Ready to give a first guitar lesson? Or trying to figure out what it takes giving guitar lessons on a regular basis? Here are my 4 principles for successful guitar teaching.
I feel a little funny discussing the question as to how to give a guitar lesson. I’ve been teaching guitar beginners and intermediate players for quite some time now and I would like to think that I have the basics pretty much down. But the truth is, there is always something new I learn as a guitar teacher. When I started to put my Beginners Guitar Course together I realized that preparing a guitar lesson for a virtual student or group of starters requires yet a completely new approach. So far, all my teaching had been done in live 1:1 and group sessions which are obviously very different compared to ‘talking to a camera’.
Teaching A Guitar Lesson – My Four Principles
1. Be Prepared
This may sound trivial, but can’t put enough emphasis on the importance of preparing a guitar lesson with diligence and thoughtfulness. There were a few instances in my ‘career’ as guitar teacher when I was giving a guitar lesson without preparation. Of course, life got in the way and I simply didn’t find the time. I was lucky that at that point I had gained enough experience so I was able to improvise as I was teaching the guitar lesson to my student. But it certainly didn’t feel good to me. Your students deserve that you give them the best of you, just as you expect that they do the best they can do on their part.
The thing is it doesn’t have to take a lot of time to prepare a guitar lesson. And even if you have all your materials ready to go, I still feel that it’s beneficial to spend a few minutes and walk through the guitar lesson in your head before you meet up with your student.
2. Focus On Content And The Objective
When you teach a guitar lesson, make sure there are no distractions. Cell-phones, iPads, laptops, etc. should be put away unless you need these devices for your actual lesson. Make sure that the setting in which you give the guitar lesson is conducive to a productive learning environment. Reduce or eliminate all background noises, make sure the TV is off.
Also, when you’re teaching a guitar lesson, make sure that your student doesn’t inadvertently – well, some may actually try to do it deliberately – sidetrack the lesson. That can very easily happen and it’s only normal that you’ll suddenly find yourself talking about something completely unrelated. But make sure that you re-focus your student and yourself and get back to the content of the lesson. Save the chit-chat, the snacks and drinks for after the lesson.
3. Maintain A Professional Relationship With Your Student
I’m not trying to tell you want you can do and what you can’t do. But if you were engaged to give a guitar lesson, than that should be primary objective in your relationship with your student. This is easier said than done. I have plenty of examples where I found myself being the shrink, life advisor, father-figure and problem-solver instead of the guitar teacher. If you like people, it’s only natural that you develop and interest into their lives. It’s also normal that you want to help them when they reach out to you. However, the brutal truth is, it will impact your ability of giving good guitar lessons.
As I mentioned before, try to keep you guitar lesson teaching job separate from any other element of your relationship with your student.
4. One Easy Win Per Lesson
Nothing is more encouraging than a sense of getting something accomplished. The same is true for someone who you give guitar lessons to. So make sure that whether it’s during giving a first guitar lesson or when you are well underway with your program, you always incorporate some easy wins for your student. Something he will walk away with and feel good about it, such as a little trick or workaround. That will keep him motivated and on track for the challenges that lie ahead.
How To Teach A Guitar Lesson In Different Settings
1. Group Sessions
If you are preparing a guitar lesson for a group of students you obviously have the convenience of putting together the lesson only once while delivering it to a number of folks at the same time. This however requires very careful planning. The biggest hurdle here is that it is very likely that your students have a different skill levels. Here is what most of the time happens inevitably; you start with a group of guitar beginners and they are all at the same level. The first few group guitar lessons go very well. Everybody is enthusiastic and committed to the task. However, about 5 sessions into the course, some folks fall behind because they start skipping practicing or simply realize that learning to play the guitar is harder than they had thought. Also (it practically happens all the time), you will have one or two students who are ‘overcommitted’, they practice like crazy and are eager to learn. Usually, at this stage this has nothing to do with being more or less talented. It’s just a matter of focus and discipline, or the lack of.
You as a guitar teacher will have to accept that you can’t please everybody. So as you prepare your guitar course, make sure that you put enough emphasis on ground rules and set very clear expectations in Lesson 1. Your students need to understand right from the start that they chose to learn in a group setting. This can be a lot of fun and motivating, but it also can go terribly wrong, even if only one individual in the group fails to keep up with the pace. The problem is that most guitar teachers, including myself, have the pathological need to help everybody and want to make sure that no one is left behind. But I had to learn this lesson: it’s just not possible to always give the momentum going and there always will be students who will not make it. Your responsibility is to teach the group, not the individuals. Of course, common sense needs to be applied – naturally, you can take breaks here and there and help a student who didn’t understand something you taught, so that he or she catches back up with the group. However, for your own sake, don’t get off track too often and too much, because otherwise you run the risk of neglecting the other students in your group if you allocate too much attention to one single individual.
2. Individual guitar lessons
This is my preferred choice of teaching. It is by far the most effective and rewarding method for both, the student and the teacher. The huge plus here is obviously that you can adjust the pace of your guitar teaching at any point in time and tailor your content delivery to the needs of your student. I once taught a guy who came over from Nepal; he just got married, spent most of the time alone at home and was looking for something to do. So he picked up the guitar and hired me as teacher. He practiced 8-10 hours a day, every single day. Inevitably, he progressed at an unusual fast pace and soon after he had started, I had to make sure that he didn’t get bored. This, however, is the exception. The fact of the matter is that usually guitar students are very motivated for the first 5-10 lessons, and then things start to gradually slow down. Now, teaching on a 1:1 basis, though, allows you to calibrate and deviate from your baseline. Nobody cares if you are having your 10th session with a student, but you are only delivering the content you had scheduled for Lesson 7.
Also, there are obviously a whole set of standard songs that are appropriate for beginners. But in order to keep a guitar student’s interest and motivation up, try to incorporate their musical preferences. For instance, I would have normally never thought of teaching a Taylor Swift song as part of my Beginners Guitar Course. However, the fact of the matter is that this is a number younger people are eager to learn, because she’s so popular. It was easy enough for me to make a beginner’s version of “Teardrops on my Guitar” which is more appealing to my younger students than teaching them Credence Clearwater Revival songs – likely, they never even heard of the band. So find out about what type of music your guitar student likes to listen to. Spend some time in picking a few songs that are in line with his musical preference and re-arrange – if necessary – so you can teach him how to play those songs. This can go a long way when it comes to keeping the motivation up.
I hate to say this, because I am a fond believer in making sure that a guitar teacher should always come to a lesson fully prepared. But when you give a guitar lesson on a 1:1 basis, it is much easier to improvise. That means even if you come unprepared, you usually can easily put something together on the spot. This, however, does typically not work when you teach a whole group of people, where you should have a rigorous schedule and take all efforts ensuring that you stick to it come hell or high water.
3. Giving a guitar lesson to a virtual guitar student
This was difficult for me and harder than I thought. Because you do get zero feedback, it’s a one way communication. If you make a mistake that goes unnoticed, you will only learn about that after the fact. To give you an example, the camera is not going to tell you: hey, you just said it’s a D-7 chord, but you actually played a D-Major chord. So when you put video lessons together, you need to be extra careful and always triple check after you’re done taping. If you can, show the final result to somebody to get some feedback. Ideally, that’s a person who actually knows the guitar – but that’s not absolutely necessary. Sometimes even an outsider can spot something that just doesn’t make sense or that is unclear.
At a minimum, no matter what type of guitar lesson you’re giving, you should have a general guideline. That doesn’t have to be very elaborate and detailed, but you want to make sure that you have an approach that makes sense. The vast majority of guitar courses follow a modular approach, meaning the lessons build on to each other as your progress along. If you are teaching beginners, make sure that you get to teach them a few songs as early as possible. If you overload your students with chords, playing techniques and theory, they are likely to lose interest rather quickly. Keep them engaged and motivated. Ask them for feedback on your own ‘performance’ as their guitar teacher. Be willing and open to get critiqued. Reflect on the feedback and think about where and how you can improve.
Ultimately, learning how to give a guitar lesson is a process. I still remember how nervous I was giving a first guitar lesson to someone I didn’t know at all. You will get better as you gain experience. You will become more relaxed and confident. So if you are new to the arena of teaching the guitar, don’t worry. Get a solid guideline together for yourself and don’t be afraid to make mistakes. Adjust as you go along and hopefully at some point you will find teaching the guitar just as rewarding as I do.