Visual or Auditory? What is the best method to teach your students?
Guitar and music teachers reading this are probably already aware of the benefits of musical education on a young growing brain and that most parents who want the best for their children are keen to sign them up for music lessons.
As an instrumental teacher, have you considered what is the best way to impart your musical knowledge to your young students? There are lots of ways to teach music to younger children; Orff, Suzuki, Kodaly to name a few. However, with more than half of the brain dedicated to processing visual information, have you considered that teaching visually may be more effective than teaching with traditional auditory methods?
Humans respond to and process visual data better than any other type. In fact, the human brain processes images 60,000 times faster than text and ninety percent all information transmitted to the brain is visual. Is it any wonder then that young children will learn best and most naturally by imitating what they see?
Learning Guitar Can Be Hard For Younger Students
The young child you are teaching was not long ago a toddler. Even now as they sit in front of you, they may be wondering what Santa will bring them for Christmas or how much chocolate the Easter Bunny will bring them this year. A young child is still trying to make sense of their environment and should be taught with their particular challenges in mind.
Reading the music contained in most beginner books is difficult. Reading music requires analysis, thought and concentration. A child is required to process the pitch and duration of many notes many times within a short, ‘simple’ piece, as well as making sure that their posture and hand positions are correct. How often have you, as a music teacher, been struggling to teach your child something like, 'Mary had a little lamb'? This is a song that contains notes of only four different pitches and three different rhythmic figures. It should not be hard to learn, but it is!
Consider that same child who, unable to play 'Mary had a little lamb', then effortlessly presents you with the opening riff to 'Smoke on the water' at their next lesson. Astonished, you ask, “How did you learn to play that?” “Oh, my Dad showed me,” is often the reply. The young student has just showed you the method of learning that is most effective for them – to watch and imitate!
How I Turned The Concept Of Visual Learning Into Practice
I had been working as a guitar teacher in a school for twenty years and one day I received an email from the school’s music director requiring me to teach guitar to quite a few 6-year-old children. She had asked me before and I always said ‘no’ because I believed they would be so hard to teach. I would often phone the parents and tell them to call me in a few years when their child had grown up a bit. However, the children’s parents had already enrolled and paid for lessons so I could not say no. I’ll admit, I hated teaching young kids. I believed they couldn’t learn anything and would never practice. I asked the director, “What could I do that I haven’t tried already? I have dozens of beginner guitar books and none worked very well." She said, “It doesn’t matter, just teach them something”.
Knowing that the Suzuki method teaches children from as young as three, I knew that it must be possible. I borrowed some violin books from a friend and modified them for guitar. This was ok, the kids I was asked to teach did alright, but I knew this was not the answer.
I remembered when my own daughter was first beginning school and the Principal was telling us the way they were going to teach the children to read. He said that “Even though they couldn’t read the word, the children would recognise it because the teachers would associate that word with an object”. He quoted an example, “Children might see the Golden Arches of the popular restaurant chain and recognise the word underneath said, McDonalds. They might not be able to sound it out but through association with the Golden Arches symbol, they know what it says."
That simple explanation led me to have this epiphany that would change the way I taught young beginners forever! I would use the imitation principle to get kids to play and the association method to get kids to read music.
I knew I was on to something. While I was testing and developing my teaching method my enrolments for young students kept growing. The kids were making real progress and I was enjoying teaching them. I remember thinking "Why have guitar teachers always been teaching the same way and why hadn’t anyone thought of teaching this way before? The solution is so obvious and so easy to use." Children that may have quit lessons after just a couple of weeks were now staying on as long-term students. I am not struggling getting children to read music anymore and am able to have them reading and playing from traditional classical guitar books way earlier than before.
In that same school where most of my students were 10 years of age or older, over 60 percent of my students are now aged between 5 and 8. They are an absolute pleasure to teach and I look forward to teaching them every week. My beliefs have completely changed, it is possible to teach children under 8 years of age to learn guitar and to read music.
 Hagen, Susan. Rochester Review March–April 2012 Vol. 74, No. 4. Retrieved from https://www.rochester.edu/pr/Review/V74N4/0402_brainscience.html
 Eisenberg, Harris. September 2014. Humans Process Visual Data Better. Retrieved from http://www.t-sciences.com/news/humans-process-visual-data-better
Author: Bryce Leader
Bryce is a teacher trained conservatorium graduate who has been teaching guitar since 1978.