Guitar Star is designed to sit alongside and act as additional resource material for the ABRSM Prep Test.
The book starts the student from open-string “i, m” alternation in 4|4 and 3|4 with simple note-durations. Gradually stopped LH notes are presented, then accidentals and small changes of tempi. After sharps (both within and outside key signatures) come dotted notes, the thumb in isolation and then with fingers and finally some across-string figurations which guitarists need.
The progression through it all is logical with progressive durations; the pieces are highly effective in taking the player from beginning to a standard high enough to sit the ABRSM Prep Tests and well on the way to grade one. More than a third of them have teacher accompaniments notated too. These are intelligently arranged so as to interact rhythmically with the student and develop the player’s listening skills, sense of confidence (in using an anacrusis and playing when the teacher does not) and an elementary dynamic range. Unquestionably, the duets will be fun for the student to play with their teacher.
There’s also an accompanying CD which has been carefully and creatively arranged to bring to the student a wide variety of instrumental (synthesised) colours. There are harps, trumpets, woodwind, string-orchestras, castanets, rock bands, Elizabethan ensembles, bagpipes and drums. The student may just play elementary music but, if played with the CD, it becomes placed in a context of sophistication which sparkles with ideas, wit, charm and musicality. Counter-melodies, imitation, hooky syncopations and harmonic adventure all play their part in a series of accompanying tracks of solid musical merit and strength. It’s a very impressive listening experience to these ears and one which a child should feel excited to explore.
There’s a “but” though….
There are two sides to this publication, a book of 42 progressive pieces, and an accompanying CD. Both are utterly commendable, but I’m not convinced that the two will actually work in tandem.
In 2012, Faber published a book by James Longworth and Nick Walker called Guitar Basics. I thought it was an excellent book and the accompanying CD was imaginatively put together with all sorts of enticing sound-worlds and arrangements. The idea was that student would play along to the CD at home, their ensemble skills would develop and their aural frames-of-reference would broaden. It fell down badly in practise. I recall saying to a child,
“So have you listened and worked with the CD?”
“My dad doesn’t have a CD player.”
I thought he was joking, until I also heard the question, “What’s a CD?”
That was the first problem. The second issue was drawn to my attention by a headmaster. I said to him,
“I’m struggling to get the children to practise, can you have a word with them?”
He replied, “Do the children know the music?”
“They will if they hear the CD.”
“No – is the music already known to them? Is it Popular music?”
“Err, no. It will be familiar once they have….”
“That’s the problem. These children want to play what they know. Why can’t you give them something that strikes a chord with them?”
The book didn’t defeat us, it was the absence of old technology in the house, and perhaps also the unwillingness of the player to engage with unfamiliar music. Furthermore, even if they did have a CD player, how practical was it to sit by the side of one with a remote control pressing play, pause, back, stop – whilst holding a guitar and looking at the music on a stand? When I do it myself, it’s a cumbersome procedure, and I am motivated by the need to write this review. What are the realistic hopes a child will succeed?
We know the answer.
Now six years later, when CDs are even more archaic than they were then, the ABRSM have decided to produce a play-along CD to go with Guitar Star. Ryan and the ABRSM have produced a stimulating series of accompaniments which will almost never be heard. There’s not even an on-line version which, in 2018, might tap into the child’s comfort-zone with things ‘app’-based and internet-provided.
Is there, in any case, a comparison to be drawn with linguistic development? Trying to learn a foreign language is so much more compelling when your words are heard by another human capable of responding, be it a teacher or fellow student. When that person is replaced by a computer’s voice and when that human musician is swapped for a synthesised ensemble playing to a click-track, does the sense of engagement diminish?
I think the answer is that it has to. We’d (nearly) all rather talk to someone else than ourselves, and we all prefer to play with real musicians who can respond to our mistakes positively. How often have we as teachers paused when we should go on, so that the student’s slower cognition can cope with new information coming at them at un-process-able speed? Working with automated click tracks is an important discipline to command for studio work. It is off-putting for a child because the machine has no human flexibility.
Gary Ryan can write really well for the guitar and his arrangements are testament to his creative well-spring. But, apropos the ‘unfamiliarity’ issue, these are pieces by him and not the popular artists of today. If that headmaster was correct, and students were un-excited by playing music they had never heard before, there’s a good chance that Gary won’t “do it” for them either. That’s nothing against Gary, (or James Longworth and Nick Walker) it’s a depressing statement of reality. The solution might be to include some material familiar to a child, as well as bespoke-composed pieces. I don’t watch children’s TV, but I am sure it is full of hooks and tunes which kids know backwards. Sorting out the copyright issues and arranging them as guitar pieces would open doors and hearts to disheartened youngsters.
Guitar Star is an excellent book. There is much to be gained by students from working with their teachers in developing their guitar skills. There’s an awful lot of fun to be had too by playing the duets with a teacher. I really hope to be proved wrong by the course of events which now unfold and I want students to share in the delight of Gary’s ensemble vision as can be heard on the CD. Will they?