michelson classical guitar studio

michelson classical guitar studio header image 3


Guitar Review No 61 Spring 1985

Sharps and Flats

While we know of no statistical survey that has been made, there seems to be a consensus which indicates that guitarists generally begin the study of their instruments later than violinists, pianists or other instrumentalists. Perhaps this accounts for some of the problems, physical and psychological, which often plague the adults professional guitarist. Be that as it may, we are now beginning to see the application of methods of guitar instruction specifically designed for the young child. These are planned and carried out by teachers who have a knowledge of child psychology and the ways in which youngsters learn. They make the guitar fun, so that even if the children do not become professional musicians, they will, nevertheless, be left with a love for and an appreciation of the instrument and those who play it. As adults they will provide the support necessary for the guitar.

The need for such specially qualified and dedicated teachers is enormous and the problem is just beginning to be addressed. In this issue, we are privileged to introduce Sonia Michelson, a great teacher who has made guitar playing an exciting game for the child, while managing to build an appreciation for music at the same time. Her methods deserve study and emulation by all who are interested in teaching the young.
Teaching Children Guitar

Neil Mermelstein

Stuart Enters Sonia Michelson’s guitar studio, takes his guitar out of its case and gets ready for his weekly lesson. The guitar is almost as big as he is—Stuart is three years old. He has been studying classical guitar with Sonia Michelson for two months. He already knows the rudiments of guitar performance: preparation, playing rest strokes, alternating right hand fingers, as well as some music theory. Perhaps best of all, he enjoys his lessons and looks forward to them. He is typical of Michelson’s students in this respect.

Sonia Michelson specializes in teaching music and classical guitar to young children, using a method she developed and refined over a four-year period. Her approach is to stimulate each child’s musical imagination and ability through special guitar techniques, rhythm games, listening games and theory games and also through participation in workshops and recitals. Inspired by the writings of Zoltan Kodaly, she uses a holistic approach to early childhood education. Her method focuses on learning in small steps, introducing only one new musical concept or technique at a time.

When the child has mastered one step, he or she goes on to the next, the rate of progression depending upon the child’s ability. “Children enjoy making music from the very first piece,” Michelson says. “They develop a round tone and a solid technique, acquire basic music fundamentals and have the pleasure of singing and playing authentic folk songs as well as good composed music.”

Sonia Michelson is director of the Michelson Classic Guitar Studio in Los Angeles. She has published articles and has presented papers on teaching guitar to children in symposia sponsored by the Music Educators National Conference, The Guitar Foundation of America and the American String Teachers Association(ASTA). She also gave a lecture/demonstration: “A Teacher’s Workshop: Teaching Guitar to Children—New Approaches,” which was held at the University of Minnesota’s MacPhail Center for the Arts. She has served as a special consultant for the ASTA Guitar Division’s Selective Guitar Lists Committee and Pre-College Curriculum Committee.

When Michelson first became interested in teaching guitar, she found no methods for teaching children. It was then that she began developing her own method. “I wanted to solve,” she says, “what to me was a great mystery —how to teach young children to play classical guitar. I read books by Suzuki and Kodaly, studied music fundamentals with a Kodaly teacher and attended workshops and seminars on violin and piano pedagogy. I was impressed by the wealth of materials, methods and highly qualified teachers available for teaching children other instruments such as piano and violin.”

She noted that below the college level there was little material for the guitarist and few people who knew how to teach properly. “We need better trained teachers who know how to teach the young guitarists,” she says.

“In addition to the standard fare of Sor, Carcassi and Giuliani, we need more easy pieces. With a greater number of younger guitarists who are musically well educated we will later have a greater number of better musicians entering at the college level. The musical community-at-large will benefit as well: The same young people who studied music and guitar at a tender and impressionable age will, as adults, provide the much-needed audience that concert artists seek.”

For these reasons Sonia Michelson decided to broaden the base of guitar pedagogy. She began by publishing two books, “Easy Classic Guitar Solos for Children” and “Classical Guitar Study: A Guide for Teachers and Parents.” She went on to develop her method for teaching guitar to young children, which is described in her recent publication, “New Dimensions in Classical Guitar for Children.” the book is divided into three main sections: the first consists of sample lesson plans that give explicit suggestions for teaching the early formative lessons; the second gives thirty-two imaginative games, exercises and teaching ideas; and the third consists of fifty-eight pieces of music, ranging from simplified arrangements of folk songs to Mozart’s “Minuet in E” and Bach’s “Minuet in G.” Each piece features the simple melodic line and words as well as chord symbols for the teacher to use to accompany the student with a simple bass chord or arpeggio pattern. Appropriate activities such as a useful game or an explanation of technique are suggested and Ms. Michelson indicates the musical or technical importance of the pieces or further defines the focus of the lesson.

The course of study is divided into five levels. In the first, the key of G and 2/4 meter are used extensively. D (so, using a movable do system) is the first note to be introduced; it is played with the third finger of the left hand from the start in order to strengthen that finger. Next comes B(mi) on the second open string to give the minor third so-mi. Later E(la) and G (do) are included to create the triad so mi do. A (re) is introduced in Level 2, completing the pentaton do re mi so la. Not until Level 3 is C(fa)introduced. The method uses Kodaly’s system of intervals, progressing from the minor third to the full pentaton.

Using the movable do system, Michelson introduces in the fourth level the minor key and a more extended melodic line are brought into it. This is followed by further advanced pieces with dotted rhythms and syncopations in the fifth.

A star is placed on the third fret to indicate
the position for the third lefthand fingure.
No matter how old or what their prior experience, Michelson starts all students (aged three to ten) at the beginning and proceeds sequentially through to Level 5. Younger children usually take one to four months to play the first piece alone. Older children take less time. The material covered from beginning to end can be mastered in two to three years. Initially the method relies on “rote” learning. Only when aural and digital skills have been firmly established —usually after Level 3—is the child introduced to reading.

To make the lessons enjoyable, Sonia Michelson includes musical games and other activities as an integral part of each lesson. “Games are tremendously important to children,” she says “They make learning enjoyable and exciting.” These activities are repeated during the early lessons until the children have mastered them. This builds a foundation for learning later lessons when there are fewer games and activities. By that time, the child has become more musical and has developed greater technical ease and the emphasis shifts more to the music itself.

Games not only maintain the child’s attention but also teach the child music fundamentals. The Ball Game reinforces the feeling of pulse. In this game the teacher and student roll a ball back and forth to an even rhythm while they sing a song. The Hand-Clap Game lets the child alternate between slapping his knees and clapping his hands as he sings a song. This also helps the child feel the pulse of the music. One variation of this game is to have the child clap out the pulse while the teacher claps the rhythm. Games that teach eurythmics–walking, marching, clapping, tapping to a rhythm–develop a strong feeling for pulse and keep the child’s interest high.

Michelson also uses special cards to teach rhythm. Quarter notes are shown as vertical lines and eighth notes as two vertical lines joined at the top by a horizontal line. On each card a different rhythm is spelled out in stem writing. As the teacher pulls out one of these cards, each child claps the rhythm and sings “ta” for the quarter notes, and “ti ti” for the eighths. The half note, pronounced “ta ah” is also introduced this way.

The Rhythm Sticks Games is an extension of this activity. Instead of cards, colored sticks are used to spell out the rhythms. With the sticks the teacher forms a rhythm pattern which the child claps and sings. Then the child can create whatever rhythm he wants with the sticks, clap it and sing it. Michelson explains, “this game gives the children the opportunity to be creative in their own patterns.”

Michelson stresses listening carefully to sounds, “Ear training is extremely important and will enable the child to create a beautiful singing tone on the guitar,” she says. The melodic hand signals developed by John Curwen in 1870 are used to indicate the movement of these sound intervals within a melody. This helps the children visualize the high-low relationship among the notes as they are sung. “Using the hand signals while singing the songs is important for the child’s musical development,” Michelson says. “When you sing, you listen more intently to your own sound and hear more correctly.”

In addition, there are games to train the ear. For example, the Listening Game teaches the child to distinguish between high and low sounds. the teacher plays a pattern of so and mi (D and B in the Key of G), and the child sings the same pattern back, using the words “high” and “low” In the Radio Game the child sings a song aloud until the teacher signals by a change in the angle of her hand that the radio is off.

The child continues to sing the song in his head in correct rhythm until the teacher signals that the radio is on again, at which time the child continues aloud.. In the Riddle Game the teacher holds her left hand up, with the back of her hand facing the child and tell him/her that the thumb is called do and the fingers in order are re mi so and la (the pentaton). She then says, “I’m going to play a tune on my fingers. You sing it in the silent language–to yourself–and see if you can tell me which song it is.” She then silently plays a tune, such as “Hot Cross Buns,” by pointing to the appropriate fingers with her right-hand index finger.

In the Leave It Out Game the student and the teacher play a song together but leave out a predetermined note, as they continue to play the piece in correct rhythm. In Follow the Leader, the teacher begins playing a piece and stops at an arbitrary point. The student must pick up at that point and continue playing the piece without a break in the rhythm. When the student stops, it’s the teacher’s turn. “The student must concentrate to be able to follow,” Michelson points out. “The piece has to continue in his mind and left-hand fingers when it is not actually playing.. This also trains the student for ensemble playing.”


Teaching guitar technique is, of course, a very important part of the method. For children under six, Michelson uses a half-sized guitar and a capo as well as a small chair, a regular guitar footstool and a music stand. “Teaching young children guitar is somewhat easier now with the availability of half-sized guitars of good quality.” She says. She feels that the teachers should maintain eye-level contact with the student in order to keep his/her attention and to prevent the child from feeling threatened by the teacher’s height. For that reason the teacher sits with the children, whether they are seated in chairs or on the floor. Michelson makes sure that the correct right-hand position is used, with the right arms properly resting on the guitar, the knuckles approximately parallel to the strings and the wrist not collapsed onto the guitar.

“Posture is very important,” she says. “The left leg must be in the proper position on the footstool, the back straight and the chin off the guitar. The children must look like little adults playing the guitar.”

For the game Thumbkin, Michelson starts by teaching the nomenclature she uses for the right hand. She gives each finger a name—i is the Pointer, m is the Middleman and a is the Ringman. This game also teaches hand coordination and flexibility. In this game the teacher sings, “Where is Thumbkin? Where is Thumbkin? Here I am. Here I am.” At the same time the child alternately taps the thumb of each hand with the index finger of the other. Then he repeats tapping the thumb with each of the other fingers in turn and finally with all four fingers together. Michelson points out, “This activity with all four fingers tapping against the thumb requires the same type of motion that will later by useful in playing block chords.” Michelson teaches rest stroke on the open first string, one finger at a time. Next, she gets the student to alternate imim on the open string by calling out, “Pointer, middleman, etc.” The child must play in proper rhythm and produce a full, round tone, using a firm rest stroke. He/She repeats this sequence on each of the first four open strings, then continues using a free stroke on the fifth and sixth strings with the thumb. The more difficult free stroke with the other fingers is not introduced until much later.

The On-Off Game strengthens the third finger of the left hand. When the teacher says, “on” the child places that finger on the second string at the third fret and when the teacher says “off” he/she takes it off. Mastery of this activity and the one which requires the alternation of right-hand fingers prepares the student for the first piece Cuckoo. “A child is thrilled to be able to play a piece,” says Michelson, who records each student from time to time so he/she can listen critically to the performance.

After a child has learned several pieces, Michelson introduces fretted notes by means of the game Walking Up and Down the Frets. She explains that each left-hand finger has its own fret. A child plays im im at each of the first four frets on each string. Correct finger placement is stressed with the tips of the fingers pressing down on the string, without the fingers buckling “An important part of the left-hand technique,” she says, “is to train all the student’s fingers, especially the often-neglected third and fourth fingers.” In fact only these fingers are used in level one. In the second level, Michelson uses the fourth and second fingers for the song Hot Cross Buns, then the third and the second. Later, she teaches use of the first finger. “By progressing in this manner,” she says, “a balanced left hand is acquired from the beginning.”

Michelson generally restricts her lessons to a half hour once a week. Occasionally, however, she schedules two children for overlapping lessons, so that one child has an individual twenty-minute lesson, followed by a joint twenty-minute lesson, which in turn is followed by a twenty-minute individual lesson for the second child. “This overlapping makes the games more enjoyable,” Michelson points out. “It’s a wonderful way of teaching children.”

From the very first, emphasis is placed on performing music for others. Each month Michelson holds a work-shop with three-to six-year-olds and another with seven-to fourteen-year-olds. “Participation in recitals and workshops provides stimulation and growth,” she says. “The child learns to polish and memorize a piece for performance, gains poise in presentation, listens to other children perform well and enjoys being in a musical environment. In addition, younger children love to hear an older child play a piece they will soon perform themselves.”

At these workshops, children perform either alone, accompanied by Michelson or in ensembles. Michelson recently played in a quartet with three of her students (ages six, eight and nine), who have been studying with her for two to three years.

They sight read and are able to count. They understand melodic line, voices, intervals, phrasing and dynamics. Even Michelson herself is amazed at how well they take to playing in an ensemble and how much they enjoy it. Michelson also uses her method, albeit in a much-shortened manner, to teach adult students who give recitals twice a year.

Ms. Michelson recommends rewarding children for their accomplishments, no matter how small they may be. She does not miss a chance to give encouragement with a word of praise or the equivalent of a gold star for a job well done. At the completion of a level, each child is awarded a certificate at the regular workshops and recitals, with peers and parents present. Michelson observes, “This tremendous feeling of achievement that the child experiences at being able to play all the pieces in a particular level creates the inner drive for the child to want to continue learning music and the guitar.”

One of the keys to the success of Michelson’s method is the participation of the parents in the child’s musical education. Their active involvement helps to motivate the child. Parents are encourage to attend each lesson, to take notes and to help the child practice during the week. Parents are also encouraged to listen each day with their children to the pieces that are recorded on cassettes provided to each student. “Listening is crucial to learning,” Michelson says. “As you hear good sound, you become more sensitized to tone, phrasing and dynamics—elements which are the crux, the center hub of music.”

Another key factor in the success of this method is Michelson’s own belief that is necessary to understand and adapt her method to every child’s needs. “Each is a unique individual,” Michelson points out. “Flexibility is therefore an important ingredient of this method.” She adds, “A teacher cannot deal only with music and technique. She must also take the child’s psychological makeup into account. Like adults, children have their ups and downs and idiosyncrasies. Teaching requires sensitivity to the child’s moods and a lot of patience. Nonetheless, the teacher must remain confident and firm with the child.”

Sonia Michelson’s enthusiasm for teaching children is evident by the effort she puts into each lesson and by the effort she has put into developing her method. She frequently gives lecture/demonstrations, using a videotape of some young students performing some of the pieces included in her curriculum. Her enthusiasm is contagious—her method is being used successfully in various schools throughout the United States and in Israel. One teacher in Raleigh, North Carolina, who teaches children ages four to six, wrote to Sonia, “the Michelson method for guitar is in full swing at Ravenscroft School…I am grateful to you for all your ideas and suggestions which I use daily. Thank you for such a thorough coverage of the subject…You have answered a great need.”

Michelson is glad to have done so. She enjoys working with children. “It’s such a joy,” she says, “to see them develop musically.” She adds, “As teachers, it is our privilege to help children become more sensitive and discover the joy and pleasure in music, and in doing so, to enrich their lives.”
Neil Mermelstein is Senior Associate Editor of Food Technology magazine and president of the Chicago Classical Guitar Society. Mr. Mermelstein has written for national magazines and is a past president of the American Society of Business Press Editors