Monthly Archives: December 2013

Learning styles in the music classroom

Your brain constantly interprets a range of stimuli, from the feel of the chair you’re sat on to viewing the light from the screen to read these words, from the smell of old socks to the call of a crow. Some people have a tendency to learn better using some senses than others. There are three basic kinds of learning.

Three learning styles

  1. Visual (drawing, watching, reading, writing),
  2. Kinesthetic (moving, touching), and
  3. Auditory (listening).

Auditory learning might seem the one most people choosing to study music would lean towards. However, some “non-musical” people often have a passion and desire to learn an instrument, even though it might be more difficult for them than learning other things like a foreign language or a handicraft. An even if all your music students have a musical flair, things learnt in the classroom can be reinforced by appealing to a range of learning styles. While you might figure out that a student prefers one mode of learning over another, most people prefer a variety of activities. This prevents boredom, and strengthens weaker skills.

How to incorporate learning styles into lessons

For each learning objective think of an exercise that appeals to each learning style. For instance, you might want your student to recognises the features of a particular rhythm. You might achieve this by writing out the notes on a stave, or reading a phrase where the intonation follows the rhythm (visual), feeling the rhythm on a drumskin or play along themselves (kinesthetic), or listening to a short piece of music (auditory). Many students will be bright enough to pick up and remember the rhythm after one or two exercises, but it’s good to have a range of routes to go down depending on what questions or interests arise during the lesson.

Should teachers emphasise one learning style over others?

Sometimes students would like to focus on a particular mode, for instance a student might have a performance coming up and be tempted to practice playing their piece(s) over and over. It might be appropriate to devote most of the lesson to practice playing the whole piece, or running over particularly challenging sections. Or a student might really enjoy picking up new things in a certain way, like needing to hear a piece played before they can play themselves. Here teachers might begin to play everything before the student has a go.

Mix it up a little

You should punctuate a lesson with other activities, not just teaching one thing in one way. This can be refreshing, prevents them becoming “one-trick ponies”, and can even bolster the student’s preferred exercises. If your student is working towards an upcoming performance you might watch footage of a professional guitarist to see their fingering. Or you might write out the notation for a couple of lines from memory, and identify areas that were omitted or written incorrectly as areas to focus on. Or instead of demonstrating something first, you might encourage a student to sightread and play a new piece from scratch, or challenge them to include a twist into a piece they can already play.

I teach to a range of learning styles because it produces excellent, well-rounded musicians.

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Guitar strings

Using strings that complement your playing style will help your guitar to sound its best. I recommend that you only replace a set of strings when you break one (and that is very rare for me). This stops you wasting money and time with unnecessary restringing and ensures you make a long term investment in the most appropriate strings for you.

Photo of a soundhole and bridge on a Yamaha acoustic, with siz strings stretching across
Strings across the bridge of a Yamaha acoustic guitar

Recommended products

  • Silky steel strings – Great for absolute beginners whose fingers haven’t hardened up and need softer strings to be comfortable. A great compromise between steel and nylon strings for a multipurpose acoustic guitar that can manage some classical playing.
  • Some guitarists prefer all their strings to be the same gauge. Even gauges give a good overall tone.
  • I prefer my guitars to have a thicker bottom string for a meatier sound. Ernie Ball Hybrids were excellent when I was using heavy drop tuning.
  • Ernie Ball Slinky Cobalts – For an experienced electric guitar player who demands long-lasting strings with a good frequency.
  • Bass guitar strings – I’ve only broken the strings once a friend’s bass (sorry!). Because there are only four of them and they are a lot thicker they are less likely to break than strings for other guitars.

Cleaning guitar strings

To help strings resonate nicely and be less brittle it is advisable to keep them clean. Here are my three guitar string cleaning tips:

  1. Always wash your hands before playing guitar. Do not let others people play your guitar with grubby hands.
  2. Buy a fretboard cleaner. Apply it to the full length of each string using a clean cloth. Do this every couple of months. Cleaners containing lemon oil work well. In the UK I used to buy a brand called “Fast Fret”. Some say furniture polish works well, but there are disputes over whether this shortens the life of your strings.
  3. For bass guitar strings it’s good to occasionally – maybe every few years – boil your strings. Yes, boil them! This loosens them up and cleans them, improving their life time and their tone.

Finally, once you’ve restrung your guitar, consider how you dispose of your strings.

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Guitar book buying tips

At this time of ear people often browse local book stores looking for last minute Christmas gifts, and maybe a music-related book is a possibility. You might also be searching for a guitar book to complement your guitar practice, advance your skills, or expand your knowledge? Here are my eight tips for beginner and intermediate guitar books:

Beginner guitar books should:

  1. Cover multiple styles
  2. Introduce the basics, not go too in depth
  3. Describe various techniques without going into advanced details
  4. Show you how to use some simple theory e.g. counting beats

Advancing on introductory books, intermediate guitar books should also:

  1. Train your “guitar ears
  2. Include oral drills so you can sing as well as play guitar
  3. Go more in depth into theory behind guitar
  4. Coach you in sightreading

I’m reluctant to pitch certain books since peoples preferences vary a lot. What works for one person might be too casual a writing style, too anglicised, or not visual enough for another. But for what it’s worth I find Solo Guitar Playing to be an excellent introductory guitar book for beginners, even for those who might not yet know how to read music. I liked it so much I recently bought a fresh copy for myself! If you like that and want to continue learning classical guitar there is an intermediate version by the same author.

A black paperback textbook and two of my plectra on a wooden table
A suggested beginner’s guitar book.

What guitar books would you recommend?

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How to tune your guitar

Tuning your guitar is your first task whenever you pick up your instrument. This can be tricky to do if you are putting new strings on your guitar or are still training your musical ear. I’d encourage you to persevere- being able to tell which strings are out of tune and manually adjust them is a useful skill to have.

For greater accuracy in tuning people use digital tuners (I’ve never seen anyone use old school tuning forks!). I like my little old Korg tuner, it is a trusty little accessories: I’ve had it in my kit for years!

Photo of a small grey almost rectangular device that shows when your guitar is out of tune
When the tuner is turned on and I pluck a string it indicates up to 5 Hz or 50 cents above/below the target note.

Most models of tuner have red lights indicating your string’s a bit flat or sharp, and a green midpoint shows a good note. Some even attach to your guitar, which is helpful if you’re not blessed with a third hand or a suitably sized table. These digital tuners work fine except when you’re in a noisy environment when other sounds can interfere. My device includes an input socket to plug into when there are other sounds in the room, but this is not ideal. Also, when you’re preparing to go on stage it can be nerve-wracking fiddling with tuning pegs, adding to your stress levels when you should be focusing on your upcoming set.

Modern tuners can be very compact and are better at tuning a variety of guitars. Some can even clip onto your guitar so you can play and see the display easily at the same time:

Photo of the head of an electric guitar with a small rectangular tuner with large digital display
Green light on the Intellitouch Mini Clip-On Tuner (PT10) shows the A string is in tune.

One excellent product I recently saw reviewed is a digital tuner integrated with a panel attached to the rear of the guitar head that automatically adjusts all six pegs for you! It seems you can select a higher accuracy for the sake of a few seconds extra tuning. Based on this YouTube video featuring the Tronical tuner, I reckon this tuner could even adjust tuning on stage between songs!

What tuner do you use? Have you got any experience with the Tronical tuner?

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Find your ideal guitar amp

Amplification is important for all electric guitar players to get right. Finding the right sound can be like searching for the holy grail. Whether you already use built-in effects or prefer external pedals, amps are becoming so good these days that they might seem to make pedals obsolete. However many friends of mine (myself included) would be hard pressed to give up their trusty pedals and rely solely on what an amp offers.

That said, I love the distortion from a Marshall amp when coupled with a Gibson guitar: it creates a good, solid, universal tone. But Marshalls aren’t cheap. The Marshall MG series seem like good value, though finding one in stock to play in a guitar shop in Raleigh is like trying to find rocking horse poo! Most guitar shops sell various brands, and some specialise in used amps. From experience I can also recommend the Roland cube- they are cheaper than Marshalls.

Whatever amp you are considering, or even if you’re wanting a head and speaker setup, my only advice is that you MUST check out the sound with your guitar in person before buying. It’s also a perfect opportunity to feel the weight and size of your amp (generally the larger the speaker the heavier the amp)- is it portable, will you be able to take it to gigs or open mic nights with ease? Do not just order online, you are chancing disappointment and a lot of wasted money.

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Why the long song?

How long should a song be?

Many songwriters seem to get a short tune in their head or a theme for some lyrics, and build some verses and choruses around them. Managers and producers might prune compositions so the final song is conducive to mass broadcast. Most radio shows only play songs lasting 2-3 minutes and many people streaming music over the web or listening to a music player flick to a new track once they’re bored. If I was a radio producer I’d want to play a variety of songs to keep listening figures up, and if I was out running I wouldn’t want a dull song to slow my cadence.

What can be said for more lengthy pieces of music? Has our tendency toward quick musical fulfilment made longer songs inadvisable? Some of the newer songs I’ve been writing last eight minutes. I think they’re progressive and dynamically and musically interesting (think Pink Floyd, Tool, Muse). I wonder where the audience is who will listen to the whole of these songs. If I decide to record long versions who should I market them to? If I decide to shorten it, which section of the draft should I trim? I feel there must be a more refined approach than just omitting a verse.

When do people stop listening?

It would be really interesting to see the distribution of times through a song at which people “switch off” and choose to listen to something else instead. At what points in a song do people get fed up? My inkling is that there is a quick drop off of people who just don’t like something within the first 20 seconds (there must be some reason why iTunes gives people a 20 s sample to potential purchasers). Then there will be some who quit during the first chorus because they’re heard enough and don’t like it. Finally there is a thin tail of committed listeners who stay to the end. I feel this is the kind of topic that must have been studied in music psychology, but sorry to say I don’t know the literature that well. If anyone has any empirical graph they can point me to I’d be very interested in seeing the actual proportion of people who stop listening at particular points through a song.

Over to you

What’s the longest song you’ve written? How do you go about tailoring the length of songs to suit a particular audience?

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Guitar Teaching Philosophy

People are so pressed for time these days. With many guitar teachers to choose from, would-be students need to quickly discover which teacher is right for them.

Questions to ask potential guitar teachers

Often the first questions that come to mind are, “Where are they?“, “How skilled are they?” and, “How much do they charge?“. Less often people consider the style of teaching on offer. Ignoring the approach taken by a particular teacher is a mistake that could lead to a frustrating series of lessons, slow progress, maybe even a complete waste of money.

To find out a guitar tutor’s teaching philosophy you should find out about what they expect from students each lesson, how each lesson is planned, and how you will be assessed.

Reading a guitar teaching statement

Very few teachers seem to produce formal teaching philosophies, or if they do they don’t publish them online. It might seem like a high-brow pursuit reserved for those who dream about pedagogy. I found it an eye-opening experience to write one, and would encourage others to do the same. For you to see a bit of what I’m talking about I’ve posted a concise version of my teaching philosophy below.

Tim Griffiths’ Guitar Teaching Philosophy

A guitar student will be successful if they are taught correct technique, music theory, and do a lot of practice. To motivate students to progress I plan lessons around what they want to play, and cover many aspects of each piece including timing, scales, intonation, technique, and dynamics.

One of my first students wanted to learn Fade to Black by Metallica. Using the intro riff I taught him timing, how to play the electric guitar more like an acoustic, and the scale being used by the lead guitarist in the solo.

In each lesson my students learn about how guitars work, new theory and technique. Recently one student wanted to know how chords and keys were related, so I taught him how the notes are laid down on the fretboard by drawing a diagram. Then we practiced playing in a particular key to hear and identify chord sequences matching each key. Another student focused on a particular scale, so we explored the different ways of playing those notes on the guitar, and we built riffs including new skills of bending notes and vibrato.

In my teaching I share my passion for current music technology with my students, for instance improvise with scales to backing tracks on Youtube, or recording chord sequences using Garageband on the iPad.

I am keen to share my guitar knowledge and skills with guitar students no matter where they’re coming from. I can teach bass, lead, and rhythm guitar and am open to many styles. I seek to create an inclusive learning environment by always giving students positive feedback and suggestions for how to improve. I take pride in seeing my students blossom and form their own bands. I look forward to helping many more students progress in the future.

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