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September 2014
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Higher Ground: A Look at Guitar in Higher Education

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Higher Ground: A Look at Guitar in Higher Education

The coasts don’t have a monopoly on great music schools: The University of Northern Illinois, University of North Texas, and Bowling Green State University each have well-respected programs led by some of the biggest names in academia. “We don’t need to be in the business of creating guitar players who suck and don’t really want to play,” says Fareed Haque, associate professor at Northern Illinois. Although he’s somewhat of an outspoken critic of the state of music education, Haque has the résumé to back it up. Stints with jazz saxophonist Paquito D’Rivera and Sting allow him to impart a unique, and sometimes brash, perspective on his students. “I think the lack of consistency and lack of any formal approach at the pre-collegiate level is a shameful travesty and it’s really to blame on the book industry,” maintains Haque. “They keep trying to confuse, mislead, and bamboozle students into buying more bullshit books and not giving them a straight story.”


Haque doesn't pull any punches in his classes at The University of Northern Illinois

The University of North Texas began their “stage band” curriculum around the same time that Berklee was starting up. The guitar departments at both Berklee and UNT shared a common thread—influential guitar pedagogue Jack Petersen. In 1962 Petersen was the first full-time guitar professor at Berklee and laid the groundwork for the program to grow and develop, along with fellow faculty member and author of the Berklee Guitar Method, William G. Leavitt. In 1976, Petersen was hired by UNT to return to his hometown and spent the next decade turning the college into a well-respected option for many guitarists.

Getting Your Foot In The Door
Outside of improving as a musician and continuing your education, the most important reason to attend a music school is to surround yourself with like-minded, (and hopefully) better players. The time spent in the practice room with your fellow students is invaluable and could lead to some big gigs down the road. Check out this scenario: Several years after you graduate you are slugging it out in a band and starting to get burnt out. Out of the blue an old classmate calls you up and asks you to sub on a well-paying and creatively fulfilling gig. You shed the music, show up on time and nail it. Now the next time he is looking for a sub—or even a replacement—you will be sure to get the call. This type of thing happens every day and can usually be traced back to a rehearsal room in some dark basement of a music school.

Getting in the door for an audition is a whole different type of networking. Former MI student Sharon Aguilar remembers how she prepared for her first audition with Cee Lo Green. “One of the requirements at the school is that you have a one-hour lesson each week and you can do whatever you want with that hour. So I brought the audition piece to my instructor and showed him what I had done with it,” remembers Aguilar. “He critiqued me and gave me suggestions and we practiced it. I truly believe that helped a great deal having that advice from my private instructor about how to go into that audition and be ready for it.”

Even though you might be in “the right place at the right time,” it’s up to you to be able to deliver the goods, both in style and sound. Even your closest friends might be hesitant to call you back if you show up to sub on their jazz gig with a Marshall stack. For the Cee Lo audition, Aguilar did her homework, knew what the vibe of the music was and made sure she was prepared.


Though these MI students benefit from working together side-by-side, today a similar experience can be had online.

The Times Are A Changin’
The internet has completely changed the face of education. Instructional videos, both good and bad, are merely a click away and the ability to exchange files quickly and easily has made virtual sessions and collaborations commonplace. However, there are critics on both sides of the fence when it comes to what is the most effective way to learn.

“There is this idea that there’s a secret trick somewhere on a website where they can just flip a switch and they will be able to play,” says Haque. This need for instant improvement has led him to believe there is a growing number of mediocre musicians who have yet to develop and understand the true social nature of music. “The idea of taking music out of a social context is the death of music and that’s what the internet does,” he continues. “At the end of the day, I have seen much less improvement but much more awareness.”

That awareness is creating a generation of incoming students who are able to appreciate a wider range of music and integrate it with technology. “No matter what it is, you still have to put the time in. The only thing I can see as a negative is that in some measure we are losing the aural tradition, which trains your ear most effectively,” notes Potenza. Although that aural tradition is still taught through every music curriculum, it’s the training on the bandstand that sticks with you the most. Potenza adds that, “It is still something to be able to learn a tune not out of a fake book or a transcription but on a bandstand. Now, that isn’t a skill you just wake up and have, it takes a number of years to develop it.” Thanks to a wealth of music transcription aides such as Capo, The Amazing Slow Downer, and Transcribe!, the entire process of learning a lick or a solo has made music more accessible to the masses.

Started in 2002, Berklee Music is one of the most popular online instructional programs, with nearly 30,000 students from 130 countries. It closely mirrors the classroom environment with students being able to interact and comment on each other’s playing while under the tutelage of a professor. “A lot of people buy this book or that book, but to have a peer group winding its way through the material at the same time, it’s almost like a Weight Watchers kind of thing,” says Peckham, who teaches a very popular Guitar Chords 101 class on the website.

Choosing a music school is a highly personal journey. The rewards can be life changing and being immersed in an intense musical environment is a luxury that shouldn’t be taken for granted. If you aren’t totally engrossed with the idea of studying music full-time, then you might want to consider minoring in music or simply using up some elective credits with some lessons or an ensemble. There are more options in terms of style, format, and focus in higher education today than ever before. Consider this an advantage and make sure to talk to as many people as possible about their experiences. Not everyone will have glowing memories of their time spent in the trenches of the practice room, but consider the pros and cons of each situation and make the best decision you can, for you. In the end, all you need to do is take that first step.

Next: 5 Professors Give Their Top 5 Tips on How to Succeed in Music School

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