Thursday, March 10, 2011

Teaching - some tips on where to begin

Copyright All rights reserved by kawwsu29
Teaching is a lot of fun and can be a great job - but to do it well it is a lot of work. Just because a person is a good guitar player does not mean he or she can teach. There is a great number of unschooled, mediocre guitar teachers out there. You need to take steps to ensure you don't become one of them. First I should say: Teaching is VERY important job so if you dont have time to commit to it fully - then DON'T. For this discussion let's assume you do.

How much do I charge?
I am not up to date with current rates as I haven't done it full-time in a few years. These days, the people I teach are friends or friends kids. My suggestion is make some calls to local schools and find out what they are charging. I would say NO LESS that $20/half hour.

What about payment policies?
You should request the full month in advance (at the beginning of each month) and be firm that any last minute cancellations are billable (2 days notice OR doctors note). People will cancel on you at the last minute and you are stuck with nothing to do for that half hour. Which isn't really enough time to get into anything or go anywhere. Be firm on this and explain well up front so they all know the policy. If you are firm and professional with this people will respect your time better. If you get all loosey-goosey they will respond in kind. You can and will be left with those, above mentioned, pockets of empty time. OK once in a while, but can become a major drag if it happens often enough. If you want to make an exception, do it ONCE, but make sure you say "I'll let it slide this time but the policy is... next time you will be billed"

As far as the lesson itself:
  • BE ORGANIZED!! Form a plan of what you are going to do with students. Spend a weekend or two and chart out some courses of instruction. Figure out a bunch of beginners songs, exercises, reading and theory material. Then do the same for the intermediate and advanced levels. Students like when teachers are organized and have a plan they are working through. Go through all the basic chord shapes and rank them in terms of difficulty (F & Barre chords are the hardest for beginners). Present them and everything in an order.
  • First lesson - interview the student and listen to what their goals and dreams are. If they want to go to school for it or play professionally then more formal reading and theory heavy approaches are required. If all they want to do is have fun and bang out some songs follow that road. Be flexible, always considering their goals - even when THEY aren't.
  • Make part of the lesson teaching them ear training or how to lift a song on their own. (I did a blog entry on this with a list of songs may be helpful Six String Obsession: How to learn to play by ear - The Great Secret revealed!)
  • Keep a journal and take notes at the end of the lesson as to where you left off with the student. So as he comes back the next week you can pick up right where you left off. You can also chart progress for them - very handy for when they reach a plateau and feel down that they are not progressing as they had hoped.
  • Don't force note reading or theory on anyone who you aren't sure is in love with the instrument. Nurture the love FIRST and everything else will organically fall into place. Many bad teachers drive kids away from playing because they think they are doing the right thing by forcing them to learn to read etc. DON'T do this! Listen to the student and regularly ask them if they are enjoying the lesson. Or what could be done to make it more fun. It's amazing, but people don't offer this info up. You have to drag it out of them. Make sure you do.
  • Communicate EVERYTHING with the parents and explain what you are doing with their kid. Especially if you are NOT teaching them reading and text book stuff. Some parents get very uptight that "all the kid is learning is songs and stuff" - make sure they understand what you are doing, more importantly - why.
  • Use your creativity to come up with exercises to address specific problems. If they are having trouble moving their little finger - design a drill that has them using it a lot. OR better yet think of a song that requires a lot of little finger use. I always had better results when drills were hiding in songs a student liked.
  • As they advance and the hooks are in - begin introducing more theory and reading to the lesson. It is very important to their overall development as a musician but make sure their mind is open and ready to 'work' otherwise you may lose them. 

Most important make it FUN FUN FUN!! Keep it light and try to inspire them with great videos, expose them to good players, show them exciting pedals and stuff that excites you. Go to a concert with them. Support and help them to form a band - explaining the vast importance of this step. Make them a part of the guitar culture in general as quickly as you can. All this stuff can be as enticing as the pursuit itself.

Without great teachers great music's future is in jeopardy. We are the guardians of this trust and it is our responsibility to share and grow the community for the betterment of us all. Don't be a good teacher, be much better than that.

P.S. > I would like to add a valuable tip that came from a discussion about this post with Mr. Ken Rosser - instructor at G.I.T. in California. What Ken likes to do, is to just chart everything for the students in standard notation. Don't discuss it, just write everything down this way. I think this is a tremendous piece of advice. It presents it to the student in a "just the way musicians communicate" way, without making the student commit to some formal, perhaps intimidating learning. Great idea and thanks Ken!

P.S.S > Here are further words of wisdom from the masterful Jon Finn. Instructor at the prestigious Berklee Institue in Boston. Author of the books:

Advanced Modern Rock Guitar Improvisation
Blues/Rock Improv
Foundations of Rock: Guitar Riffs in the Style of the '60s & '70s
One Guitar, Many Styles

"I've been teaching for a really long time (25+ years!). Here are a few nuggets of wisdom I learned along the way:

  • If you convey to your students how much you love to play guitar, they will pick up on that. It might be the single most important thing you can teach them.
  • There's a saying: "When a man makes plans, the Universe laughs." Make your plans, stay organized, but be flexible too.
  • Never work harder than your student. If you do, no-one benefits.
  • Focus on what they CAN do, not what they can't.
  • Remember that your student is a different case than you.
  • Your student will "get it" when they're ready. No matter what you do, you cannot speed that up.
  • Your best students will learn despite your best efforts to sabotage them.
  • Your worst students won't learn despite your best efforts to advance their knowledge.
  • The more you learn about yourself, the less likely you'll be "taken in" by your student's issues.
  • Start on time, end on time, be sure to get paid.
  • Really, guitar teachers are therapists who subscribe to the "strum" method."


  1. Good article. I'm way too lax with payment and scheduling, and have been canceled on last minute way too much as a consequence.

  2. Jeremy, I liked the article a lot. As a teacher, I'm a big fan of establishing goals, workflow and charting progress. I spend a fair amount of time creating material for use in teaching.

    Another teacher at Berklee gave me a great piece of advice: "Never work harder than the student".
    When teaching (especially if you're trying to be good at it), it's hard to tell when you've crossed that invisible line between "helping your student" and "doing for them what they should be doing for themselves."

    I've learned that the best students tend to be the ones who work the hardest.

  3. You and I share the same philosophy, Jeremy--Set the hook first! Thanks for the ideas.

    And thanks for your props in that article you wrote earlier this year about my strum pattern page, too.


  4. Rob - Thanks and no problem! Your site is deserving for sure. Thanks for the read and stay well brother