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What Every High School Guitar Student Needs To Know
I wish I’d had a little guidebook like this fifteen years ago, when I was myself an aspiring applicant to a music college (Berklee College of Music, in my case). Because I’ve been down the same road, I know what it’s like to be in high school, dedicated to music and the guitar, vaguely excited about pursuing both at the college level, but not knowing entirely what to expect – or more importantly, what was expected of me. Let’s meet someone. His name is Dwayne, and like you (and me at the time!) he is a music college hopeful. Let’s see if this sounds familiar: Dwayne loves to play guitar, and he’s passionate about learning more. He’s a sophomore in high school, and has played in a couple of bands off and on. Dwayne’s not a huge jazz guy, but he’s thinking about trying out for the school jazz band, just to get the playing experience – but he’s not too sure he’d know what to play. Dwayne’s got above average technique on the guitar, and he knows he wants to get faster, but that’s about as specific as he could say. He’s also got a feeling that there’s a lot more to learn about scales, chords, etc. – in fact, his overall knowledge of how everything fits together is a bit sketchy. But he’s hungry to learn all there is to know, and is planning on attending music college for guitar after graduation. Problem is, he’s not all too sure what he’ll need to know to get in, and he’s a little worried about it. Actually, a lot worried. If this sounds like you, you’re not alone - and this monograph is designed to provide some guidance. This is not an exhaustive and detailed textbook about guitar technique and music theory; instead, it’s designed to be a short and easy read that will point you in the right direction, and force you to think realistically about your current preparedness for guitar study at the college level. There’s nothing else like this out there – and let me tell you why I’m the right guy to author it. In addition to having walked the same path that you’re looking to embark upon, I am a guitar instructor with over a decade of experience in helping people just like you. In fact, you could say that it’s my specialty. In addition to having a successful private instruction studio, (including my website for live one-on-one guitar lessons, www.GuitarFoundry.com), I am a recording artist who has released several instrumental guitar records (as well as other projects), a composer for video games, and the recent founder of an independent record label which releases my own music and the music of an increasing number of colleagues and cohorts. I know quite a bit about music, the guitar, the industry, and most important for this monograph, what it takes to prepare for music college. So take advantage.
The Right Reasons
If you’re really serious about wanting to attend college for music and guitar - and then making a go at a career in music - you’d better be doing it for the right reasons. Here are some of the wrong reasons: 1. I want to get chicks/guys. 2. I want to be famous. 3. I want to make a lot of money. All of the above may in fact happen to you – and if they do, more power to you. But to have a sustainable, lifelong relationship with music – one that continues even when the going gets tough – there’d better be more behind your desire. For me, I simply couldn’t (and still can’t) not do music. The desire to create, to challenge yourself, to deepen your character, and to share music with others is what will fuel a successful and sustainable music career, in college and after. Do it for the right reasons for long enough, and the three “wrong reasons” above will most likely happen on their own. Let me share my experience as a freshman at Berklee to give you a reality check: First semester, I met a lot of people. Second semester, more than half of the people I’d met weren’t there anymore. Why? They were there for the wrong reasons. From a lot of them, I got a real flakey vibe. It was as if I could hear their parents talking about them: “Hmmm. Billy isn’t really that good at anything, and he doesn’t do too well in school. But he needs to go to college, and he likes to play some Nirvana on the guitar…let’s send him to music school!” Needless to say, it was the Billys, the ones who thought that music school was going to be all about jamming on the guitar and playing rock star, that weren’t there second semester. They found out that it was hard, hard work and either transferred to a “normal” college, or just dropped out. They were there for the wrong reasons. Here’s a wake-up call for you. Even if you go to music college and decide to major in performance (in other words, in playing guitar) the majority of work that you do, especially for the first two years, will not be on playing guitar. You must be willing and able to spend a lot of time away from the guitar learning about all aspects of music – and actually enjoy it. If you don’t, you won’t last. I’m talking about ear training, text book music theory, music analysis, conducting, music history, arranging, solfeggio (sight singing), etc. You need to crave knowledge about all of these things, or don’t even bother. Sound harsh? Not if you’ve got what it takes! If hearing that news actually gets you excited to be in an environment like that, then music college is probably a good fit for you. It definitely was for me.
Application and Audition Process
Before getting into the overview of skills that you’ll need to build before even considering applying to guitar college, I’d like to talk first about the application and audition process itself. First of all, here’s a caveat: the following relates my experiences about fifteen years ago, at one specific (although very representative) contemporary music school – Berklee. Undoubtedly some details have changed in the interim, but I’d be willing to bet that this intel is still very relevant, and the procedures still very similar, for most music colleges today. The application process involved sending a package that included an audition tape of a performance of music “from the standard repertoire”. Not really knowing what this meant at the time, and being a metal guy, I chose to play an instrumental intro to a Testament song by Alex Skolnick, who’s a pretty rippin’ player. I figured that if a song was from a CD I had, then it must be “from the standard repertoire”. I pulled it off alright, but in hindsight it was kind of a dumb idea to choose a song like that (more about this later!) I also had to send in a written copy of the music, which I had to transcribe myself because I couldn’t get my hands on a published copy. In addition, I included in the package a tape of original music which I had written and recorded, as well as the written music for all of the guitar parts. Nowadays, with the relative ease and in-expensiveness of recording gear, sending in recordings is even more commonplace. If you don’t know anything about recording, I suggest dropping 20 bucks and getting a subscription to “Recording” magazine – it’ll be worth its weight in gold if you actually read the issues and learn from them. Outside of the music stuff, the application also required a couple of recommendation letters (which I got from my high school chorus teacher and private guitar teacher at the time) and the standard essay-style questions to be answered. And of course, they wanted SAT scores and transcripts of how well I did in school academically. [Side Note on Grades: Here’s another wake-up call. Don’t think that just because you’re god’s gift to guitar playing, that somehow the doors to higher education will be swung wide open for you – those days are over. You might be a big fish in a little guitar pond right now in your high school, but there’s about 10,000 others around the world who are just like you – and maybe better – who are applying for the same spot in the school you want to attend. If you’re head-to-head in the guitar playing department, who do you think will actually get accepted? The one with the better grades. I’ve seen it happen with my own students. Don’t slack. End of Side Note]
Back to our story. Based on my application, I was invited to a live audition in Boston at the school. Lining the halls were lots of nervous and excited hopefuls, like me, and in the audition rooms were Berklee guitar instructors waiting to hear what we could do. Some were cool, and some were cranky. You hoped you’d get a cool one. I (again, being a metal guy) had prepared a solo to play – Marty Friedman’s solo from the Megadeth song “Symphony of Destruction”. I had also brought my nylon string guitar, and had prepared a couple of classical guitar pieces. I played everything pretty well, but I learned something important about college auditions which I will pass on to you: Know your audience! While Berklee certainly embraces many kinds of music, it is historically a jazz institution (like many other contemporary music schools). So, most of the instructors were really looking for pieces that demonstrated the ability to improvise a bit, play chord solos, interpret melodies, etc. In other words, jazz music from “the standard repertoire”. Of course, with my Megadeth solo in hand, I ended up with the assistant chair of the guitar department – a dyed in the wool jazz guy. I could tell that he didn’t care too much for the metal (and I didn’t care too much for his demeanor), but since I played it decently enough I think he pretty much had to score me well on whatever boilerplate form they were using. Even though it turned out okay, if I had to do it again, it would have been smarter to choose some performance pieces designed to achieve a specific goal – in this case, impressing the instructors at a “jazz school” – and not just choosing music that I thought was impressive. Know your audience! [Another Side Note: There was also some scholarship audition that was tied into my normal audition, sort of a “two in one” thing so that you didn’t have to travel there twice. I ended up getting accepted into the school, but I didn’t get the scholarship. I’m convinced that it was more my naiveté in choosing audition music, rather than my playing abilities, that cost me the scholarship. Sometimes it’s best to do some recon about what people are looking for, and then deliver. I didn’t do that at the time. End of Side Note] So what else did I have to do at the entrance audition? 1. Reading Applicants got about five minutes to look over some written music, both in standard notation for the melodic reading, and in lead-sheet format for chords and rhythm. The
music had to be played at a specific tempo with a metronome, no stopping allowed. This was the part of the audition that most (including me) were the least prepared for and found the most nerve-racking. 2. Improvisation Applicants had to solo over specific chord progressions, like blues and II – V – I progressions, and sound like they knew what they were doing. A lot didn’t. 3. Call and Response The guitar instructor would play some short phrases on the guitar (with his back to you) and you had to play them back just from hearing them. This was intended to test your ear training abilities. I didn’t do too well on that part! Needless to say, you can’t cram for an audition like this the way you could cram for a history exam. You need to be prepared many months, if not years in advance if you want to be confident, impress, and get accepted into a college to study guitar.
In order to be truly prepared for what lies ahead as a music college hopeful, you must be willing to focus right now on areas that you know you’re weakest at – and admitting to those weaknesses might not be pleasant at first. Also, you must voluntarily get into listening to and learning about some styles of music that might not be your favorite right now. Tough. If your goal is to attend college for guitar, there are skills you need to have to even enter the ballpark – let alone to hit a grand slam. I’ve made it a priority to focus on these college preparatory skills with my private students at GuitarFoundry.com (in addition to applying them to students’ preferred styles – like metal, in my case. It’s still got to be fun, right?) The following is a very important overview of skills that need to be developed in order to increase both your confidence in your playing, and your chances of being accepted into a contemporary music school, as well as some resources available to help you.
Start to immerse yourself daily in music, and not just in listening to the styles that are your current favorites. Listen especially to “classical” music from all time periods, as well as jazz. You will absolutely pick up and absorb some important musical concepts simply through osmosis. Check out Jaime Aebersold’s extensive library of CDs for jazz students. They are great learning tools, even if you don’t understand what he’s talking about yet (the instruction really isn’t that great). They’re mostly for putting on and listening to while you’re doing other stuff, and getting
used to the sounds of jazz harmony and soloing. And if you listen to Bach or Beethoven every day, you will reap rewards a’plenty.
Not YouTube – I’m talking getting your hands on some good guitar instructional videos, preferably some no-nonsense ones from the late 80’s or early 90’s put out by the companies REH or Alfred. Intentionally check some out that are over your head, from guys like Scott Henderson, Al DiMeola, Alan Holdsworth, Greg Howe, Frank Gambale, etc. And don’t fret if you can’t understand a damn thing they’re talking about. A lot of these guys play great, but couldn’t teach their way out of a paper bag. The idea here is to start getting an idea about what you don’t know yet. These types of videos will help you figure out where your weak points are, and the areas of knowledge or technical ability that you need the most work on. They can also be inspirational, as well as frustrating.
Knowing Your Notes
I don’t mean reading them on the page, but actually finding them on the guitar. One of the biggest problems to plague most guitar players is not having all of the notes on the neck memorized. Everything that you do, especially at the college level, has to do with notes. So does it make sense to not know where they all are on the guitar? Of course not. My lessons with students always focus heavily on helping them get to know the notes on the guitar neck. It’s absolutely essential knowledge for a serious player.
Memorizing scales on the guitar is of immense importance. There are six big “families” of scales (including all of their modes) that you must know to play contemporary music: 1. 2. 3. 4. 5. 6. Major Melodic Minor Harmonic Minor Diminished Whole Tone Pentatonic
These six make up the raw material for the vast majority of music that you’ll hear. It’s not enough to just know the fingerings and shapes on the neck (although that’s an important first step). Actual ability to build them in your head in any key, to know the sound, and to start them from anywhere on the neck is extremely important for reading, improvisation, and writing. It’s a big task, but one that every aspiring guitar college student needs to tackle.
Understanding how to build chords, from triads to extended harmony chords like E7susb9 and other weird ones, is an absolutely essential skill to master before attending college for guitar. Analysis of chord progressions (often called “functional harmony analysis”) is a necessary skill for really understanding how songs work and how they’re structured. Chord/Scale relationships help you understand how to play or improvise over those daunting chord progressions (like Dm7b5 – G7alt – CmMaj7) and actually sound like you know what you’re doing. Chord skills are a big focus in my private lessons at GuitarFoundry.com, and these skills will give you an edge over your competition when applying or auditioning for music school – not to mention an increase in confidence.
Arpeggios are the same as chords, but they’re played one note at a time. They help you unlock the potential of chords as a resource for soloing, and it’s important to be able to build and play them all over the neck – not just the standard major and minors, but 7th arpeggios and all of the extended harmony arpeggios.
Sight Reading and Rhythm Reading
What’s the best way to get a guitar player to turn down? Put sheet music in front of him! It’s a joke – but it’s completely true. Reading music (and especially rhythm) is one of the biggest blind spots for most guitar players, and it will be a major handicap for you if you’re thinking about continuing your education at the college level. So why hide out from your fear? Tackle it head on! In my lessons, a big focus at first is on rhythm reading. I find that it’s the rhythm (not the melodic stuff) that really intimidates everyone – it can look like a foreign language, with all those beams and squiggles and dots. But it’s really not that bad when you have the proper guidance. After that, reading the pitches on the music staff isn’t that hard at all – it just takes some practice. Being a strong reader is incredibly impressive to those for whom you hope to be auditioning at the college level, so it pays off to spend the time getting good at it.
Technical Ability and Speed
Believe it or not, when it comes to getting into a music college for guitar, your raw technical ability and speed aren’t as important as some of the other areas that we’ve mentioned. You don’t have to be a shred master – but why not go for it anyway! It can’t hurt. Playing fast is a goal for many guitarists, and at GuitarFoundry.com I use custom exercises and drills for speed picking, left hand legato, sweep picking, etc. to help you get there. Increasing your technical skill will add to your confidence and ability to impress at the college level.
As an instructor, I specialize in teaching students who want to go to college for guitar. Because of this, I know that all of the above can be very intimidating – and you might be thinking “How can I learn all this stuff?” If you’ve got a good work ethic, a passion for learning about all aspects of music and the guitar, and a great teacher with experience in all of this, it’s a thoroughly achievable goal. The point is to be as prepared as possible the moment you step through the door of a Berklee, a Duquesne, an ASU, or whatever school you’d like to attend. The more you know going in, the more you’ll continue to excel once you’re there. Hopefully, this short monograph has at least given you a more realistic idea about where you stand in relation to your competition. Remember, they are also looking to fill those limited spaces in the school that you want to get into. If you’re interested in live online guitar lessons with a teacher who can show you all this stuff, check out my instructional site at www.GuitarFoundry.com, and consider signing up for weekly lessons. Also, check out www.BrettMillerMusic.net if you’d like to hear some of my music – to prove to yourself that I’m not just full of hot air! In the meantime, here are some books which are pretty essential to get (and in fact, I require all my college prep students to get them – we use them a lot in the lessons): A Modern Method for Guitar, Books 1-3 by William Leavitt A Guide to Chords, Scales, and Arpeggios by Al DiMeola The Real Book (tons of jazz standards in lead-sheet format)
Good luck with your journey – I hope to be able to help you along the way! Brett Miller Guitarist and Composer New York, 2013