Ten Tips for the Guitar Teacher

Photo by fictures.Here are a few things I've observed in my years of teaching (and coaching teachers!). If you're new to working with students, you may find some helpful suggestions below. If you're a veteran guitar instructor, you'll have some things to add! Let me know in the comments.

1. Model the behaviors that you want your students to have. If you're a noodler, you'll end up with a roster full of noodlers. If you go straight to the online tabs, that's what your students will do, too. On the other hand, if you display good musical etiquette and resourcefulness, your students will follow suit.

2. Don't be afraid to address technique. A stool is better than a chair. If a student happens to be sitting in a chair, have him sit at the edge of the chair without leaning against the back. Feet should not dangle, so if the guitarist is small you'll need either a low stool or a footrest. Get the left elbow off of the left thigh. The whole point of good technique is to facilitate good playing - in other words, it should make things easier.

3. Don't overdo the theory.
Whenever possible, teach music theory in the context of a song or musical piece. "Hey, this song is in Mixolydian mode and here's the scale you'll be using…" is appropriate and relevant. The all-too-common attitude of "here are all the modes even though you'll never ever have a use for half of them," doesn't help. You want your students to see the forest for the trees and actually make music.

4. Printing and photocopying is not a good use of lesson time.
Aspiring singer-guitarists should print out the lyrics, typed and double-spaced, to the songs they want to play. Fledgling lead players should bring you tab, whether from a book, online, or created by themselves. Ideally, the students will have already begun learning as much of each song as they can and will be coming to you for the finishing touches.

5. Have appropriate repertoire ready to go. Many students, especially younger ones, will not be prepared with lyrics and lead sheets. In some cases, they won't have any idea what to play. It is a good idea to have a stash of "go-to" lead sheets and books to send home with them.

6. Expect online tabs and chords to be wrong.
If you're in the key of F and you're encountering A# chords, that's a clue that the person who posted the tab is not a professional. It's likely that you will find other, more serious mistakes. Make sure you listen to the original recording and make corrections. It's even better if you can explain to your student what you're doing and why.

7. Understand what motivates your student. A ten-year-old Taylor Swift fan will want to strum and sing. The guitar is just the vehicle that delivers the song. She may never be much of a lead player but she may be a songwriter before you know it. On the other hand, if she brings in AC/DC it's probably guitar itself that's attracting her. Riffs and lead patterns are the way to go.

8. Integrate music-reading. If you taught yourself to play guitar at age fifteen, it might be hard to relate to an six-year-old beginner. The fact is, young students need the very structure that teen students often resist. Using a guitar method that teaches note-reading, such as the excellent FJH Young Beginner Guitar Method, is a great way to round out your curriculum and give each student a strong foundation.

9. Finish things. A student might be content to never go further than jamming out while sitting on the end of his bed, but it's still important to complete something. A YouTube video is a great option for a hesitant performer. Playing with others is another great, relatively low-risk way to go from "I take guitar lessons" to "I'm a guitarist."

10. Empower your students. As young guitarists many of us played along with records, figured songs out by ear, created our own tabs, taught ourselves to write songs and formed our own bands. Nudge your students out of the nest and push them to use what they know.

Continuity by proxy

I've been teaching music lessons in the same city for nine years now. That makes me almost as venerable as the little old lady down the street.

If you want continuity for your child's music lessons, the little old lady down the street is the way to go. She's not going to go for her Ph.D or get signed to a major record label. She's not going to go on maternity leave or on tour with her jazz trio. She's also not going to get fired, unless you decide to fire her.

Always changing: This photo was taken in January 2008, before the addition of our bird logo. The baby grand has since been sold and replaced with a Yamaha U-1.Yep, you can pretty much count on the little old lady down the street - which makes her pretty boring, when it comes down to it. Because she's not going anywhere. She's not going to tell you excitedly about her show at Eddie's Attic next Wednesday, or her new record coming out. She won't be sharing a song she wrote and show you the music theory behind it. She's unlikely to be appearing onstage with the Atlanta Opera, and she won't be attending workshops and training sessions with the aim of improving her musicianship and pedagogy.

Eclectic Music exists in its current incarnation because I was getting more referrals than I could handle and decided to share them. The people I brought on board were definitely not little old lady types. I caught a few straight out of grad school ready to work. A few people were already teaching and wanted a way to not have to travel to people's homes to give lessons. A few were sometime teachers, part-time musicians, and full-time servers looking for a way out of the restaurant business. A couple were undergrads seeking part-time employment.

Out of this motley crew, several are still with me after two or three or more years. I work with some amazing people - I even married one of them.

But this one guy...

Nah. I'm not going to tell you the horror stories and perpetuate the stereotype of the flaky musician, however accurate it may be. The only reason to tell you a story or two would be to demonstrate how even my most dedicated, reliable, dependable contractor is as likely to move across the country as a freight-train-hopping hobo.

I've definitely had some illusions shattered over the past few years, such as the idea that I have control over anyone's actions but my own. I don't. I cannot take responsibility for someone else's choices. All I can do is all I can do.

I know I'm doing all right as long as I can keep Tara Chiusano happy. We are so lucky to have her.That doesn't mean I'm not accountable for what happens at my business. But I cannot change someone else's level of commitment, even if I hold them accountable for it. Remember, even though they finally made Don Draper sign a contract at Sterling Cooper  -- ...well, if you don't know how that turned out, add Mad Men Season Three to your Netflix queue. The point is, I can't take anything for granted.

Hence the headline - if you can't have continuity with one teacher, you'll have continuity by proxy - that, we can arrange. If a teacher leaves, I take personal responsibility for finding an appropriate replacement as fast as possible - in some cases that replacement has been me personally. While I can't guarantee that a teacher will be around forever, I can do my best to bring another one into the neighborhood so that our students don't lose momentum. If the teacher has tracked the student's progress in a journal, the thread of continuity should be picked up by the next teacher.

Ultimately, the continuity is the school itself. No one person can make the kind of open-ended commitment that is possible for an organization to make - ultimately, not even the owner. For instance, it's fairly likely I'll go on maternity leave sooner or later (although actually I've always wanted to hop a train).

Even the little old lady down the street up and dies eventually - I know, because her students come to me for lessons. But even if the school fades away after awhile (it happened to My So-Called Life), I hope that whatever we do for your children will have brought them joy and growth. That really is the best I can do.