot more variety in their lessons, and group performance is much easier to arrange, as is explaining rhythm values. However I also teach basic tab and simple riffs – many of the students are desperate to learn to do this, and it can be another useful bargaining tool.


In my schools, guitarists get a chance to perform to the school and their parents, usually at an end of term concert or talent show. This gives us something to work towards, as well as giving the kids considerable kudos among their peers, many of whom then take an interest in having lessons too; a very useful advertisement!

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