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.

Five things guitar teachers do that seem helpful but aren't

I've had a lot of transfer students from other teachers over the years, and I see the results of guitar teacher laziness. There are obvious issues, such as poor documentation and poor organization (a bunch of tabs in a dog-eared stack of paper is all you have to show for two years and $2,000). However, there are some things that actually seem like selling points but are really further indications of a lack of a strong teaching foundation. Here are a few:

1) Your teacher stays up all night creating detailed tabs for you - When a guitar teacher creates a custom, detailed tab for you, that benefits your teacher as much or more than it benefits you. There's nothing wrong with having a "reach" song that you're working on, and it's awesome if your teacher creates a custom tab from time to time. That said, you should also be playing easier songs that you have a shot at figuring out on your own. if all you're doing is learning from tabs, you are learning to play songs, but not necessarily learning how to play the guitar.

2) Your teacher never puts down the guitar - Playing together with your teacher can be very beneficial for students at all levels. However, a teacher who never puts down the guitar to let you play alone may be hampering your ability to play independently, especially at the beginner level.

3) Jaw-dropping displays of guitar prowess are a part of every lesson - Your lessons should be about you, not about your teacher. If you feel intimidated or in awe of your teacher, you might not feel comfortable asking questions or showing that you are having trouble with something. It's great to know that you're studying with a person who has some serious chops, but beware of show-offy noodling or demonstration of skills that supposedly "can't be taught."

4) Your teacher lets you learn whatever you want - It's great for a teacher to help you learn songs that you love - that's the whole point. However, your teacher should also challenge you with material that will develop your ear, encourage your ability to read, or help you learn specific technical skills. Also (especially relevant to younger students) your teacher can help broaden your horizons by sharing music that you might enjoy, based on what you're already expressing interest in.

5) Your teacher keeps you in your comfort zone - There are many guitarists who are stuck. They tend to have students who are stuck. If you have been playing for a year or more and still can't play a song all the way through, have never jammed with anyone but your teacher, and don't feel a sense of identity as a guitarist, it's time to re-evaluate. A good teacher will hold you accountable for not only daily practice but actual mastery, and will help you set and reach appropriate goals.

Have you had any of these experiences in learning guitar or any other instrument?

Eight reasons your kid needs a new music teacher

There can be obvious indicators when it's time to find someone new to give lessons to your children: the teacher is late or cancels all the time, takes phone calls in the middle of the lesson, raps your kid's knuckles with a ruler, et cetera. I'd like to discuss some less obvious signs that nonetheless point to the fact that things aren't working out.

Sometimes it's more a matter of taste.1. There is no accountability.
A professional educator should have a book wherein he or she records the lesson's assignments in detail for either the parent or the student (depending on the student's age). Ideally, there should also be a place for the student to log their practice. A teacher who leaves no trace ends up treating each lesson as a discrete meeting with no thread of continuity, which hinders forward progress.

2. The teacher is not using professional materials.
The best teachers have strong relationships with local music stores and are keeping up with the latest books and methods. These teachers understand that costs of $5.95 here or $6.95 there are not unreasonable in the context of the overall investment of music lessons. Furthermore, an experienced teacher has a plan for the student's education that means any individual book will be useful.

An instructor who uses photocopies, outdated method books, or handwritten materials may be thinking small, uncertain of the best direction to take, or reinventing the wheel.

3. The teacher moves straight through each method book, page after page, week after week. This teacher is using a one-size-fits-all approach and is not really present. The student is not gaining independence or skill, since very few students can assimilate new concepts at this rate.

A better teacher will supplement the method books with folk, classical, jazz, and pop repertoire tailored to the student's desires and needs.

4. The teacher asks for a longer lesson. This is a red flag, especially if the request is accompanied by skipping the student from, say, book 1 to book 3 in a given series. Some teachers pinpoint a student as "talented" and then unwittingly set them up to fail by giving them repertoire they are not prepared for, requiring a lesson that's too long for a beginner.

5. The student is not playing rhythms correctly.
It can be tedious and difficult to teach a student to count rhythmic patterns on their own, which is why a lot of teachers don't bother.

6. The student has curled-up pinkies, hunched shoulders, or keeps looking at his or her hands when playing. These are signs of tension that scream, "too much, too fast."

7. The student is not practicing. If you, as a parent, are supporting your child's practice and it's not happening, the teacher is perhaps to blame. A student will practice if he has a practice routine and a clear idea of what he is supposed to do during the designated time. If the piece is too difficult, he will balk.

A pro teacher will spend a lot of time during the lesson teaching the student how to practice. Not every detail will transfer to the student's own practice sessions, but specific guidelines are much more inspiring.

8. There is no recital. Recital preparation is "teaching to the test" but in a very healthy way - it shows that the teacher can help the student set and follow through with longer-term goals. If there's no performance opportunity, there is no bigger picture and it's all too easy to lose momentum.

All of the eight no-nos above are things I've learned in part through the many transfer students I've taken. I've encountered these teaching mistakes so many times that it now takes me only a few moments to diagnose them with a new student.

Some of these things can be corrected - I've had lots of parents say things like, "He never used to practice but now I don't even have to remind him," or "She doesn't get frustrated the way she used to." However, some students never recover from the lack of momentum created by these failures of instruction, and it's a shame.

In a field where so many adults are intimidated by their lack of knowledge, my goal is to spread the word about the problems I see in a way that is accessible to the layperson. I hope I've done that here.

As a student, teacher, or parent, have you encountered any of these eight reasons to seek a new music teacher? Or others?

Those who can't do...

Two things kind of stink about teaching music: The first is that when a student fails, it's all my fault, but when a student succeeds, it's because of talent. Bummer.

The second thing that stinks about teaching music is the topic of this post: Spending time helping other people develop their musicianship means I'm not spending my time developing my own. What is the relationship between these two activities?

There are six-year-olds playing way harder stuff on their YouTube channels.


It takes time and focus to get good at something

Gladwell, in Outliers, talks about how research suggests that a person needs ten thousand hours of practice at a skill in order to get good at it. I can tell you that I've easily put 10,000 hours and then some into teaching music lessons. I've probably amassed another 10,000 hours or so on music in general, but since I spent that time listening, singing, songwriting, recording, and playing a few different instruments, I do not have any serious musical chops. Yeah, I can play, but I'm no Jimi Hendrix (or Keith Jarrett, or Bob Dylan, or Paul McCartney, or George Martin for that matter).

The past few years have been particularly painful in this regard, because I'm spending most of my time being the administrator of a school. But to use that as an excuse for not going anywhere as a musician would just be rationalization, so I'm working on a couple goals: playing more music and refining and sharing my teaching methods.


Doing two things is not focus, in case you were wondering

Ugh! Why can't I just have one goal instead of two? That is how you become successful, right? Well, I really do feel like I have to have both in my life. My teaching is at its best when I'm actively pursuing my musicianship (playing in a band, writing songs, performing, etc.) and my playing...well, without the teaching, my playing would really suffer because I'd have to sell my guitar to pay my mortgage. Teaching has always been the foundation of how I make my living; however accidentally I may have landed in this profession, it seems to be what I'm good at.

So if I've been spending a disproportionate amount of time teaching and not playing, at least I've really learned how to do it well. Meanwhile, those of my peers who spent the past decade in grad school and then practicing six hours a day? They are excellent players, and they are not automatically good teachers as a result. In fact, some of the best instrumentalists I've known are also the worst teachers I've known. This is not a coincidence, the same way that it is not a coincidence that I cannot play Fantaisie-Impromptu: There is only so much time in the day. Corollary: We focus on what we're already pretty good at.


Those who can't teach, do

So that old saw, "Those who can't do, teach," has some validity. But! I take issue with its implication that a) teaching is easy; or that b) I have to be able to play like Glenn Gould in order to be qualified to guide a student through their first several years of study on the piano.

I had lunch with Katie Baughman today, and we talked about how our colleague, Jennifer Christie, is such a gifted piano teacher precisely because piano is not her first instrument! This unique perspective gives Jennifer an insight into the mind of the beginner (and people stay beginners for a long time, so this is very important). Also, Jennifer has made the choice to invest in learning how to teach well, since she can't rely on dazzling her prospective students with virtuosic abililties on the piano.

It's funny: every so often, a parent wants the teacher to audition. I absolutely believe that regardless of the specific repertoire a teacher has mastered, he or she should have excellent technique and artistry. But in listening to your teacher play, you might miss the point, which is that being able to play Fantaisie-Impromptu does not mean you have the tools to teach someone else how to do it. Really, they are separate professions.


George Martin was a rock star, too

The performer gets the glory - his work is breathtaking, memorable, inspiring. And great teaching exhibits the same level of elegance, grace, and ease that great playing does. It's less flashy, but just as vital. That student who gets props for his talent? I'll let him take the credit. But I'll also take the warm fuzzy feeling.

What do you think? Is teaching the ugly stepsister of music? Do I sound defensive?