A response to an internet thread on teaching guitar music using staff notation

I picked this up because of the reference to my Montessori Guitar Book (https://gumroad.com/l/OdERk).This reddit entry (https://www.reddit.com//r/classicalguitar/comments/9jn7h9/starting_beginners_on_tab_vs_notation/) is a wonderful discussion and touches on some really important points highlighting two approaches to learning an instrument: 1. Get them playing in whatever way possible and 2. Don’t get them playing at the expense of their ability to read. 


So I want to jump in here and clear up a few things about tablature, that notation which so many guitarists - and teachers - are terrified of. We could look at this from two perspectives: 1. Tab as a pedagogical tool and 2. Tab as a musical resource. 


I’ll focus on tab as a pedagogical tool and only briefly touch on tab as a musical resource. 


The Montessori Guitar Book is a book which introduces non players to the main aspects of the instrument using the methodology of Italian educator Maria Montessori. The things people above have against tablature are similar to the things a maths teacher would have against Montessori maths, the idea that giving “aids” on one level makes the student lazy or unable to progress at a later date. What I always have to explain when I teach people to use this method for teaching (of which the book mentioned is only a very small part), is that Montessori teaching is based on a different premise to traditional teaching, a premise I call cyclical learning.


What this means is when a student learns something they do not then pass onto the next stage, leaving this stage behind. In cyclical learning we return with a new perspective to the same place over and over again. This type of teaching liberates both teacher and pupil. The teacher doesn’t have to be worried that playing a melody with one finger on the piano will ruin the student forever, and the student can be totally free to use what ability they have in the moment for music making without worrying that this will have a deleterious effect down the line. 


Now comes the most important point. If we are liberated from fear we play better. 


What most teachers miss is that music is not a skill which is learned and a goal to be reached. The playing of music is a profound way to connect to the present and a profound way to experience a taste of what it may mean to be a free and uninhibited human being. What I see FAR too often is people forgoing opportunity in favour of teaching people to decipher a system of notation, in the erroneous belief that if they don’t know this system of notation they will miss that thing call music. In actual fact it is far worse for me that somebody can read music and yet has lost his or her ability to play freely, than the reverse. 


So, to come back to Montessori, she devised a way of teaching that uses some very simple principles, the most important for our discussion here are:


1. Teach one thing at a time

2. Follow the student 

3. Present multiple maps to the territory


The result of using this method is that learning becomes like play. There is never any struggle. So the student’s resistance to change is diminished and he or she becomes interested in new tasks, new skills and acquiring them becomes part of the joy of playing. Teaching the student who has learned in this way is fundamentally different to teaching a student who has learned in a more linear manner (learn this then this then this). And this is why it is difficult for a conventional teacher to understand how this could work - because they have never encountered this type of learning or the type of student it creates (or protects).


Notation is simply a form of recording. Notation for somebody like Bach is like the music studio for a modern player. A way to record music sounds in a format that can later be converted into sound. And when you as a musician sit in front of a score you are the device that deciphers the code and makes it into music, like a record needle deciphers the grooves in a record. 


The way of teaching that some people describe above, taking simple melodies and learning to read them and slowly building up, is a prime example of linear learning (as distinct from cyclical learning which I mentioned earlier). And it sounds absolutely sane and it has been used successfully by many people. The problem is that it has also been used unsuccessfully by many people and has proven to be a barrier to learning for many people. Those who benefitted from it usually see it as a gateway, you need to make that effort and if you cannot then that is entirely your own problem, you miss gaining the glory of music. But this makes a fundamental mistake: Music is not a system of notation, it is a form of radical freedom and human expression of that freedom. Notation is a means to an end and only one means to an end. 


Teaching a small child to play music using only one map (staff notation) and only allowing him to pay what he can read, is exactly the same as attempting to teach a child to speak a language by only allowing him to speak and hear what he can write or read himself. The reason that traditional music teaching does just this, holding a student back in order to teach the correct notation (not to mention the correct technique, fingering etc etc etc) is because traditional teaching has no effective way of passing on skills beyond the linear approach of learn this then this then this. And if you miss a stage in the linear approach you’re in trouble. 


Yet Montessori teaches in a different way. 


 You observe the student. You see what they can do. You observe the skill (Guitar playing in this instance) and analyse what it is comprised of. Then you find a way to connect those two things: the student’s current ability with the repertoire of smaller skills embedded in the skill of “playing guitar.” 


If you manage to connect these things correctly, in other worlds give only what can be achieved now, you create a meta system of learning which is without effort and creates the possibility of “spontaneous connecting of disparate skills.” In other words the student will suddenly realise, all on his or her own, that they can do some complex thing you never showed them. This is because that complex thing is made up of smaller less complex things. And an astute teacher knows what those simple things are and teaches only those, never concerning him or herself with the more complex skills, skills which will naturally grow inside the student which has been given the correct “indirect preparation” for the larger skill.


This method can be used EVEN if your only goal as a teacher is to create a student that can read standard notation well. But your method to do this would use multiple maps and multiple presentations of different aspects of music. And your student will find each of these presentations easy and each of these maps revealing of a certain aspect of playing. And slowly but surely they will get to the point where they can pick up a piece of staff notation and read it without a care in the world. 


In contrast, in the linear approach, by the time they get to reading it they know exactly how they got there - through long practice and instruction. In the cyclical approach they will have no idea how their mind managed to learn this complex task and they will have no idea that it was a complex task at all because the teacher would have done such a good job of removing all the obstacles to reading staff notation. 


I cannot go into more detail here on how this is achieved as it would get too complex - even though it is simple. This is best shown rather than spoken about (my series of videos instructing the teacher keen to learn this method attempt to do this https://gumroad.com/l/dfKZY). But I can say that if a student spent a few weeks with a recourse like my Montessori Guitar Book and then entered into a normal staff notation teaching environment, the teacher would find he had a pupil who could better achieve what he attempts to teach them. He would find a pupil with better command of the basics of the instrument and better ability to grasp what the teacher is trying to show them. Of course the ideal would be that this pupil could go further with the same method that got him to this slightly more able place, and not encounter the traditional method at all, but ideals are heard to achieve! 


So just a world on the politics of tablature from the point of view of tablature itself:


The Guitar (like viols and other fretted instruments) has used tablature for five hundred years or more for a very good reason: the instrument does not provide a single place for a note which can be represented in a single sign. Classical guitarists usually interpret this in terms of standard tuning, but forget that early guitars were tuned in multiple ways and some even had strings that were higher on the bass side (reentrant tuning). These forms of tunings would be impossible to play using staff notation. 


My favourite example of this problem in modern music is Carlo Dominiconi’s “Koyunbaba,” one of the very few classical guitar pieces that use a fundamentally different tuning for the six strings of the guitar. Carlo notates the music on two stages using staff notation: one has the notes representing the positions of the fingers as they would be on a standard tuned guitar, and the other had the resulting sound. If you played the first on a piano it would sound like gibberish, if you played the second on a standard tuned guitar it would sound like gibberish. But if you read the first version on a guitar tuned to the Koyunbaba tuning you will hear the piece. 


This is an absurd and overly complex way of keeping notation and avoiding the ancient art of tablature. And I have expressed this to Carlo (who has other pieces that he cannot publish because Guitar notation cannot work fro them - too sad). 


For myself as a performer I use multiple notations, like modern early music performers who must know French and Italian tablature, Spanish tablature, staff notation etc. I can read very well in standard notation, I can read tablature as though it is staff notation, in other words sing a tablature part because it has musical meaning to me (classical guitarists always think that staff notation is in some way more musical, because using a graph with dots on it is supposed to be more musical than anything else...but it’s just a graph with dots), and I can read vihuela tablature and recently was introduced to french tablature by lutenist Hopkinson Smith. It only requires a morning to get it going. I can also put a capo on the guitar, retune a few strings and read at pitch from a staff notation score. I can do these things because I have used the multiple maps available to me to unlock multiple aspects of the guitar and my ability to play it. Not because I slavishly stuck to staff notation at the expense of all else. And these multiple maps didn’t make guitar playing harder for me (meaning mere mortals should ignore me and stick to only one), they made it easier! 


 And, and this is most important, at the end of the day, however I chose to learn a piece, using whatever notation, I still find myself on a stage in front of people playing music and finding my own personal freedom and the beauty of that music and a way to communicate that. And at that moment all that matters is that I am not inhibited by fear and worry. 


So I need to find any way I can to teach in a way that does not create fear or worry. And telling somebody that they may not do one or another thing (you may not play from tablature because this terrible thing will happen down the line trust me) is just one such thing that has a noble objective but most often creates problems which are far more fundamental than an inability to read. 


I hope this clears up some of the issues surrounding the use of tablature in teaching music. Guitarists should realise that tablature is a beautiful resource among many and stop fearing it as some dumbed down version of the real thing. Double notations like you see in rock guitar, where the staff notation is on top and the tablature below frustrate me for just this reason. Reading them is like navigating home using two different maps, and the inference is that tablature is not enough. It is! Both notations are marvelous and the good news is just this: 


Both are child’s play to learn if you just know how to teach. 


So choose your map and only use one at a time! At least in the beginning. Eventually you may become a notation polyglot and the joys of music will only increase. 


Happy playing. 



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Derek Gripper