Wednesday, December 18, 2013
Guitar Lessons - Getting and Giving them more effectively
I have had a couple conversations lately that inspired me to write a post about guitar lessons. My background experience with teaching private lessons is quite considerable. I have also been the recipient of lessons over the years so I thought I would reflect on some of what I have learned.
This is a post written by one of the members of a guitar forum I frequent, about what she would like to see from a teacher:
"For lessons, I would hope for some sort of quick progress test with discussion of results, review of goals, intro material to work on for next time, time to work on any particular problem spots I identified, and set performance goal for next lesson with accompanying suggestions for practice. All of course based on my long and short term goals for the instrument."
Frankly, this description of what a teacher 'should do' is very good. Were I a young (or old) teacher reading this, I would write this down and use it as the baseline process for approaching your students. It is also a good statement for what to request of a potential teacher (because a lot don't do much of this). Pretty Utopian sadly.
Understanding the beast
Guitar teachers can be some of the most disorganized teachers in the world. One of the main reasons for this is that self-teaching of the instrument is the most common (and in many cases respected) in its community. Yes, sadly there is that element among guitarists who feel that actually 'learning' is for the non-gifted. Guitar Gods don't take lessons (Ahem Steve Vai)! Guitar is simply most often learned through a series of trial and error.
Players of other instruments didn't learn like this. They learned mostly through centuries old training regimens and well established progressive lessons through the conservatory. Because they learned like this – they one day teach like this. The cycle continues in both worlds.
How did these "self-taught" learn?
Well, I learned by lifting the needle on Black Sabbath's "Paranoid" album and picking out songs like "Iron Man" one note at a time. This is a pain staking, yet pretty common story among us self-taught types. The process of getting to where I am today as a player is a disaster really! Filled with my particular personality quirks and bizarre-o experiences. So whenever a player who learned like I did, has a student look to them and ask "how did you learn to play?" It's kind of hard to answer! Luckily, I am a pretty organized guy with my thoughts and can put my process to words fairly well. But not all are like this. Some think "well it worked for me" and try to force it on their students. Maybe the right call… Maybe not.
"My teacher sucked…"
I dislike this comment - and I hear it a lot. Personally, I think every proficient player has SOMETHING they can teach you. As a student my goal, would be to extract those elements and move on if there is nothing more to be learned from that teacher. I hear people complain all the time about "bad teacher this" and "bad teacher that"! Personally, I think it is all excuses and BS. The student plays a significant role in the process, so if you are unwilling to dig for gold, you will likely never find any. Unless you stumble across it or someone points you to where it is.
As a student your role is equal if not much more than the guy being paid. Sounds unfair I know, but if you truly want to learn you MUST accept your role in this. Because it is massive! Know what you want and ask for it. Make sure week to week the teacher follows the path. Because remember this person has been seeing one student after another all day. Remembering all your personal goals is not always on the top of their mind - even though it should be. The best teachers I have had, keep a journal with notes about each student - what was covered, goals etc and move week to week.
So, how do I get the most from my lesson?
As a student, the fist thing I'd do (if I was unfamiliar with the teacher) is to ask them to simply play something for me. From that performance I would listen for something in it that moved me. What did he/she do well? Perhaps they have great vibrato, or some cool soloing lines etc. Whatever that element is, I would then ask to focus on extracting precisely that. You may still end up moving on after one or two lessons, but that is no reason to not get something from the time and money. You can usually tell within the first 10 minutes if the teachers approach is clicking with you. Chemistry works like that - it's obvious.
All this of course, once I determined if this teacher is or is not able to get me to my pre-defined goals (which frankly EVERY would be student should have). Because those should be Plan A. There are many reasons why a teacher may not be able to move you forward: Poor theoretical knowledge, bad chemistry between you, plain old weak teaching skills. But Plan B isn't always a bad thing! In fact it may show you a direction that may entice you even more! Keep that mind open.. art right? Plan B can be just as viable as Plan A.
As a teacher, the first thing I'd do is to have a discussion and see why the student came to you. Find out what excites them. What are their plans and goals? Write them down. If any of those goals lie beyond your skill set, don't lie about it or be embarrassed. Tell them your limitations so that when you cover these dodgy areas you can work through it together. If they need more, never be afraid or too prod to send them to another teacher you know that is more suited to their needs. Sometimes the best lessons I ever gave were minutes long and involved sending someone to a different teacher. The student/parents and the new teacher appreciated it too!
So what is a good teacher?
A good teacher is one who inspires, challenges, supports, informs and inspires some more. Every student is different, so the teaching approach must be altered to bring out the best in the student and keep them moving towards their goals. Sometimes that approach is rigid: step A, then B, then C, type path. Other times a "Hey! Check out this lick I learned" type lesson, can be exactly what the student needs. Each can be equally effective OR destructive. There are no established paths so a stubborn reliance using on what worked for you or even many others, may be a dis-service to all. Remember, this is art with a boatload of psychology mixed in.
What is a good student?
A good student is one who comes with enthusiasm. One who asks for and provides a direction. One who is vocal about what they like and dislike about a lesson. One who comes prepared and is willing to sometimes follow the teachers lead when he/she gets excited about a new idea they learned (think of it as a field trip). Mostly, one who does what is asked each week as many times teachers need you to do something before they can show you something else. Everyone wants "progressive" until it means that they have to do the work that allows such a progression to happen. MOST of the time lessons plans get derailed in lessons I have given were simply because the student didn't do the homework. You need to prioritize this… or why do it at all.
Just as there is an exception to every rule, there are also people who will disagree with all or parts of this. That's cool too. Remember, these are simply my experiences and feeling on this topic. In giving and receiving lessons there are no set paths. Be prepared for the possibility that you may not in fact respond best to the type of lessons you are asking for. So be prepared for honesty, this is one of the beautiful things about the arts. You give passion and you shall receive in kind. You give a lump of dung and well…. you get the picture! Good luck!