In late June 2015 I had a phone conversation with John Williams. He asked me a question that not only resonated with me, but with hundreds of other guitarists around the world. He asked: “Do you want to be a guitarist, or play the guitar?” This question gave me pause for thought and I often come back to it as a reminder of my core musical values.
I like to think of myself as an amateur. An amateur is someone that does something out of pure love for the craft, there are few if any extrinsic factors that motivate playing but rather a deep personal need to express themselves through the classical guitar. The respect I have for amateurs runs through this site, through my teaching style and I hope gets imbued into my students. I believe that an amateur can play to the highest levels of musicianship and technique, they can attain mastery of the instrument, and be empowered to share the gift of music with their community. These are my core values as a leader and educator.
In the beginning
Classical Guitar Corner started out as a collection of resources, I had looked around the internet and compiled links to teaching materials ad festivals. What I found was that the educational materials were scattered and inconsistent, furthermore there was rampant negativity, even bullying in some corners. The cloak of anonymity had given people the gall to be cruel and harsh, and I fear that many nascent musicians would have been turned off.
In 2008 I was a student at Yale University and I began to write about guitar technique online. It was a novelty to begin with, but I soon found that I was serving a small but incredibly diverse audience of guitarists who were keen to advance their skills. I received emails from Ghana, Argentina, Australia, Canada, Iraq, Germany. The audience was, and still is, truly global. With this initial response I recognized the potential for my teaching to help a large group of amateurs around the world and I began to write more consistently.
The boy in the attic
Once I had graduated from my doctoral studies at Yale I found myself living in a friends attic. This didn’t come as a huge surprise to me as by that point I was very realistic about what a life in music was. Rich, but without money. In this attic I had a very valuable resource, time, so I used that time to write a scale book and record some videos on technique. Out into the universe they went.
Over time I received emails about my scale book being used in Colombia, up at Yale by my former teacher and various individuals from all around the planet. Once again I saw potential to help people, so I started to write my curriculum for classical guitar.
The power of one
It may surprise you to know that I did not start playing at the age of four, and I didn’t encounter a good teacher for the first nine years of my studies.
I was eleven when the guitar first grabbed my attention. It wasn’t a classical guitar, but rather an electric guitar in a band. In the early days I was listening and trying to imitate Jimi Hendrix, Led Zeppelin, Steve Vai and Joe Satriani all virtuosi in their own rights and more or less instrumental in their playing. In my mid teens I felt myself wandering aimlessly without any structure so I became attracted to the classical style. It had tradition, lineage and a canon of educational materials.
But, unfortunately I was paired with some poor teachers from the beginning. Teachers that gave me music beyond my abilities and teachers who did not have a structured approach. Then, I met Raffaele.
Raffaele and I worked together at the Sydney Conservatorium, and he had the conviction to say no to me. He took away the pieces that were too difficult, took away the huge variety of pieces, and made me focus on a small selection of pieces that were at my level, and he made me do them properly.
A structured approach
One of the cornerstones of this site is a structured approach to learning. It was something I didn’t have when I started out and when I did have it, it made all the difference.
Raffaele not only slowed down my frenetic pace, but he gave me focused goals of studying AMEB grades. These grades are common in the UK and Canada but are not found everywhere. They provide sets of repertoire, technique, musicianship and theory to be studied in tandem. To complete a grade you can take an exam and receive a certificate. This process was revelatory for me, and I followed it through to the last post, which was Licentiate of music.
I have taken this transformative model as inspiration for my own curriculum. One with levels that guide the student through a steady path of improvement.
Who am I to talk?
As an Australian (or maybe it was just my family) I was raised to stay relatively quiet about achievements. I believe that this site, and the content within, speaks for itself. However, I have been told by several members that I need to communicate certain things to new visitors. For me, it was summed up recently at a concert in New York where a fellow guitarist came up to me and said : “I think you must be the hardest working guitarist in New York!”
So, I will let some others do it for me…
Simon Powis is at the vanguard of classical guitar pedagogy. By following his various repertoire and technique books in addition to his various videos, one can build a solid classical guitar foundation and much more. I have been using and recommending his scales and arpeggio book for a couple of years now and find it to be one of the very best available. Simon presents all of the material with great enthusiasm, clarity and authority. He is the rare combination of a virtuoso guitarist and a thoughtful forward thinking pedagogue. – Benjamin Verdery, Yale University
One of my proudest achievements as a teacher has been teaching students that go on to form a career in music. I was so touched when Koh, who is now completing his Doctorate in New York, wrote this for me:
I had the pleasure of studying with Simon as an undergraduate at Yale University. Simon played an influential role in my development as a guitarist and my interest in pursuing a career in music. Prior to studying with Simon, I had been playing guitar for many years but had never received extensive training in technique and efficient practice methods. Simon provided me with the many tools necessary for me to improve my playing and prepare me for a Master’s degree in guitar performance. It was through Simon in which I learned the importance of practicing scales and working on technical exercises, as well as how to be my own teacher so that I could understand what methods of practicing worked for me. In addition to giving me many helpful ideas and tips, Simon constantly pushed and encouraged me to strive for improvement and explore new opportunities, such as entering a competition and giving my first solo recital; as a result, I gained a deeper passion for guitar. Through Simon’s guidance, I realized that I wanted to pursue guitar as a career. – Koh K.