Memoirs of early classical guitar lessons: a tribute to the absurd

person holding brown guitar outdoorI want to relate some details of my disastrous experience with my first classical guitar teacher. I think many considerations can be helpful to newcomers to avoid awkward situations and waste of time and money.

First of all, I should preface this by saying that I was fortunate enough to study with several teachers, many of whom were true teachers (as well as artists), and I learned a great deal from some advice that, on the surface, seemed excessive. So it is good not to come to conclusions too soon but always to know how to evaluate each situation and make appropriate decisions promptly and critically.

My technical knowledge was undoubtedly not remarkable when I went to my first teacher. I had studied the fundamentals, scales, arpeggios, and many didactic compositions by Sor, Giuliani, Carcassi, Diabelli, etc. However, my sound was imperfect (not that it is imperfect in an absolute sense now!), and I had a long road ahead of me. Therefore, knowing a guitar teacher by name, I decided to turn to him.

I still remember the emotional tension when I began to play a few minor etudes in my repertoire, and I admit without any reluctance that the result was decidedly poor. I made several mistakes and often froze in anxiety. The teacher went from one request to another carelessly, almost as if he considered my “examination” useless.

After about half an hour, without explanation and with very few comments, he told me that I had to cut my nails because, according to him, first you have to learn the movement and then use the nails. I reiterate that my imperfections were obvious, but I would have expected a more constructive approach to correct mistakes and get me on the right track.

Instead, he saw fit to undo all my previous efforts and start again as if I had never held a guitar. Before I continue, I would like to say that the debate between Sor and Aguado on the use of fingernails has been over for well over a century, and by now, almost no guitarists prefer to use only their fingertips. That being said, I have never come across a guitar method in which students were asked to start without nails “to learn movement,” just as, I suppose, there is no violin course in which students start using a bow without a horsehair.

I find this wrong and counterproductive, and I will say more: the teacher should not only make the pupil use the nails immediately but also slowly make him aware of the different touches (including part of the fingertip) so that he becomes aware as soon as possible of the different possibilities that he will have to develop.

During the first week, he assigned me a single exercise. I had to play with my index and middle fingers (no fingernails, cut almost with tears in my eyes after coming home), the strings idle at a speed of 20 bpm (i.e., alternating beats of a metronome set at a minimum of 40 bpm). Elementary math is enough to understand that a finger pulsed every three seconds! Where the mind wandered in those intervals is a mystery, but it was impossible to speak of concentration.

Once again, I would like to clarify. Studying slowly is very important. But defining what the adverb “slowly” means is much more critical. Since this is purely qualitative, it can be subjectively misinterpreted without further specification.

It makes no sense to slow down to the point where you can almost drink coffee between one note and the next, just as it is detrimental to persist at an excessive speed that does not allow for complete control of actions. The rule of thumb should be “to study at a speed that allows you to control your movements while respecting sound quality, articulation, and setting of both hands and finally to avoid distractions.”

Too slow a speed is generally unnecessary and causes thoughts to wander freely when, instead, they should be focused on muscle control. In addition, persistence to the bitter end at a low speed does not allow for muscle development, increased tendon elasticity, and improved motor coordination. The “trick” is to gradually increase whenever you notice that you are no longer making mistakes at a specific rate.

My teacher thought otherwise and, on the second week (also due to naivety due to my young age), had me repeat the same exercise alternating index and ring fingers. The third one was for the middle and ring fingers, and after almost a month, when I began to hate the guitar, he finally made me use my thumb as well!

Completely listless, I undertook, after more time, the study of the chromatic scale, spending the entire lesson correcting the most imperceptible imperfections in the setting. I vividly remember an incident that made me so nervous for the first time that I reacted firmly. I was told to rest my right forearm at a point on the edge of the guitar and play (at 40 bpm) the chromatic scale in the first position. Because the support point was too far toward the neck, my right shoulder tended to rise to make my hand reach the strings.

Whenever it happened, I would hear his annoying rebuke, “The shoulder is tense!” At that point, as expected, I would lower my shoulder, sliding my forearm outward slightly. With a bit of imagination, you can imagine the teacher’s reaction: he immediately corrected me by asking me to bring my forearm closer. This ridiculous exchange occurred a couple of times, after which I blurted out, telling him that it was impossible to do both simultaneously! I shushed him, at least for that day.

I continued classes for another couple of months, listening to pedantic and boring speeches and undergoing corrections bordering on the ridiculous. To mention one, I remember unintentionally starting to play a concise study at 42 bpm instead of 40 bpm. To specify, at 40 bpm, each beat occurs after 1.5 seconds, while at 42 bpm, after about 1.428 seconds! I don’t doubt that such a discrepancy, although on the order of hundredths of a second, could create mismatches in an orchestra, but in that case, I was playing solo! The difference in difficulty is practically negligible, but his rebuke was peremptory: “First, you study it one week at 40, and then you move on to 42.”

In short, I endured that situation too long before I decided (albeit somewhat reluctantly, given my expectations) to abandon it and find a better solution. I am convinced I did the right thing and regret not quitting sooner. The only bright side is that that overabundance of nonsense allowed me to develop a strong critical sense, a “gift” that saved me wasted time on several occasions.

With that, I end my brief journey into the past, hoping that if any neophytes read this article, they may draw some constructive conclusions. Time is precious and should never be wasted. We must investigate and demand an explanation when we realize something is not working. Unless you are in front of an educator of unquestioned reputation, supinely accepting what you think is wrong and pedantic is an unforgivable mistake. Always pretend appropriate and convincing answers; do not be persuaded by phrases such as “It must be done this way.” Always ask why. And, if you do not get a valid answer, you begin to think that in front of you, there is no absolute master, but rather a person who applies “prefabricated” patterns without any adaptation to specific situations.

Sound. Learn and study! The classical guitar is a beautiful instrument that, like all others, does not seek elites but only demands perseverance, patience, and commitment. In return, it will give you pleasure and satisfaction in abundance and without limits!

Photos of Brandon Wilson


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