A Touching Story

The Musicians’ Union recently issued advice to members involved in instrumental teaching of children, to avoid touching pupils altogether – full story here. The reality is that intentions can be misunderstood and allegations made. Some teachers, it seems, feel that a certain amount of contact is unavoidable if pupils are to grasp the essentials of hand positions, bow-holds, posture etc.

I can’t speak here for other teachers nor on the methodology of other instrumental disciplines but, personally, I believe contact to be both unnecessary and inadvisable. I would argue that one of the features allowing me to consider myself a guitar teacher, as opposed merely to a guitarist informally passing on some tips, is accumulated experience in distilling the essence of a technique into language suitable to the age group present. The pupils will already be watching and copying and, together with a verbal commentary, this seems sufficient. I would stress, though, that pupils with a less developed sense of proprioception need an explanation of not only where a hand/arm should be placed but how it should feel to have it correctly placed and what to do to achieve that feeling. An example: Many right-handed pupils labour under the misapprehension that the left hand grips the neck of the guitar. The truth is that the thumb opposes the pressure applied by the fingertips and can only do this from behind the neck. The cause of an incorrectly placed thumb, however, is rarely the thumb itself. The culprit is usually tension which results in raising the shoulder, elbow and wrist. When most pupils’ attention is directed towards dropping these joints, the thumb automatically drops into position. In the extremely rare cases where watching, copying and listening do not suffice I might apply very light pressure to the wrist with a highlighter (with the lid on) to avoid any skin to skin contact. Why a highlighter? Simply because it is not pointed.

I can’t help feeling that, in this matter, opinion should be replaced by discussion and policy.