Testing 4

The Hands-on test

The Listening Test results tabulated, high scorers are invited to a short “hands-on” test on the guitar – usually in groups of four or five. Before beginning, several things are made clear. Uncharacteristically, I find that these are expressed more clearly in negative form:

  • This is not an intelligence test
  • You do not need to know anything about reading music
  • You do not need to have experience of the guitar or any other instrument
  • Even if nobody in you family has ever played an instrument, this will not matter

What I am looking for is to see if the hands will do the things that guitarists’ hands have to do. The test is entirely about copying and we only try the two most basic things:

  • plucking with one hand
  • pressing with the other

Very early in the process of mastering the guitar, techniques merge into compound techniques (more on this another day) and it is essential that the “elemental” techniques be as natural as possible. I go on to explain that we need to begin by sitting properly so that the hands will be free to play the guitar and will not be taken up with holding it in place. Questions about the instruction scheme are saved until the end, but the pupils are free to ask anything about the test as we go along.

We then spend a few minutes on the basic plucking action, during which I simultaneously describe and demonstrate the technique. Pupils will see the technique, hear the technique and also strive to feel the technique in their own hands. I stress that it is not about strength but more about relaxing the hand. On many occasions, this will involve taking a few moments out to remind ourselves of what tension and relaxation actually feel like. We extend the arm in front of us and make it go as rigid as possible – then we let all that tension drop away. After oscillating between these two states, we return to the plucking action. With less energy retained in the arm & hand through tension, the pupils produce a more full sound with little effort. The plucking action is tried firstly with the index finger, then with the middle and then with both fingers alternating (like walking). This section takes around five minutes.

When it comes to the pressing hand I try to avoid describing the hands as right and left for the following reasons:

  • there may be left-handed pupils in the group
  • as I am facing the pupils, my right hand is on their left

I demonstrate and describe the details of a good hand position and ask the pupils to copy the basic action of pressing on a single note. All fingers are used in turn. Pupils are invited to see if the pressing has worked by locating and plucking the same string. Once again it is stressed that strength is not required – it is more to do with accuracy and the shape of the hand. As tension is a by-product of concentration, this point cannot be stressed too often – especially as nerves and determination to do well will not be helping. This section takes around ten minutes.

The final section of the experience is reserved for general questions and comments. Practice requirements are explained and pupils give details of their personal musical history. This information is helpful when deciding which pupils should be grouped with which. We also reflect for a few seconds on the number of applicants and the available space.

Time allowing, we might finish with a quick round of name that tune then I thank them for their interest and say that I hope we’ll meet again.