Published by Schott. ED13931
When an established guitar star, such as Milos, decides to write an introduction to the classical guitar, the classical guitar world should be interested and grateful in equal measure. Schott’s have spotted an opportunity to exploit his popularity to produce a book which guides the beginner into the dark world of the guitar. Clearly their hope is that lots of curious hopefuls will ‘dip their’ toe into our waters, to see how it feels.
So, when assessing its merit, the reviewer needs to place himself in that curious person’s sandals. This student might come to it full of optimism, knowing that they love Milos’s concerts and hopeful that their investment will be a key to unlock the door. What do they get for his £14.99?
I think it comes across as enticing, varied, and full of fascination. Playing music that you may have heard is motivating for a student, so a piece of Rodrigo may be welcomed. I liked the way Milos was speaking to the student directly and liked too the personable nature of the text, the many smiling pictures and the different page layouts which are inherently engaging.
It has a feeling of ‘helping hand’ rather than ‘instruction’. It covers a very broad range of styles and types of music. Starting with Spanish Romance, it progresses through chromatic left-hand finger exercises to basic chords, two-voiced pieces, capos, modes, right-hand nail advice, slurs, barres, speed, percussive effects and ornaments. Along the way it introduces the student to Beethoven, Schubert, Sor, Giuliani, Bach, jazz, ear-training and the baroque guitar. It is anecdotal and personal. We learn of Milos’ upbringing and study history, what he liked about the guitar as a child and Montenegrin weddings. It does this all in 72 pages.
A skim through the book, as I stand at the shelves of the music shop, may well have enticed me to purchase it, if nothing else as a coffee-table book of interest for my guests – but does it deliver to the student what he needs to equip him to progress with the guitar? Does the promised key, turn the lock-mechanism? The short answer is NO.
Our perspective is as the experienced teacher who will either be thinking of using this book with students, or as the go-to-teacher to help someone who has bought it and feels lost.
The absence of critical advice which a student needs will alarm teachers. All the more so since Milos says “This book is for anyone wishing to study the guitar, either by themselves or with a teacher.” That’s it! Milos has implicitly stated that it is okay to tackle our instrument armed with nothing more than a guitar, a computer (for internet recordings) and his book.
So how does it fall short? Why will teachers be upset by this book? The above quote apart, Milos’ sense of when to teach what, seems out-of-kilter and ill-considered. The trouble starts with the afore-mentioned Spanish Romance. It is presented as a single-line melody in music and tablature (Milos assumes the reader can already read music). He avoids adding any fingering. His pre-amble contains a phrase which sets the tone of the book: “Let’s enjoy playing, without worrying about technique at all.” True to his word, there is no guidance on what to do with either hand. Do I use a right-hand finger or thumb? If either, how do I use them?
Two pages later the student has his first across-strings exercise for the right-hand and this is followed by scale exercises, but any advice on how we actually create a sound is saved until a few short sentences on page 20. By this time, our student will have started to adopt any manner of poor plucking-habits which EGTA teachers will have to remedially change.
The problem is re-visited with chord-progressions where any mention of the sorts of bridging problems a student may encounter are avoided. How are they played? With a thumb, a plectrum or fingers? Milos doesn’t help. Furthermore, I didn’t agree with his encouragement to notice chord shapes in the music (page 6). The classical guitar is a single or double/triple-stopping instrument and although I see the theoretical merit of recognising harmony, I long-ago appreciated that a chordal approach to classical guitar playing could be as wasteful as it may be problematic. There are times to hold down a chord and times to not so do.
He discusses chords in terms of I, vi, IV, V …and then suggests the reader search on the internet if they want to learn more. The randomness of that suggestion is striking. If the reader should ‘search on-line’ for chords, why not for tone-production, strokes, flamenco and everything else? Apart from his own website (which I shall mention later) he spends all of page 34 espousing the merits of an ear-training website called Meludia.
This is an excellent resource and he is to be congratulated for finding it for those uninitiated. But there are so many other sources he could include for other matters. I was left curious why he should promote Meludia and not a host of other wonderful web-pages; I daresay we all have our favourites. Maybe that’s the point – it’s his favourite.
Sometimes advice is offered which a music-reading student probably doesn’t need. An example appears on page 36, where the difference between a natural and a sharp is explained. But the student is left without a safety-net earlier when on page 23 he is presented with his first counterpoint.
Some of my students have previously been confused by stems up and stems down and they tend to try to play six beats in a bar of 3/4 music, playing the bass line first. I thought Milos needed to spend more time and space on this difficult concept. It gets exacerbated with confusion if we compare pages 43 and 59. Both are two-voiced exercises, but although the first is correctly notated, the second has stems pointing in the same direction with ‘L.V.‘ indications.
The tool of alternation also seems to be assumed rather than taught. On page 23, the student is instructed to swap right hand fingers because ‘m, i, m, i‘ etc., appear above the notes. On the very next page, only ‘m‘ is written above the first note. This 21st-century practice of reducing digit-information works when a teacher is there to explain the lingua-franca of classical guitar playing. Here, it is just too early to assume the student will understand.
When there is help, the layout lacks coherence. I’m not sure what mechanical slurs are doing in book one of a four-book series, but having been introduced on page 46 we wait until page 59 to employ them in a piece. I could go on. There are numerous examples of scant description which scratch a surface and, in so-doing and paradoxically, dig deep technical pit-falls. Doubtless, some students will fall in.
Milos invites his reader to turn on their computers and listen to examples of playing on his website www.playguitarwithmilos.com. There you will hear recordings made by Carl Herring. Carl is an old friend of EGTA, having played at annual conferences and been a seminal member of NYGE. His playing is exquisite and a highlight of this collaboration.
However, there is a BUT: Will the student be bothered to turn on their computers to even listen to him? Play-along books have proliferated in the past and have gone belly-up because a student couldn’t be bothered to insert the cassette or CD into the playing-machine. Will this be any different?
Tablature is employed, but Milos treats it like the stabilisers of a bike and gradually removes it, hoping the student can balance on a staff. There’s a glossary which I thought useful and large clear fonts. All of these are positives.
I’d like to hear a few ‘before’ and ‘after’ students to properly assess the efficacy of the book; it’s too early for that, alas. My guess is that, if the student does knock on our door holding this book and he has made a start, he will be ready-equipped with many technical short-comings. Milos’s omission to advise readers to find a good teacher to help them tackle the book was, in my view, a missed opportunity. Some teachers would say that observation is too polite.
This is a superficially engaging book with many tempting facets which may bring many new converts to the guitar. For that, it has to be welcomed. It fails as a systematic methodology, but then I don’t think Schott ever claimed it was intended to be that. It’s a taster. As that, it may succeed, and I suppose it’s better that our door-bell rings with a remedial student, than not at all.
I understand that Schott are planning similar ventures for other instruments. Clearly, they have decided that a musical-instrument figure-head will bring new converts to the fold. In making that decision, they have a responsibility to do it well, if they are to take music education forward. If I was them, I would be enlisting the help of ESTA for string instruments and EPTA, if they decide to tackle the piano. If they do, there’s a good chance that some of this book’s difficulties can be avoided.