By Thomas Kikta,
Author, The Complete Idiot’s Guide to Classical Guitar Favorites
Co-author, Classic Guitar Technique, Vol. 1 (Revised Ed.)

It is my belief that good teachers have one primary goal in common; that is to see their students succeed at the subject they are being taught. The feeling of satisfaction that a student’s life has been changed for the better is truly a hope for all teachers. We have all experienced this life-changing power working with a musical instrument. The drive that is created from success with an instrument can be the difference between a motivated individual or one that simply floats through life. To this end, we try to help the student succeed as efficiently as possible. We have them practice scales, arpeggios, chords, theory, sight reading, ear training and repertoire―these are all details that help them not only become fine guitarists but well-rounded musicians. However one area that is overlooked and is the most important aspect of one’s progress is the awareness
of habits.

Habits are the fiber of our existence. Exercise, promptness, cleanliness, or moral direction are all habits that define who we are and how we are seen by our peers. If one is terribly out of shape, constantly late, or makes poor health choices then clearly their habits have made life far more difficult than necessary. The same holds true for our student’s musical development.
Poor habits of posture, concentration, practice, or physical movement can debilitate and ruin even the most gifted of students. These poor habits can cause pain, frustration, repetitive strain injury,and destroy security and confidence in one’s playing. These are all symptoms of poor habits that were not recognized, not brought to the student’s attention, and not replaced with habits that would have been more constructive. This is perhaps the most important role that a teacher plays in a student’s life.

It is not enough to simply teach someone how to read music, play their instrument, and learn repertoire. These are obviously important issues but they quickly become a second priority when a teacher begins to evaluate the quality by which they are done. If the student has poor concentration skills, tends to false start, makes errors then backs up and replays the section, then these are all bad habits that are not just happening in the teaching studio or on stage but are systematically being reinforced in the student’s practice room. The student must be given insight and an appreciation for recognizing their poor habits and realize the benefits they will experience when they replace them with more positive actions.

This is where the teacher plays the most pivotal role. Ask yourself the question “what habits does the student possess that you wouldn’t want them to bring to the stage?” Though at first this might be sobering, it will begin to give the student an appreciation of the areas that need the most attention. Once a bad habit is recognized by the teacher, it is essential that the student is made aware of the problem and shown the new habit that will replace it. The teacher is the first feedback mechanism to this process. Once the student is aware of the difference between the old and new habit then a regiment of reinforcement must take place. The more the new habit is reinforced, the quicker the old habit will be replaced. Again, a feedback mechanism is essential. Teachers may be the first mechanism but they might only have an impact of one hour per week. For the rest of the week, a feedback mechanism must be established to help them recognize right from wrong and keep them from straying back into old ways.

For physical movement or posture issues, a mirror strategically placed allows the student to see the problem and fix the issue. An audio recorder or video recorder can also be a fine feedback mechanism for monitoring undesirable performance habits. For issues of concentration, I have had continued success with students who solfège and visualize their repertoire without the guitar in their hands to help them foster deeper levels of concentration. Be creative, I have used rulers to help students monitor their crooked hands and electronic tuners to “tune up” monotone solfeggio students. Anything to help them instantly realize that they are straying and beginning to reinforce their old bad habit. Any feedback mechanism will help them recognize they are wrong, help them correct and continue to reinforce the new positive habit.

This process takes time and can sometimes be frustrating. Initially the student will complain that the new habit “feels uncomfortable.” Any new habit will feel unusual at first but settle in as time progresses. Help the student realize that this short term frustration is nothing compared to a lifetime of underachieving due to a few bad habits. This will be the difference between performing with frustration and disappointment or performing with security and confidence. Granted this subject is a far greater discussion than this space will allow, but if one begins to be sensitive to this issue, a world of difference can be made in a student’s life.

Thomas Kikta is Director of Classic Guitar at Duquesne University in Pittsburgh, PA and cofounder of the Aaron Shearer Foundation―an organization dedicated to promoting quality guitar pedagogy. He is also the co-author of Aaron Shearer’s 3
rdedition of Classic Guitar Technique Vol. 1 and author of The Complete Idiots Guide to Classical Guitar Favorites, both published by Alfred Music Publishing.

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