THE COMMON PROBLEM IN TEACHING AND LEARNING GUITAR

There are several common reasons known about why people often give up playing but as I’ve met many people who had given up but still love to be able to play, I would now argue that the main reason is mostly a wrong teaching approach. This is written in the context of pop (jazz-based) guitar teaching in Vietnam and is based on years of teaching myself to play guitar, making many mistakes along the way and learning from the wisdom of many jazz masters.   

Music is hearing, not reading and not finger acrobatics.

Most guitar teaching courses pitch “Master guitar playing within 3 months” at the learners (but how could anyone master anything within 3 months, even within 3 years?). You as a learner, probably and for understandable reason, also want to be able to perform in front of their friends within a short period of time. To do this, guitar teachers focus on getting you play either through reading music or imitate particular finger movements without checking whether you are actually being able to hear what you’re playing. This kind of playing disconnects you from music which should be going on in your head and body. The overt result is lifeless playing with dull rhythm, rigid melodic phrasing and poor harmonic movement. The covert and more serious result is that you gradually feel bored, discouraged and don’t know how to improve your playing and find your own voice. The reason, again, is obvious: if you can’t hear the music in your head and don’t play music from inside out, eventually you will feel disconnected from music and from yourself. You cannot find own voice (play your own way) if you don’t feel/hear the music inside of you.  

Ear-based Learning Approach

 

Now that the problem is clear, we know where to fix it. The approach now is to focus on the ear, not the eye and not the fingers. The teaching process should help you to hear clearly, make sense of the song form, amplify the music signal in your head (and body) and eventually enable you to generate musical ideas before you touch the guitar to play. When the focus is on hearing, the practice can be away from the guitar, generating more practice time for you. Of course, you still have to put time on your instrument, but it can be minimized to the extent that it is only to translate the musical elements that you have acquired through the hearing process on your guitar and avoid the useless time fumbling around on the guitar without at first having a clear musical signal in your head (with the danger of gradually disconnecting yourself from the music).

Music comprises of many things, including “remote” elements such as taste and culture but in order to learn it, we need to explore the closest things to it, namely harmony, rhythm and melody.

EAR-BASED APPROACH ON LEARNING HARMONY, RHYTHM AND MELODY

HARMONY

 In general, harmony is based on tension and release. Harmonically, a song starts off in a release state, it then builds tension up and moves back to the release state. Thus, at first you have to recognize (hear) the release and tension points in a song very clearly before you can move on and learn to apply more sophisticated harmonic language. One has to be able to see the black and white color very clearly before using the color range in between. We can use a minimal harmonic tool (chords) to reflect the tension and release points in a song and that would do the job. Once this foundation has been firmly set, other harmonic layers (chords) can be built upon.  

Please listen to me playing the song Hạ Trắng (Trịnh Công Sơn). Pay attention to the harmonic movement.Although I’ve used a dozen of chords in there, they’re just movements between a few basic chords and function just as transitions between those release and tension points (secured by those few basic chords).  

RHYTHM

I find the common way to teach rhythm guitar only by the name of standard dance rhythms (slow rock, bolero, waltz etc.) and by particular right hand’s movements on the guitar to be very limited. It is not wrong but the major disadvantage is that it boils all rhythms down to factory-made playing, make it inflexible and does not reflect the inner feel that each player has on each rhythm. You can start from dance rhythm, but the aim is to understand the major characteristics of that dance rhythm. You need to know what makes that rhythm stand out, what makes it as it is, hear it in your head and feel it in your body. Compared to the way of learning harmony, it is just the same: to be able to hear the essence. When you have a sound rhythmic footing, you can elaborate further. You can be flexible and then hear rhythm not as rigid dance types, but as grooves. There are not many standard dance rhythms, but there is unlimited number of grooves, as many as musicians want to create them. 


The following 3 songs are usually played as “bolero”, rhythmically more or less the same. See how I treated them rhythmically and I hope you could feel 3 different grooves and that it doesn’t matter whether they’re called “boléro” or not. If I’d thought of them as “bolero” songs, I would have treated them with the same rhythm. Again, you can create differences in one type of dance rhythm only if you have the essence of that rhythm down and feel the personal groove inside of you. You should think “groove” and not dance rhythm types.     

Song: Mùa đông của anh (Trần Thiện Thanh)

Song: Ta đâu có say (Duy Mạnh)

Song: Buồn (Y Vân)

MELODY

I am not talking about melodic improvisation as it is another totally different topic. What we’re dealing in here is how to treat the original melody of a song. In essence, you should play a melody as you would sing it or want it to be sung that way. Don’t touch the guitar until you have it all clear in your head: phrasing, articulation, dynamics, syncopation etc. In short, sing it in your head, then, give it back on your guitar. In this version, I’ve tried to phrase the song melody the way a singer I liked sang it. Because I played solo guitar, I had to give up a few technical guitar execution on harmony and rhythm to put as much as possible on the melody in this song. Listen to the way I treated the melody while I was having the voice the singer in my head. 

Song: Biển tình (Lam Phương


And here is the version by the singer I was talking about.

SUMMING-UP

I hope to have given you a fresh idea of how to learn music or learn to play guitar. Invest your time in hearing music methodically. Gradually, the music signal will become clear in your head in a song that you’re hearing. You can hear how the harmony is moving along in the song form, grasp and feel the groove firmly, appreciate how delicately the melody is phrased and above all, realize how different musical elements are put together to give you a better musical enjoyment.  

THE BENEFITS OF THIS EAR-BASED APPROACH

  • The focus is on hearing. Thus, you can practice anywhere when you hear music. This will free up more practice time for you away from the guitar (I understand you have a day time job and are not a full-time guitar learner). You will never forget what you’ve learnt because it’s already inside you. People often tell me they learnt a musical instrument some time in their life but now they’ve forgotten all and don’t know anything about harmony, rhythm and so on. This only proves my point that what they’ve learnt is just finger memory and there’s nothing about music in it. If you’ve got the essence and have it inside you, how could you forget? If you don’t practice your instrument, you won’t have the facility to execute music on your instrument but you don’t forget. Likewise, how could you forget your mother language, even if you haven’t spoken it for years? What is yours is yours forever.
  • What is yours is the musical foundation upon which you can build and extend your musical language. You will be able to look at the guitar exactly as it is: a musical instrument to bring out your musical ideas. If you don’t have that essential hearing foundation, the reverse will be the case: you’re not playing the guitar, the guitar is playing you.
  • The benefit is not only in playing the guitar. Even if you don’t play, you will understand music better and enjoy it more. If you continue at your own pace practicing hearing, you will become more and more sensitive to musical sounds and someday will enjoy more complex forms of music such as jazz and classical. If you sometimes sing, you will find that you’ll be able to take control and have more freedom to phrase, syncopate and put delicate dynamics to the melody of the song.

LAST WORD

I hope this has made some sense to you. Please scan through my playing on my Youtube channel. If you don’t like my playing, then forget what I’ve said. I only ask that you hear with a decent headphone to make sure you get the bass, the middle and the treble register (especially the bass because a bass note can change the harmonic direction completely and an active bass line creates a totally different rhythmic feel). You should only learn music with someone whose playing appeals to you, no matter how that person is musically judged by other people. That’s because it’s about you and when you feel attracted to some music or someone’s playing, it doesn’t mean that that music is good, it just means that it reveals something inside you. That something has the same chemistry with the music that you like and that’s why you like it. That kind of music will help you to go inside of you and (re)discover yourself. It’s all about you. 

Good luck!        

If this has made some sense to you, you might want to go to the course page where I designed a 20-week course based on this concept  

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