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The First Moments are the Most Important by Travis Marcum
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Recognized as one of the premier classroom educators for the classical guitar, Travis Marcum has been teaching middle and high school students across Texas since 2005.  As the Education and Outreach Director for the Austin Classical Guitar Society, Travis works with over 900 guitar students in 16 schools across central Texas.  In 2008, he co-authored his first intensive classroom, classical guitar curriculum now published online at  The curriculum is currently being utilized in school districts across twenty US states and four countries.




 I wear many different hats as a guitar educator. Currently, I consult with elementary guitar programs in Austin Texas. I teach a public-school-based guitar class at the middle and high school levels. I also direct the guitar program at Gardner Betts Juvenile Justice Center for students in long-term residential lock down. Add to that I also teach all guitar courses for non-music majors at The University of Texas at Austin Butler School of Music. My students could not be more different in regards to their background, age, and prior experience. Each student comes to my class with unique and powerful expectations for what it means to learn the guitar. Despite these differences, however, one expectation is the same for all - to play the guitar.

For me, the first moments of instruction are the most important. It is the time when I communicate my entire purpose. It is when I establish my expectations for everyone and begin to foster a respectful, productive relationship with my students. In those first moments students make many conscious and unconscious decisions about their ability and motivation that in many ways dictate their own success or struggle.
How do I navigate this sensitive environment full of expectation, emotion, and uncertainty? We play immediately! And every student leaves class able to perform something engaging and fun. In planning my first lesson, I think about all of the things that my students can do, not what they cannot. I disregard all extraneous information that will not help them play the short, memorable, rote piece of music that I have chosen for them. Artistry is our priority and artistry will happen first.
But wait! The students have to learn the basics (proper position, nail care, quarter note, string names, staff lines and spaces, all notes in 1st position, etc.) before we make great music, right? Nothing tells a student that there will be leagues of prerequisite information and mundane tasks to wade through better than an old-fashioned syllabus reading. I know how important this information is for the success and organization of the class, but my argument is that nothing communicates my primary goal better than performing a short piece of music with beautiful tone and expression just moments after we learn to hold the instrument. There will be time to go over calendars, read the syllabus, and set classroom expectations later. 
My general sequence goes as follows:
Clearly set our objective:
Students will perform the melodic part (Gtr 2) of “Spy Tune” with robust tone and crescendo/decrescendo using I finger on string two by rote.
The I walk students through these steps:


  1. Sit in pre-assigned seats with guitar (tuned) and footstool (already set up)
  2. Listen to me introduce myself and our primary mission of artistry, musicianship, and expression…starting NOW!
  4. Get into proper playing position:


   a. Place left leg on footstool
   b. Sit at the front of chair
   c. Lay guitar across left thigh
   d. Relax shoulders
   e. Raise the headstock of the guitar to eye level
   f. Face guitar straight up and down, not angled back
   g. Lay right arm on the edge of the guitar, just in front of elbow
   h. Position right hand just behind the sound hole
   i. Curve and relax right hand fingers, thumb in front of index and middle
   j. Straighten and arch right wrist
   k. Place left hand thumb up-and-down, not sideways, on back of neck
   l. Straighten left wrist, not bowed in or out
   m. Situate left hand so that knuckles are parallel to strings


  1. Place P, I, and M on treble strings 3, 2, and 1
  2. Watch teacher play open B string with I finger moving across string from big knuckle (Teacher demonstrates good tone and bad tone)
  3. Class plays open B string with I finger
  4. Listen to teacher play open B string with “Spy Tune” rhythm saying “Long, long, short”
  5. Class plays open B with I finger in “Spy Tune” rhythm, individuals play by themselves
  6. Listen to teacher play “Spy Tune” with left hand speaking the fret number as he or she plays. “0-0-0, 1-1-1, 2-2-2, 1-1-1, 0-0-0”
  7. Play Spy Tune “theme” making sure left hand fingers are pressing down on the tips with multiple positive reps by individuals
  8. Listen to teacher play “Spy Tune” with written dynamics. “This is what makes the piece sound mysterious or spy-like.”
  9. Play “Spy Tune” with dynamics, teacher play Gtr. 1 and Gtr. 2 together with the class.
  • In later classes, Gtr. 3 will add an exciting bass line for students who are confident with all other parts.


In less than one hour, the students are set up in correct position, executing perfect I stroke, and performing a memorable melody with expression and character. I have used this lesson hundreds of times for students ages 5 to 60 in many different environments, and it is always such a thrill to see how fascinated each student is with their ability to create something noteworthy so quickly. We have set the tone for fast-paced expressive music making from day one, and I have indirectly communicated my expectations for every student to be engaged, committed and on-task in the name of communal artistry.
The first moments of instruction are the most important. The first class communicates volumes to my students, and I want the message to be, "Success!" 


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