I was once told, “what gets your attention will get your action.” In other words you will eventually get what you’re looking for. The problem is, most students are looking to find all the right notes, and play in time, but not thinking about playing with good tone. The result? Songs learned through hard work and repetition that really don’t sound that good.
Tone is basically musical color. This is how I explain it to students. Imagine you have a box of crayons and a picture to color. Won’t we all take a moment to think of which colors to pick to color our picture? It is the same with music. The picture is the song, and the crayon is your instrument, with the ability to produce many colors (notes). Just like the guitar!
Students need to be instructed, from the very beginning, to work on producing good tone. The goal is not to just to play the right notes. The ultimate goal is to play beautiful music! If students are not shown this from the very beginning, it will lead to bad playing habits that are difficult to correct.
Here are a couple of things that I do with my students to help them play with good tone.
1. Focus more on playing skills than songs during lesson time. It may seem like going to learning songs as quickly as possible will keep the student motivated, however, they will soon realize that even though they can play all the notes, it doesn’t sound good. Why? They lack the playing skills. Focus on skills first and, as far as songs go, keep them very simple and most of all they should be reinforcing the skills that you are teaching.
2. Show the student how to produce various tones on their instrument. On the guitar I have them play from the bridge all the way to the fretboard. When the student does this they will hear the tone go from bright and metallic to warm and dolce. Then I ask, what sound do you like best? In other words, what color do you like.
3. I have the student play at various volume ranges. You will find that most students will play everything at the same level. Usually loud on the guitar because they are squeezing the pick hard. I’ll take a simple melody like “Ode to Joy” and have the student play it very softly. Then I ask, how do you like it like that?
Finally, here is what I think is the most important thing to remember: students want to sound great. It is the beautiful sounds of the instrument that have led them to want to learn how to play it. As instructors, we need to help them connect with what they are hearing on the inside. When a student connects the music that is in their heart to the instrument that is in their hand, it’s all over. They will play that instrument forever! It will become a love just like it is for us!
Pay attention to tone. Reach for it. With practice (action), you’ll get it!
Rich Hawthorne - July 2018