Monthly Archives: March 2015

A Dynamic Approach to Guitar Instruction

The Shearer Method

The Shearer Method

By Alan Hirsh & Thomas Kikta

Aaron Shearer’s books have been the benchmark of classical guitar training for over 55 years. His efforts and his students’ efforts have created some of the most prestigious guitar programs in America, earning him the title from the Guitar Foundation of America as “the most prominent pedagogue of the twentieth century.”

Towards the end of his life, he was compelled to write his magnum opus—his final say on his approach to teach the guitar.  The Shearer Method would once and for all be defined in his words and bring his experience of 70 years of teaching to the table.  This work was over 500 pages and was ultimately split into three volumes creating the opportunity for future students to experience his definitive thoughts on how to approach learning the classical guitar.

Here are companion videos and curriculum outlines for the three volumes of the Shearer Method:

Beginning Guitar—Book I Classical Guitar Foundations

To watch a video and hear music from Book I:

  • Setting seating position and optimal hand positions
  • The six-note introduction of basic technique and music reading:
    • Establishing basic right-hand technique—p on strings 2, 3, 4
    • Establishing basic left-hand technique—A on 3, C and D on 2
    • Introduce basic musical concepts—reading six notes
  • Free stroke fingers—dyads i-m
  • –Alternation of dyads i-m and p
  • Sympathetic movement—arpeggio: p,i,m; introduction to chords
  • Triads, i-m-a. (develop chords from this point forward)
  • Alternation of triads i-m-a and p
  • Opposed movement—p, i, m, i
  • Introducing a—p, i, m-a, i
  • Sympathetic movement—p, i, a
  • Opposed movement—p,i,a,i
  • Music of the Masters (simple pieces by Sor, Carcassi, Carulli)
  • Developing Scales
    • Single string Alternation i, m (m, a)
    • Single string alternation with string crossings
  • Open-position scale
  • More Music of the Masters

Intermediate Guitar—Book I, Classical Guitar Foundations and

Book II, Classical Guitar Developments

To watch a video and hear music from Book II:

  • Rest stroke and playing scales in keys
  • Developing music reading in a variety of keys across the fingerboard (this is an ongoing focus throughout the year)
  • Developing response to rhythms—all meters, including mixed and irregular (ongoing focus)
  • P-i-m chords
  • Combining rest and free stroke
  • Slurs
  • P-i-m-a chords
  • Arpeggios without p
  • Music of the Masters (simple pieces by Sor, Carcassi, Carulli)
  • Ensemble music prepared for end-of semester concert performances (not part of the Shearer Method)

Upper-level Book III, Learning the Fingerboard

To watch a video and hear music from Book III click: 

  • This is a resource for developing reading skills up the fingerboard. Material may be assigned to one student, pairs of students, or divided among large groups
  • Book may be used for learning the fingerboard or—for more advanced guitarists—developing sight-reading
  • Book organization by fixed position and available (typical and guitaristic) keys.
  • Five scale forms: 2 on 5; 2 on 6; 4 on 5; 4 on 6; 2 on 4.
  • Sequence:
    • Position II—5 major keys, 4 minor keys.
    • Positon IV—4 Major keys, 2 minor keys.
    • Position V—2 major keys, 2 minor keys.
    • Position VI—2 major keys, 0 minor keys.
    • Position VIII—4 major keys, 4 minor keys.
  • Learning module for each key:
    • Scale presentation to be learned, visualized, and memorized.
    • Harmony patterns learned, visualized, and memorized: I—IV—V—I.
    • Three two-part inventions of graded levels of rhythmic difficulty:
      • Easy (simple rhythms—quarter note half note).
      • Moderate (eighth-note subdivision).
      • More challenging (syncopations, 16th note rhythms).
    • Comprehensive Scales—the vertical connections along the fingerboard.
    • Repertoire of the Master—each of the musical selections applies multiple positions.

To learn more about The Shearer Method, click here.

Piano Teaching Tips from Catherine Rollin – Visual Imagery – A Useful Teaching Tool

Catherine RollinEditor’s Note: All technical skills referenced in this article are explained in the Technique Books of Catherine Rollin’s Pathways to Artistry series. Specific books that contain each skill are cited in the body of the article that follows.

Imagery is one of the most successful teaching tools for helping students with technique and interpretation. As a composer, I have also found imagery to be useful. In my newest collections, Museum Masterpieces, Book 1Museum Masterpieces, Books 1-4, I used art works as a source of inspiration for the music that I was writing. I spent a great deal of time thinking about the art works that I had seen in person and the images that they portrayed to me. In writing the pieces, I transferred these visual images to music and tried to reflect the artist’s thoughts through my music. At the same time, my goal was to help students elicit creative and imaginative responses to the music while developing their interest in the visual arts.

The remainder of this article highlights selected pieces from Book 1 of Museum Masterpieces. In Ėdouard Manet’s Le Fifre (The Fife Player, 1866), the viewer The Fife Playersees only a fife player, but not a military drummer (often associated with the fife). In writing the corresponding piece, I imagined a drummer playing drum rolls behind the fife player. To create the sound of a drum roll, I used a four-note cluster (g-a-b-d). To sound like a drum roll, the student will need to use three technical devices – strong fingers, a fast rotation movement, and a short push-off staccato (Technique Book 1, pages 7, 8, 14). Once these skills are mastered, the left hand of the piece has been learned as the drum roll is repeated throughout. Written in a high register, the right-hand melody emulates the sound of the fife.

The Fife Player

Le Fifre by Ėdouard Manet

Reeds and Cranes from the 19th century is a screen painting by the Japanese artist Suzuki Kittsu. When I first saw this screen at the Detroit Institute of Arts as a child, I was immediately struck by the peaceful mood that it conveyed. In the music, I used a pentatonic scale to capture this floating, tranquil mood. The Reeds and Cranesleft hand consists of two different groups of four eighth notes that repeat (G-flat, A-flat, B-flat, D-flat and E-flat, G-flat, A-flat, B-flat. Encourage the student to use strong fingers on these patterns using a rolling wrist to shift the weight gently from finger to finger (Technique Book 1, pages 7, 16). Relate the smooth rolling movement to the calm water where the swans are wading in this art work. Similarly, gently shift the weight in the right hand from note to note with a slight rotation movement to create a flowing, legato melody (Technique Book 1, page 8). Avoid lifting the fingers one by one. At measures 9-12, the clusters that move up the keyboard represent the cranes gracefully taking flight. Use a slightly detached movement based on alternating hands technique with a forearm staccato (Technique Book 3, page 18 and Technique Book 1, page 13).

Reeds and Cranes

Reeds and Cranes by Suzuki Kittsu

The piece American Gothic is based on Grant Wood’s painting of the same name from 1930. The piece employs the most iAmerican Gothicconic of harmonies to capture the sounds of American music – the movement from the I chord (C major) to the flat VII chord (B-flat major).  Other features include open fifths in the left hand and syncopation, often used in ragtime, jazz and other American genres. Ask students to follow the articulation precisely to capture the distinctive syncopations and the folk spirit shown in this American art masterpiece. Use a push-off staccato on the notes of beat 1 of measure 3 followed by an elastic wrist on the notes that following the measure (Technique Book 1, pages 14 and 6).

American Gothic

American Gothic by Grant Wood

Mona Lisa

When my three-year old niece recognized the reproduction of Leonardo da Vinci’s Mona Lisa (1503-1506) on a tee-shirt, I knew that I had to include this famous painting in this series. My goal in this piece was to use a traditional, harmonic pattern that captured the Mona Lisa’s timeless beauty.  To reflect this, I created a quasi-ostinato in the A section of the left hand that harmonizes in thirds (10ths) with the legato right-hand melody. Balance between the hands is important to project the right-hand melody.

Mona Lisa

Mona Lisa by Leonardo daVinci

A Dash for the Timber (1889) by Frederic Remington truly captures the pioneering spirit of the American West. In the music, a broken-chord rondo theme captures the excitement of galloping horses (measures 1-5). These root position chA Dash for the Timberords (D minor, C major, B-flat major, and A major) are in contrary motion with the same fingers of each hand playing at the same time.  Drop with weight into the slur and push off on the thumb for the staccato release at the end of each slur (Technique Book 1, pages 12 and 14. This will give energy and momentum to emulate the energy of the horses. The subsequent melody that follows (measures 5-22) uses a repeated left-hand chord.  Ask the student play this chord with a short, portato touch using an elastic wrist (Technique Book 2, page 14 and Technique Book 1, page 6).  Use the imagery of the horses bending at their knees for the elastic wrist – helping them to understand not to push down into the keys to avoid taking away the energy and spirit of the music. As in the broken chords, the right hand slurs in this section will end with energetic push off staccatos.

A Dash for the Timber by Frederic Remington

I hope that you will find these pieces fun to teach and that your students will enjoy the entire series! In addition to the pieces that I have discussed, Book 1 contains five additional pieces:

  • Black Square and Red Square (Kazimir Malevich)
  • Carmencita (William Merritt Chase)
  • L’étoile (Edgar Degas)
  • The Nut Gatherers (William-Adolphe Bouguereau)
  • Senecio (Paul Klee)

Art highlights from other books include:

  • Book 2: Washington Crossing the Delaware (Emanuel Gottlieb Leutze)
  • Book 2: Girl with the Pearl Earring ( Johannes Vermeer)
  • Book 3: The Great Wave off Kanagawa (Katsushika Hokusai)
  • Book 3: A Sunday on La Grande Jatte (Georges Seurat)
  • Book 4: The Kiss (Gustav Klimt)
  • Book 4: Watson and the Shark (John Singleton Copley)

Catherine Rollin
Author,  Arranger, Composer


Catching Up With Ruth Elaine Schram

Ruth Elaine SchramMark Cabaniss, Managing Director of Alfred Sacred, caught up recently with veteran composer/arranger Ruth Elaine Schram to discuss her latest project released with Alfred Sacred, another project waiting in the wings, plus a bit about her career and philosophies as a writer.

MC: Hi Ruthie!  Thank you for taking the time today to chat a bit with us.  You’re enjoying such a wonderful and successful career as a composer for church and school (and more).  What year was your first  piece of music published?

RS: Hi Mark!  I actually received my first contract in 1986, and that was from Brentwood Music, for a song that never actually got published.  But that oversight on their part gave me the opportunity to write for other projects, including the very successful “Mother Goose Gospel” series which began as a recorded product but ended up with printed songbooks as well.  My first individual song to appear in print was published in 1988.

MC: How many compositions have you had published since that first one?

RS: My current count is right at 2,100.  I know that seems like a lot, but as I tell others, some of them are very short!

MC: Wow…that’s impressive! You’ve certainly developed a loyal following through the years, and we’re honored to have your numerous contributions to the Alfred Music catalog.  Shifting gears – let’s discuss your latest children’s project – a collection of songs for children’s choir called “Something’s Fishy.”  Tell us about that collection. What’s it about and how can it be used?

RS: This collection was so much fun to write!  It can be used as a musical (by using the included introductions as narration between songs), or as individual selections throughout the year.  Each song is about some aspect of God’s creation — the diverse creatures under the sea (Something Fishy’s Going On), the enormity of space (So Big), the different types of food we can grow which includes the parable of the sowing of seeds (Seeds and Soil and Such), how we can trust God because He is always watching over us in every season (Whatever the Weather), and the myriad animals God has designed (Birds and Bugs, Worms and Slugs).  The recurring theme that runs through the work is that God created everything, particularly us, and loves each of us and takes care of us.  We’ve also included thought-provoking discussion starters and suggested related Scripture passages that you can use in rehearsal to make these songs even more meaningful and memorable for your young singers.

MC: What do you like most about writing music for children’s choirs?

RS: Writing for children is very different from writing for adults, but I really love it.  First we’re a bit limited in range, as children’s voices will sound best and be most comfortable “from C to shining C” (Middle C to an octave above).  We’ll occasionally excursion beyond that, but that is the safest range for their voices.  The lyrics need to be written as something children would *say* so they will be able to remember and understand the words.  But what I love about it is its importance: we are instilling in them truths about our Creator, our Savior, God’s Word, and Biblical concepts that will stay with them for an entire lifetime.

MC: We know you and John Purifoy have been at work on a new adult Christmas musical for Alfred Sacred.  Any teaser you want to give us about that?

RS: It’s titled “Upon a Midnight Clear” and the lyrics and melody from that beautiful carol are peppered throughout the musical.  There are wonderful arrangements of many familiar Christmas songs as well as several stunning new works.  The orchestration by Ed Hogan is exquisitely beautiful.  There are opportunities to include your children’s choir and congregation.  And the incomparable Cynthia Clawson not only contributed a song to the musical, but sang on the recording!

MC: Thank you, Ruthie, for your time today!  Your contributions to sacred and secular choral music – for children and adults – are immeasurable, and we look forward to exciting new ideas coming from you in the years to come.

RS: Thank you, Mark, and thank you for continuing to give me opportunities to make my voice heard in the world of sacred choral music!  God has given me this wonderful gift, and I want to be faithful to always use it for His glory.  Writing sacred songs is an incredible blessing, being published is an honor.  But it is also a heavy responsibility — to be Biblically accurate requires a lot of study.  I take the process very seriously and am very grateful for every opportunity to contribute works for use in Worship Services for any age singer.  I pray for the churches that use my works, especially around Lent / Easter and Advent / Christmas, and I pray that I will never write anything that would inadvertently lead someone away from the truth.  It is my goal to make Jesus *real* to people through my music — young or old; singer or listener.  Thank you for helping to make that possible!

The International Phonetic Alphabet

Anna WentlentBy Anna Wentlent, Managing Editor of School Choral and Classroom Publications

For developing and mature singers alike, the International Phonetic Alphabet—commonly known by the abbreviation IPA—is invaluable. This standardized system contains a symbol for every vowel and consonant sound, precisely stipulating the way the sound should be formed by the mouth and tongue, voiced or unvoiced. It is a singers’ greatest tool for understanding the sounds of foreign languages.

The uniform and un-biased approach of IPA allows singers to develop a feel for the unique differences between languages. And in doing so, it far surpasses the usual method of spelling words phonetically using English-based sounds (such as “meh-nee” for the word “many”). This method is compromised by the endless dialects and variations of the English language. For example, every English speaker does not pronounce the word “boat” the same way. Further problems arise when trying to represent sounds that don’t exist in English—how does one spell out a French nasal vowel or a trilled R?

Using IPA with your students has many benefits. To begin with, the teaching process will be easier with a standard pronunciation system. The symbol [e] means [e], no matter the language. Having such a system in place will also help with motivation—your students will begin to feel that foreign language pieces are more manageable and approachable without the language barrier. What’s more, you will be endowing them with a valuable tool to take forward into future choral and vocal experiences. What a gift!

Whether you are just now learning the system or looking for a refresher, Alfred’s IPA Made Easy is a straightforward reference for the symbols used in IPA: what they look like and how they are pronounced. Example words for every symbol are included in English, Latin, Italian, German, French, and Spanish. And an online listening lab includes recorded demonstrations of every sound. It’s a clear and concise tool for singing in foreign languages, equally useful in the choir room and the vocal studio.