Solo Acoustic Guitarist | African and Contemporary | Composer and Performer

An Introduction to Montessori Guitar

By DEREK GRIPPER (BMus, MMus, Dipl. Montessori Elementary)

What Happens When Music Gets Too Loud?

I read an interview with Nick Gold recently. He recorded the Malian guitarist Ali Farka Touré. Apparently Ali used to play so softly when he played to himself. But when he recorded he would turn up the volume. There is great difference between music made for one’s self, and music for the current market. And the way that music is performed and listened to very much influences how it is played.

The great Xhosa musician Madosini once told me why she plays with her eyes closed. She said that when she was still living in the Transkei she used to sit at night in her hut in the dark and play. So she used to close her eyes. Now she does this even when she performs on stage, because then she is back in her hut in the Transkei. All she has to do is close her eyes.

The Spanish guitarist Andres Segovia once said that the aim of the performer was to bring the intimacy of the practice room into the concert hall. Over the years many people have come to me after concerts and told me how they heard Segovia play many years ago. Always they spoke about how deeply the experience touched them, to watch this man quietly playing his guitar.

Over the last few years I have been the judge in some music competitions for guitarists. I noticed that in one of these, where the players were mostly from the same teacher, that all the guitarists played with a strong rest stroke, where the finger plays one string and lands on the one above it. They produced a strong and loud sound in this way, but they did not have the flexibility to play connected musical lines, so the music was stilted and forced, like stuttering. In a day of hearing fifty or more guitarists only about two or three didn’t play like this.

What are the conditions that need to be met for a person to play wonderful music? Surely we need to start with these conditions and this music, before we start asking how this music can be heard by many people in a large room? I think when Madosini plays on a stage she plays the same as when she plays in her hut in the Transkei. I saw her recently playing with a full classical orchestra. She just sat on her chair in the middle of the stage as though she was waiting for a cup of tea.

I often see young children who are playing the guitar for the first time curling the thumb of the right hand so that they can get it under the string to pull a sound out of the instrument. I would imagine that they are trying to make the guitar sound like they have heard it before: loudly amplified through speakers, or played loudly by adults. Isn’t it interesting that the Malian way of playing guitar is so gentle? Even though their music is so rhythmic, the touch of the fingers on the strings is often so gentle. We don’t know this until we actually see them in person, because we only ever hear them in recordings when the volume is all the way up.

Years ago I heard a recording by a guitarist called Paul Galbraith. He was playing the Sonatas and Partitas by Bach on an eight-string guitar and he was creating this absolutely huge sound. I was so blown away that I spent years trying to reproduce this sound. Years later I met him in Brazil and heard him play a concert in a small church. I was so shocked for the first few minutes that I could hardly enjoy the music. He played the guitar so quietly, never pushing the sound out but keeping it inside the strings so very very carefully. I had been a victim of the illusion of recording technology. I hadn’t for a moment thought that what I was hearing was a very highly amplified, high definition recording of someone playing the guitar very gently.

The Italian classical guitarist Oscar Giglia tells a story about how he practiced for a whole year to match Segovia’s rich sound. When he finally demonstrated the fruits of his labour to Segovia, the maestro asked him why he played like that, took his guitar from him and played with the tiniest sound possible!

Ali Farka Touré used to play a one string lute. He then transferred this music onto the guitar. He said the big difficulty in doing this was that on the lute he had only one string to give his attention to, now with the guitar he had to divide his attention and care amongst six! When you play a string on a guitar it makes the other strings resonate slightly. There is a difference between the sound you make by plucking one string and letting all the strings vibrate in sympathy, and when you play while the other strings are silenced with the hand. When you keep the sound in the guitar you have to play very quietly and hear the sounds of the different strings, even the ones you aren’t plucking. Then the sound of one string is amplified by the other strings. If, on the other hand, you play very loudly the sound of one string drowns out the sound of all the others and the sound starts to be very flat. There is harmony in the sound of just one string plucked sensitively on the guitar. I think this is what the great masters bring out in their playing. Pablo Casals on the cello, Toumani Diabaté on the kora, Madosini on the bow.

Of course music-making used to be the enjoyment of just a few people. The first real concert music in Europe must have been the music of the courts. Eventually ordinary people demanded this concert music too and great halls were built for many people to come together and hear the great orchestras and operas of the day. Eventually solo performers attracted people to their performances, performers like Paganini who were great virtuosos on their instruments. This tradition came to the fore in the early twentieth century when long distance travel made it possible for a handful of talented performers to reach audiences right across the globe. It also became easier, through recordings, to hear one of these great player’s performances than it did to hear a local and lesser known musician.

These first great performers respected the intimacy and integrity of their chosen instruments. There is such a marked difference between the style of playing of a performer like Casals or Segovia and one of their modern counterparts. We must remember that these musicians honed their skills before the age of recorded music; their musical influences were experienced first hand and at close quarters. Segovia especially, since he was one of the very few guitarists playing classical music, heard the “classical guitar” played only a handful of times in his early years. So his music had to be individual and his sound did not have to try to match the volume and clarity of a high definition studio recording. Furthermore, his first audiences did not come to his concerts in order to hear the sound of a recording. They came to hear the guitar. They had to sit very quietly and listen very carefully.

One of my guitar teachers, Ganeefa van der Schyff, probably only heard classical guitar recordings while he was learning to play. There were very few opportunities to see any of the great players in concert in Apartheid South Africa. He told me once that he was so disappointed when he first went to Europe and heard the great players whose recordings had inspired him. He said that they made such tiny sounds. And so thin!

I would like to suggest that we, as musicians and teachers of music, think about these things very carefully, that we go back to the very origins of music making and ask what is required for a person to simply play music. I think if we can find this out then we can start with playing music that sounds good and gives the player enjoyment. Then we can start to think about how to share this music. But if we go the other way, and try to learn music in such a way that sounds good to hundreds of people, or on a recording, then we will get lost. I think many musicians and students of music are lost these days. Perhaps this is because we have not fully examined the history of music, and where it has brought us.

The Physiology of Music

Those little children who came to play in the competition are spending most of their musical lives preparing for competitions and concerts, preparing for lessons, playing to their teacher, being evaluated, and preparing for exams. There is a big difference between the kind of physiological response of a person who has learnt to play music in this kind of environment, under these kinds of expectations, and the person who has learnt in an environment like Madosini’s, while she was ill at home as a young girl, making her instruments and playing her music so as to while away the time of her convalescence.

Our bodies have many reflexes governing our involuntary responses to stimuli. When something challenges us we have a fear reflex, the “fight or flight” reflex governed by our Autonomic Nervous System. This system is in place to protect us, but if it is activated continuously, over and over, from early childhood, then the reflex becomes habitual.

If we are in a situation with a musical instrument where we have to use excessive amounts of tension to produce a desired result, like playing a soft instrument loud enough for a room full of people to hear us, or if we play with the fear of making a “mistake,” then the reflex of fear will dominate our physical actions. Over time the instrument slowly becomes a stimulus for this fear reflex. Every time we see our instrument our body starts to prepare us by initiating this fear reflex, because we now believe that the only way to achieve our goal is to use this tension associated with fear. The results are well documented in various studies:

“Mr. Houlik, who has devoted much time trying to help music students avoid physical problems, estimates that about 60 percent of professional musicians have injuries that cause temporary or permanent damage.” ref

“In 1988, the International Conference of Symphony and Opera Musicians surveyed orchestral musicians and found from the 2,212 respondents that a resounding 76 percent of instrumentalists had a significant medical problem that affected their ability to play.” ref

“Surveys of performing musicians indicate that almost half of them experience playing-related medical problems, some of which threaten or end their careers.” [Medical Problems of Musicians.” Alan H. Lockwood, N Engl J Med 1989; 320:221-227, January 26, 1989]

The fear reflex stiffens our muscles and shortens our stature. It has its uses, but if it becomes a habitually repeated response to something, if it becomes a conditioned and mechanical response to the thought of creating music, then it doesn’t serve us or our music.

Alexander Technique teachers talk about another reflex called the postural reflex. These reflexes influence the subtle equilibrium of our bodies. There are various postural reflexes distributed throughout the body, such as the reflex which balances the head on top of the spine, and the reflex that flexes the knee when the hip rotates (for walking). It is these reflexes that allow for smooth and easy functioning of the body.

Now it comes as no surprise to know that if the postural reflexes are not able to function properly, due to being interfered with, then the body cannot perform at its optimum efficiency. This would, of course, create problems in a task which requires as much muscular complexity as playing an instrument does. When the fear reflex is initiated, the larger groups of muscles take over from the smaller involuntary muscles of the postural reflexes. This allows us to take much more drastic action than is needed in normal situations where fear is not present. So if we experience an environment of constant fear and pressure, and our postural reflex is habitually overridden by larger muscles associated with the fear reflex, then we start to move towards a situation where we begin to find it impossible to perform even the simplest physical task without an excess of muscular tension. And eventually this extreme tension starts to feel normal. In fact, we start to believe we cannot function without it. This results in what Alexander referred to as “debauched kinesthesia” or the inability to know when we are “going wrong.”

A musician who habitually believes that an effort must be made in order for the audience to hear him will make this effort, even when an audience is not present. A musician who believes that her instrument should be capable of the same loud and powerful sound that she hears on a recording will try to impose this belief on her instrument at the expense of the smooth and effortless functioning of her body.

Perhaps some people think of the effortless playing of so-called “traditional” musicians, Irish fiddle players, Malian guitarists, Xhosa bow players, as a cultural difference. It is in fact a cultural difference, but it is not one which is due to any physiological difference or difference in character. I would suggest instead that the difference is simply that some musicians learn in a culture of pressure and unrealistic expectations, whilst others do not.

Yehudi Menuhin was a so-called child prodigy who played easily and effortlessly from a very early age. He rarely practiced the technical exercises his teachers prescribed, but simply followed his love for the music and the sound of the violin he played. Later in his life, probably due to the pressures of his performing career, he started to doubt his natural ability and began to think about how it was that he had played in this way. In this way he consciously recreated his technique. Some people say he never played with the same fluidity and ease as he had as a young child.

I would suggest that we need to address these issues when we teach young people. We need to address this when we envisage spaces for people to share music. We need to take into account our history, and we need to reflect on this history and its influence on the music that we make and listen to and the means that we employ to teach it.

It is for this reason that I have tried to find a way to teach music as indirectly as possible, so as not to inhibit the natural functioning of the human body, and to allow for a less culturally conditioned form of music-making. Maria Montessori’s methodology has provided the framework for this method of teaching music.

Analogies of Learning

The analogy of language is often used to describe music. The well-known music teacher and originator of the Suzuki Method, Shin’ichi Suzuki, frequently used this analogy when explaining his own technique. In fact it was the observation of the acquisition of human language which led him to develop a form of teaching classical music that began with listening and imitation.

To follow strictly Suzuki’s analogy of speech:music, one would find oneself doing as the gypsy violinists are said to do: give a child a violin and set him loose in a place full of music. This is music learnt as language is learnt. But the current structure of society in most cultures would make this a difficult method to put into practice. Suzuki’s actual implementation of this analogy is more akin to the traditional methods of teaching in Japanese culture and ritual: imitation of the master, following a strict set of guidelines along a fixed path.

The work of Maria Montessori provides another very powerful metaphor for learning. This is especially evident in the story of the beginning of writing in her first Casa di Bambini in the tenement houses of Rome in 1911. Montessori’s account of the children’s spontaneous discovery of writing describes the kind of interest, passion and natural facility that would be the stuff of dreams for any music teacher.

Montessori’s analogy provides us with a powerful new analogy, one which is more suited to our current social structure than the speech:music analogy. This new model is beautifully illustrated in the story of Montessori’s class learning to write. This story is a powerful demonstration of the basic principles of Montessori’s philosophy of learning, a demonstration of the fact that children did not learn to write by being taught to write. Instead they learnt to tie shoelaces, button dresses, replace cylinders of varying sizes into blocks of wood, colour in and trace different shapes, trace the shapes of letters cut out of sandpaper, arrange wooden letters into words and sentences, and a host of other activities that allowed them to focus on single tasks and most of all that allowed them to revel in their innate desire to work. In short they were taught to write indirectly.

What is significant about what is related in her story is this: the actual task of writing (and eventually reading) was carried out by the students, in their own time and without the guidance or suggestions of a teacher. The ground was prepared and all the constituents of the activity were given to them, one thing at a time, but they were never asked to write. This allowed for their own spontaneous discovery of the ability to write, a discovery which is beautifully related by Montessori when she describes how one child discovered his ability to write while drawing with chalk on the floor. The child’s surprise and excitement was then transmitted to other children who began to tirelessly write on any available surface. This explosion of writing could only have been initiated by indirect means, and it is these indirect procedures which constitute the major activity of a Montessori ‘teacher.’

The story of the explosion of writing is an inspiring analogy for learning to play a musical instrument, and for creating spaces in our schools and social life for a spontaneous expression and spontaneous discovery of musical activity.

The Application of Montessori’s Methodology to Teaching Guitar

What are the separate skills that come together when we play a guitar? The answer to this question comprises an analysis of movement required to play guitar, an analysis which is the first step to discovering the range of possible presentations which could be given by a teacher wishing to allow for the spontaneous discovery of an ability to play the guitar.

In my book, The Montessori Guitar, I demonstrate the basic techniques of guitar as a set of lessons which can be given in any order. Added to this is a range of presentations which could not be represented in a book, but which take their form from the kind of presentations one finds in the practical life component of the 3-6 classroom. The Montessori Three Period Lesson also finds a vital place as the main form of introducing terminology, the skills of reading, musical dictation, and even playing by ear. The further possibilities of expanding on the basic structure of a Montessori Guitar Method are many, including the inclusion of a story element borrowed from Montessori’s Cosmic Education.

The basic skills covered in The Montessori Guitar so far are as follows:

Presentation of the strings and their names
The plucking of strings
Presentation of the frets and their names
Presentation of the fingers (RH and LH) and their names
The stopping on notes on the fretboard
Presentation the tablature stave
Presentation of the fret/finger numbers
Placement of fret/finger numbers onto the tablature stave
Introduction of basic rhythmic notations and their sound names
The addition of rhythms to the tablature stave
The introduction of the chord diagram
The combination of RH patterns with chord diagram sequences.

This range of presentations results in an ability to play and read basic melodies, play melodies with bass accompaniment, and play chord sequences with right hand rhythmic patterns. These are the basic constituents of any piece of music in the classical guitar literature.

While being presented with each of these skills, one at a time and always at the correct time for each individual student, the students are introduced to actual examples from the guitar’s literature. They are also provided with a small library of pieces which fall under each of the following categories:

Three string melodies without rhythmic notation
Three string melodies with rhythmic notation
Three string melodies with bass accompaniment
Harmonic pieces using continuous right hand patterns
Six string melodies and/or harmonic pieces

These pieces are taken from children’s songs, classical literature, guitar literature, African music, pop songs and any music that strikes the fancy of the learner and teacher. There is much space for enlarging this library which at present is in its most basic form and represents my and my student’s musical preferences.

As usual the teacher is reminded to:

Give a presentations without words
Teach a three period lesson
Make observations

Furthermore the teacher will refrain from:

Disturbing constructive work
Correcting the work of learners
Using abstract analysis as a means of explanation


In my experience a person who has learnt using the indirect means described above will demonstrate a different technical ability to someone who has learnt in the conventional and linear teaching methods found in schools, music centers and universities the world over. Most notably I believe that such an approach would allow for the exclusion of the usual technical and interpretive teaching which form an integral part of the standard music lesson.

I find that hands move more easily, fingers are placed more naturally and the musicians that result play with far less effort. The music seems to move forward with a natural rhythm which is far closer to the natural rhythms of music heard in the singing of most young people who have had no musical training.

It has always seemed strange to me that a three-year-old can intuitively phrase the melodies of a simple folk or children’s song, but a twenty-year-old violinist must be taught the very basics of musical phrasing when attempting to play a simple piece from the classical literature. It is my belief, and personal musical experience, that this disparity results from the way in which we teach music, rather than from any musical deficiency in the individual. I feel strongly that if we can refrain from many of the activities which today are called “music teaching,” then we can do away with many of the activities which comprise advanced musical training, such as phrasing, musical interpretation and technical studies, as well as the wide range of physical and emotional injuries suffered by many professional musicians worldwide. It seems a strong claim, but the work of Maria Montessori reminds us that the solutions to big problems may lie in very simple means.

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