Andrea Carlson remembers what it’s like to be a beginner. For such an accomplished teacher and performer, she became serious about music relatively late.
“I was self-taught on guitar until I was 20,” she says. “I started taking lessons at the American Conservatory of Music in Chicago, and I had to learn all of my technique. I had to learn how to read music at age 20. So I can definitely relate to being a beginner.”
Despite the guitar’s image of being easy to just pick up and play, Carlson says it’s still difficult to play well: “It’s the easiest instrument to get started with, but the hardest to master.”
For young musicians, the difficulty level is even higher because of the instrument’s size and the strength required to play it.
“I’ve had students as young as age 4, but around 7 or 8 is a good starting spot,” she says. “Students need to have the physical strength to press down the strings. It’s a gradual process that we go through step by step.”
As if the large, solid body and six strings that require careful tuning weren’t enough, there’s the fundamental difficulty behind simply creating a sound on the instrument: “It takes two hands to make one note,” she says—one on the frets, and one to pluck the string down by the instrument’s sound hole.
In helping young students get their bearings, Carlson says she aims to provide a supportive, nurturing environment for learning.
“Having someone who’s on their side—your mentor, your fanclub, someone who understands you—is so important,” she says. “I want to be that for my students.”
As an active performer, one who’s steeped in classical technique but performs jazz and other, more modern sounds as a singer and songwriter, Carlson can set a very strong example for her students of the creative and expressive potential of the guitar, even during regular teaching exercises.
“I’ll play three or four notes, or the whole phrase, and have them play it like me,” she says.
As students begin to master the instrument, Carlson will often let them pick out favorite songs and recordings to practice and play during lessons, but she also assigns songs and pieces that she loves, too.
“I want them to feel rewarded by playing something beautiful.”