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Hour Lessons for Beginners?

March 16, 2017

There is a well-known on line referral service that covers practically every service under the sun. When it comes to music lessons, these folks unwittingly encourage students in search of piano, guitar, flute etc. teachers to request hour-long lessons. Well, for many teachers, this is great news. They can get double the money from one student! But the beginner student? Well, they are unnecessarily shelling out double the cash.

Most of the inquiries from prospective beginning level students that I receive through this misleading service request 60 minute lessons. To these I have to begin a little speech about how in the world music lessons it is an assumption that a beginner takes half-hour lessons once a week, why this is a good tradition, and that I would recommend half-hour lessons.

A beginning student is not tackling a lot of music. Ideally maybe roughly 5 or 6 short songs, each about two to four lines long that could easily be played in a matter of 5 to 10 minutes per run-through. A half-hour is enough time to instruct a beginning student and send them off with clear instructions for the coming week. If time runs over once in awhile (as it often does with music teachers) to 35 minutes or perhaps 40 minutes due to an increased need for that particular lesson, that does not mean it’s time to go to an hour lesson. If I had to fill an hour lesson week after week with a beginning students, I would have to conceal from them that I’m deliberately filling up dead time with needless words. I would basically have to behave in a dishonest manner.

Go to any music school/teacher and ask to start beginning lessons and they will give you times for half-hour slots. But why not hour slots? More time means more instruction for the student, and more money for the music school, right? Well, of course, while some businesses have high ethical standards, others do not. But at least the latter have enough scruples not to start pushing hour-long lessons on complete beginners. This could only be because they know it’s beyond the pale.

Some students will go on to 45 or 60 minute lessons when they are at an intermediate level, and advanced students should be taking 60 minute lessons, as long as he or she can afford them. For a very small handful of beginning students, an hour lesson is appropriate. I have had some of these. But this can only be determined after giving lessons to the person for a period of time. Recommending hour-long weekly lessons to complete beginners is at best naive, and at worst exploitive.

So beginners, if you see a service steering you towards hour-long lessons, listen to the teacher that says you only need 30 minutes. If they were acting in their own interest they would be taking more of your money. Such advice must mean that they’re looking out for you.

 

 

Say Goodbye to Memory Slips:

How to Memorize Music

February 8, 2017

How many classical guitarists and musicians out there can relate to this experience. It may have been as an adult or as a child, but you’re performing something that you’ve practiced a ton. You’ve played it from memory so many times you could play it in your sleep. Suddenly in the middle of your performance you draw a blank. It may have been precipitated by a mistake, or perhaps not, but you now find yourself stuck and unable to remember a passage that you’ve played a thousand times and never had any trouble with in the past. The music stutters or stops entirely. After a few failed attempts, you choose either to skip the entire section, or, more probably, you go back to the beginning of the section, or worse, back to the beginning of the whole piece, desperately hoping that when you arrive at that passage again your fingers will be able to remember it.

This is the trap that many have fallen into. Children are especially vulnerable to it, but it can happen to accomplished adult players if they’re not careful. It is the complete reliance on muscle memory. Don’t get me wrong. One’s ability to play an instrument (or do practically anything physically) absolutely depends on muscle memory. But playing music from memory relying mostly on muscle memory is risky business as muscle memory is great at home, but gets shaky under pressure.

What exactly is muscle memory? Muscle memory is that part of the brain that records movements. When a movement is repeated enough times, the muscle memory kicks in and takes over. When you can play a piece of music, and your mind can wander while your fingers know exactly where to go just like a driverless car, you’re seeing muscle memory in full action. Many mistakenly accept this as having something memorized.

Playing from memory must be a combination of both muscle memorization and conscious memorization, two very different sections of the brain. Conscious memory is stored in the temporal lobe, muscle memory in the cerebellum. We’ve already talked about how you know if your muscles remember a piece, but how do you know whether or not you have it in your conscious memory? People have varying degrees of aptitude towards this kind of memory. It also depends in part on how well one knows their instrument, whether or not they know music theory, and how aware they are of what is happening musically in the piece. So a thoroughly trained musician will have a stronger conscious memory than a lesser trained amateur, even if the former does not make an intentional effort at conscious memorization. But a person who thoroughly knows the music consciously can see the music and fingers in their head in all it’s details. Without playing it, they can walk through the piece and know what finger is doing what and what note is being played. Honestly, most professional classical musicians do not memorize on this level of detail, but they probably have it visualized on a certain level. But the more they have conscious memory, the more secure they will be when playing under pressure and the better they’ll be at the piece in general. The less they have it, the more vulnerable they are to memory slips, big or small, and their performance of it, even without any memory slips, will probably fall a tad short of what it could be.

OK, so how do you commit a piece of music to the conscious memory? As mentioned above people do this to varying degrees without deliberately intending to, some people fairly well, others very poorly. Regardless of where one falls in this, the best way is to commit music to conscious memory is to do so with systematic intention. I was trained in the process developed by Aaron Shearer called visualization. This was applied to the guitar, but it could be applied to any instrument, and really any physical activity requiring elaborate muscle coordination. I have observed that dancers and figure skaters do this when they sit still with eyes closed and imagine their entire routine in perfect order and precision. I have developed two preliminary steps to visualization for my students who aren’t ready for the kind of time it takes to do full-blown mental visualization. These techniques are what I call simply “left-hand alone” and “left hand in air.”

Finger Exercises to Strengthen Conscious Memory
Level I: Left hand alone
Muscle memory does not remember individual muscle contractions, but rather a kind of symphony of muscular contractions all coordinated in timing and intensity. It happens something like this: these five muscles work together in various intensities of muscular pulls while a millisecond later two of those muscles increase their contraction. Then another millisecond later three of the muscles are dropped entirely but six new ones are suddenly introduced, and it goes on and on. But take a few muscles out of that collection and the whole thing breaks down. The muscle memory suddenly remembers very little, and one has to recruit another faculty. This is where the “left hand alone” memorization technique enters. Try it yourself. Take a guitar piece that you can play from memory ad nauseum without a hitch. Now let your right hand just hang motionless on the side of the guitar. Remember it must be motionless. Imitating the right hand movements in the air as you go is “cheating.” See if your left hand then can go through the movements on the fretboard in precise rhythm. (If you don’t do the rhythm precisely this exercise will not work.) If you find you go through the piece left hand alone just fine then you have a pretty decent conscious memory of it. But for most people, when taking the right hand out of the picture their left hand becomes very confused. This means one’s memory is heavily dependent on unconscious muscle memory as the muscles have no memory of a left hand moving independently of the right and therefore has considerable difficulty proceeding.

If the left hand alone cannot confidently pace through the notes on the fretboard then the player has to go to work trying to figure out just what the left hand actually does. This can be done either by referring to the music or by playing passages on the usual autopilot and observing what the left hand does. It is an epiphany for players as they may not only have barely realized what their left hand was actually doing but have had only a dim idea of what was taking place in the music. I ask my students a couple of questions here. Did you know D and F appeared after the open E and G (or whatever the passage entails)? With a look of astonishment they admit they didn’t. After they can successfully do left hand alone for a phrase I ask them if they now have better understanding of what is going on in the left hand and the music for that phrase. Their answer is always decisively in the affirmative.

Level II: Left hand in air
This is the same thing as left hand alone, only the student goes through the left hand movements in the air in perfect rhythm rather than on the fretboard. This further removes the muscle memory crutch as it doesn’t remember doing these movements absent the fretboard. Students who get their left hand alone down well will start having a bit of trouble again, though not as much, with this new challenge. But once they can do left hand alone in the air they have a still more certain conscious knowledge.

Level III: Right hand alone
This exercise should be done not only to achieve a greater conscious memory of what the right hand is doing, but it should be employed just as much to practice technical execution. Because of the technical aspect, playing right hand alone is already a common practice among classical guitarists. Since right hand alone is not just for memorizing, it would be wise to use even when one is not intending to memorize. The right hand demands a technical precision that is greater then the left hand, and so should be employed for any work that is challenging to the player.

Visualization: Levels IV, V, VI

Level IV: Reciting left hand fingerings from memory
If someone is intending to visualize , Levels I and II become unnecessary.

I was required by my teacher at Peabody to recite the left hand fingerings for any piece that was being prepared for performance from memory. Here’s how it works. First of all, the intention is that one has everything committed to their conscious memory, so one should be able to recite all the fingerings without any physical cues. While you are trying to figure out what the fingerings are you can have the guitar in hand to play passages when you get stuck, but the goal is to be able to recite the note names free of any muscle memory cues, so the goal is to be able to recite every fingering easily without the guitar in one’s hands and without mimicking the movements of the left hand in the air. If you need the aid of hand movements, you are still relying on muscle memory. If you can recite the fingerings, it means that you can see in your mind what the fingers are doing. In fact, it would be ideal to actually imagine your hand as you recite the note names.

As an example of reciting left hand fingerings, let’s take the opening phrase of the universally familiar easy classical guitar favorite “Romanza.” The opening notes are low E in the bass and B on the first string. If one plays the B with 4, then he or she would say “O4.” These are followed by the open B and G strings, hence the whole ¾ measure would be recited as “O4 O O.” Of course this gets far more complicated when reciting the fingerings for Bach or Ginastera, but the same applies. As much as is possible the fingerings should be recited in rhythm, and for notes that sound simultaneously saying them as close together as possible.

Level V: Reciting note names
This is the same as reciting fingering, only note names replace fingerings. So the opening of Romanza would “EB B G.” Once again, notes that occur simultaneously should be spoken as close together as possible and one should try to articulate the rhythm as much as possible.

Level VI: Reciting right hand fingerings
Just as the above two, only this time reciting a combination of p,i, m, and a. So for the first measure of Romanza one would say “pa, m, i.” You may need the guitar to learn exactly what the fingerings are, but again one does not have conscious memory until it can be recited without the guitar and without finger movements.

Now in all of this, after having something completely memorized, I would personally recommend practicing the piece not only without the music, but regularly with the music in front of you. Why? Because the music on the page heightens one’s awareness of what the piece is doing musically, and one should be making notes, not only about fingerings, but dynamics, rubato and phrasing. Once the music is fully committed to conscious memory, regularly playing with the music before you actually strengthens the memory as the page becomes intertwined with the visualized memory.

These memorization techniques may sound overwhelming and exhausting, but just like any other skill, if you do it enough visualizing becomes almost second nature. It becomes fairly easy to start rattling off the fingerings and notes of a new piece. For myself, I never felt comfortable memorizing something to be performed without being able to recite everything with ease, and it didn’t take a great amount of time to be able to do so. I never suffered a memory slip after doing this, and overall I felt much more secure and confident.

Having Trouble Practicing? Some Solutions

January 17, 2017

 Practicing, as everyone knows, is absolutely necessary to learning a musical instrument. And it can’t just involve practicing once in awhile. It needs to be a consistent pattern in one’s life in order to gain the physical skills necessary for playing.

With my beginning guitar students I recommend 20 to 30 minutes, 5 to 7 days a week. If a student can do 45 minutes, an hour, or two or three hours a day, great! But especially for the beginner, much below the above 20 minutes a day 5 days a week minimum, and the progress is going to either be so slow as to be discouraging, or it is nearly non existent. Students who have trouble progressing lose interest and quit. So my job as a guitar teacher is to spot practicing troubles in a student and recommend solutions.

I am not the type of teacher to lay on much in the way of guilt trips. That whole approach makes me uncomfortable, and I’m doubtful as to its long term effectiveness. I try to have an open discussion with the student free of reproaches. That way the two of us can have an open and honest discussion and arrive at real solutions.

When I can see a student is apparently not making time for practicing over the course of a number of weeks, I first ask them how practicing is going. If they fess up that they’re having trouble, but finding it difficult to tell me how much, then I ask them about how many days a week. If this is done in a condemnatory tone, I’m not going to get an honest answer, and our problem solving process will be limited. Once they come out and say two or three days a week, or one day, or whatever, then we start my standard set of questions, and it goes like this.

Question #1 When you practice, what time of the day do you practice?

This gets to establishing the most realistic practicing routine. If people are having trouble practicing, 9 times out of 10 they will give one of two answers: a) that there is no particular time of day or b) that it is the last thing they do after “everything is done” before going to bed.

a) Having no particular time to practice does not work for most people. People will either think to themselves “Not now, later,” or they will just forget altogether. This is where I ask them when they think is the time of day that would work best for them in terms of likelihood and quality. As soon as you get home from school/work? Right before dinner? Right after dinner? Late at night? Early in the morning? There is no answer that works universally. I let the student identify that time.

b) Waiting until you’re “done with everything else” is going to put learning the guitar on too low of a priority. Besides, for most people, when it’s late they’re feeling either too tired to practice well or to practice at all. This is especially common for children and teenagers. Here is where I deliver my shocking dictum, PRACTICE BEFORE HOMEWORK. This is truly counterintuitive for both children and their parents, because homework is a higher priority then guitar, right? “Right,” I say, “and because homework is a higher priority, this is exactly why you should practice guitar first.” Sound puzzling? Think about it. When it’s 10 or 11 at night and you still haven’t finished your homework, and you’re dog tired, will you finish it anyway? You better believe it. But it if it’s 10 or 11 and you’re exhausted, are you going to practice? I seriously doubt it. So if it’s homework before practicing, you might practice. But if it’s practice before homework, you’ll get both done.

In addition, practicing is a change from school where homework is more of the same. So practicing serves as a needed break from the day’s work which makes doing homework afterward more productive. This solution I have found to be very effective over the years.

Question #2 There are actually two parts to this question. Where do you keep your guitar? And where do you practice?

When I ask this question I get a variety of answers. From person to person, the guitar can be kept in any room in the house, bedroom, living room, dining room, den, closet, no particular place, you name it. When I ask where they practice, the same as above minus the closet. The worst answer I ever heard was for two brothers ages 5 and 6 who were having trouble practicing. The answer was: guitars kept in their cases, under their beds along with their music stand. The little guys were then supposed to carry all of that down, sometimes with mom’s help, to the living room to practice, then carry them back upstairs when they’re done. My response when I heard this? “Ain’t gonna happen.”

Two big obstacles to practicing can be inaccessibility and “out of sight, out of mind.” Picking up the guitar to practice should be as easy as a possible. Likewise, if possible, the guitar should be in a very visible place. I ask the student if they have any pets that could knock over a guitar, or toddlers who could do the same. If they do not, I recommend keeping the guitar out of the case and on a guitar stand. This helps with overcoming both obstacles as it is extremely easy to pick up the guitar, and it is easily seen and so acts as a reminder. But what if they then move to another room to practice. Not a good idea. The guitar should ideally be resting right next the place where one practices. (This assumes that the place is conducive to practicing: minimal distractions, a good chair with a music stand and music readily available.) This set up can actually “tempt” the person to start picking up the guitar outside of their usual practice schedule because it is so visible and accessible. This kind of temptation is the good kind. Getting guitars out of closets, moving it from one part of the house to another, having no particular place for it, all of these things make it less likely that one will practice. Making it easily seen, easily accessible, and a short and easy path to the practicing location make practicing far more likely.

Now if you don’t have any trouble with practicing even though you fish it out from underneath your desk and traipse down the steps, ignore all of these suggestions. But if you are having trouble, get creative and make the ideal storage and practice locations. It could be the key to your success.

 

 

Persistence Pays Off

December 31, 2016

It happens sometimes that one of my guitar students feels embarrassed as they perceive that they are lacking in talent, and therefore I, the teacher, must be feeling either bored, annoyed, or thinking horrible thoughts like “Man, this person is hopeless.” Nothing could be further from the truth. If the student voices any such feelings, I say, “All I need from a student is desire and practice.” While it is a pleasure to have a student who exhibits musical talent, I would much rather work with a student who has little or no talent but wants to improve and practices regularly than to have a gifted student, even highly gifted, who does little practicing. Why? Because practicing (or more specifically, good practicing) means progress, and progress in the student is the fulfillment of my job’s reason for existence. It is personally satisfying to me for a student to have a desire to play and to reach their desired goal.

The tortoise and the hare is a universally familiar Aesop fable that doesn’t need repeating, but I’ve seen it in real life many times. One shining example that comes to mind is a student I had whom we’ll call Tim. Tim started lessons with me when he was in 4th or 5th grade. He specifically wanted to learn classical guitar and had already taken some lessons a little before. Tim’s hands were awkward, plain and simple. As the months went on it became increasingly clear that communication between his mental commands and his fingers was a stilted one. The movements necessary for establishing a classical guitar technique just weren’t happening. Now I would say about 20% of students just do not possess the natural coordination necessary for achieving proper classical guitar technique. Proper technique isn’t in the cards for them. Nevertheless, I work with them in getting their technique as close to correct as we can, and we work within the bounds of what they can do. But Tim was an exception. After about a year I told his parents that classical was just too difficult for him and recommended he switch to basic guitar. They and he readily agreed and this made things easier, but still his hands remained uncoordinated. Each song was a bit of a mess to untangle. I remember on one occasion telling Tim to lift a certain finger. There was no response. I asked him again, thinking he didn’t understand my request. No response. I asked a third time but more insistently, wondering why he he seemed to be ignoring my directive. As his finger sat still, he looked at me with the beginnings of a tear in one of his eyes and said with painful honesty “I can’t.”

But here’s the thing about Tim. His was a personality that had no highs and no lows. Steadiness was in his genes. He practiced the guitar faithfully every day– not a ton, but it was a daily effort, one that doesn’t seem to phase the phlegmatic temperament. After about three years I started to notice improvement. His hands were looking a bit more coordinated. He was able to play songs and they actually sounded decent. Then after four or five years his hands were set. They moved quickly and with skill. Had I never worked with him before that point, I never would have guessed that he had any significant issues in the coordination department. He was actually turning into a decent young guitarist!

Persistence pays off.

 

The Case for Apprenticeships in Teaching a Musical Instrument

December 21, 2016

For centuries the idea of training for a profession has been assumed, whether that training is in the form of a school or university, or an apprenticeship in a skilled craftsmen’s shop, or an internship for a doctor. So why not teaching a musical instrument? While many musicians have a degree or degrees in performance on their instrument before embarking on teaching, is such a degree sufficient for understanding how to teach? Or what about music education majors? They’re trained to “teach music,” right? Shouldn’t that be enough to know how to teach an instrument? With the exception of probably a small number of music education programs, and maybe, just maybe a couple of performance programs somewhere out there, the answer is a resounding no.

Why a Music Degree Isn’t Enough to Prepare One to Teach

I believe I was blessed to receive one of the best trainings possible in my instrument during my college years as a classical guitar performance major. The training helped me to become a far better teacher of guitar than I could have without it, but my studies did little to teach me how to teach. During my bachelor’s we were required to take one semester of guitar pedagogy, which was a very good class. But it was in no way sufficient for the task of sitting across from a child or adult and explaining to them how to play the guitar. I was left to figure it out largely on my own over the years. I had good principles to impart, but it took me years to properly unpack these in order to effectively teach them.

Many music schools require a music degree to be hired. This is a good start. The graduate knows his or her instrument. They’ve presumably learned to play it well. But let’s consider what conservatory/college level performance training involves. It involves (hopefully, at least) great detail in how to play one’s instrument. It also involves music theory, ear training, music history, and some form of piano studies. These are all important in order to teach well, but they do little teach one how to teach. After learning how to play the Bach Fourth Lute Suite, how is one supposed to teach someone who has no idea how to even play “Hot Cross Buns.” These two individuals are worlds apart. The teacher may know how to play the Bach 4th Lute Suite very well, but he or she doesn’t know how they do it. Does that sound like a contradiction? It isn’t.

Any accomplished musician has gone through a process that involves a heavy amount of muscle memory. As they practice for hours day after day, year after year, the part of the brain that remembers muscle position and movement becomes very highly tuned. The memory has direct communication with the body and fingers, such that the conscious part of the mind can deal with other matters. (This is why when you know a piece very well your mind can wander onto entirely different things like what’s for dinner tonight, or what’s the capital of Wyoming, and your fingers will continue playing the piece note for note in perfect time.) The movements involved with playing become assumed and the player sees a note on the page, hears one in their head, or remembers a passage and plays without a thought as to the physical processes involved in producing that event. It’s like tying one’s shoe. We don’t know how we do it, we just do it. Ask anyone to explain how they tie their shoes without having a shoe to tie or without mimicking the movements in the air. The vast majority won’t be able to see it in their head let along explain it to others. Yes, we know how to tie our shoes, but we don’t know how we do it.

But when we first learned how to tie our shoe, it was a very deliberate, awkward, and difficult process. (The parent who taught us had to tie their own shoes a couple of time to “observe” what their fingers did.) After a number of slow and failed attempts, we eventually found consistent success, albeit still with a slow and very conscious effort. The muscle memory was watching the whole time. The more we did it, the more it remembered until it knew it so well, it took over. The fingers could then do it without a conscious thought beyond “OK, need to tie my shoes.”

But playing a musical instrument is thousands of times more complex than tying one’s shoes and took thousands upon thousands of hours more to learn. So, likewise, it is eons more complicated to teach. So we have all these musicians who know how to play their instruments, perhaps extremely well, but don’t know how they do it. For many they don’t even remember what their teacher told them when they were first learning how to play because they were young at the time. How can they teach others to play if they don’t know how they play or what the process was through which they learned.

And this opens another can of worms. How do we know that the good musician necessarily received good training? As stated in my previous blogs, just because somebody plays well doesn’t mean they were trained well. They may have overcome the handicap of sub par training through sheer talent and effort. They would be better musicians today had they gotten better training to be sure, but they have achieved proficiency nonetheless. If they do remember how they learned, they’ll pass on the flawed information they were handed.

The Other Side of the Problem

Now the other side of the problem: the people who hire the teachers.

My first guitar teaching job was in a suburb not far from San Francisco. I was 22 and had just finished my four years at Peabody. At Peabody I did a voice minor. It involved four semesters of private voice lessons. Because of this the music store owners said, “Oh, you can teach beginning voice then.” Hmm, I had never thought of that. I was pleased. I was primarily self-taught on the piano, but had taken a piano class for a year and private piano lessons for a year as was required, so they said “Oh, you can teach beginning piano too.” And then they said, “If you can teach piano, then you can also teach organ!” You see the logic, right? Being completely naïve, and in need of as many students I could get for much needed income, I readily believed them and became guitar/voice/piano/organ teacher at my very first teaching job, without a smidgen of experience teaching the guitar let alone anything else.

In addition to my guitar students, I had a few piano and voice students and one organ student. Eventually I was hit by a sobering experience. The organ student I remember was a shy 13 year-old girl who was taking beginning level. I used to sit to the side and would only demonstrate with one hand or both hands as I had never tried to coordinate my hands and feet on an organ before. She was a little sharper to the situation than I realized. On one occasion while I was asking her to play something that she was having trouble with she spoke with a confidence that I hadn’t heard in her before when she said simply, “You play it.” I was a little startled. After hesitating and probably mumbling something, she repeated “You play it,” this time even including a gesture towards the organ. So I sat at the organ hoping for the best. Though it was very beginning level, I couldn’t play it. I then had to confess that I couldn’t play the organ. After this humiliating experience I told the owners, no more piano, voice, and certainly no organ! I would only teach guitar. This story is an extreme, but it illustrates one of the reasons for the problem: faster money. Now I’m all in favor of successful business and making a good profit, but sometimes the need to increase profits for the month can get in the way of good music instruction. I believe this pressure contributes to mediocre as well as simply bad teaching.

The irony here is that insuring better teaching will win out in the long run for a more financially successful business. Teachers are generally hired according to the needs of a music school. There are students interested in lessons, and if the school hesitates in hiring, students will be lost to their competitors. So the next teacher who comes down the pike to “catch” these students means a more successful month’s profits. But this kind of mentality makes for a sloppy hiring process. Losing a few potential students to competitors in the interest of guaranteeing hiring better teachers is worth the sacrifice. The building process may be a little slower, but the long term results will be more fruitful. If the teachers are excellent teachers, the school will gradually build local prestige over the years that will make for a successful business enterprise. Higher quality teachers will naturally have higher student retention rates, and will also less likely be fly-by-night teachers (I remember that in my first two and a half years of lessons at a music store/school, I had four teachers). They will stimulate greater word of mouth, a form of advertising that is absolutely free. As the school develops greater prestige, it will attract the area’s more accomplished teachers since they would more likely wish to be associated with it, and an upward dynamic is established. Aggressive, expensive advertising not only becomes less necessary, but the advertising that is spent will have a better return on investment since the consumer already recognizes the product and perceives it to be a good one.

What Would a Music Teaching Apprenticeship Look Like?

The apprenticeship would be instrument specific. Only a teacher who teaches piano would apprentice a new piano teacher. And not all piano teachers would need to go through the apprenticeship. Rather, only less experienced teachers would. The apprenticing teacher would spend a couple of paid hours discussing with the new teacher their process of teaching. Then the new teacher would sit in on piano lessons that the “master” teacher gives. The new teacher would be paid for observing these lessons. I find it ironic that music schools will sometimes go to great lengths training their office staff, but offer zero training to their music teachers. The teachers need the most training. They are performing the task that is the raison d’etre of the business, and they are the ones who will have the bigger impact on the the school’s financial success.

There is another piece to this, and that is hiring. I spoke above about “sloppy” hiring. Hiring new teachers should be done slowly and with deliberation. Now this is going to sound unusual– the teachers themselves should be involved in the hiring process. I am not aware of this happening anywhere. But how am I, a guitarist, qualified to determine whether or not a trumpet teacher is a good trumpet teacher? A good trumpet teacher is more qualified than I am in making that determination. Part of the problem is that people who have little expertise in a specific area are the ones doing the hiring at nearly all music schools. The owners should have an expert in the instrument there by their side helping them to make the decision.

I can hear objections to this approach, but the excellent solutions to the problems one might rightly perceive with this model are not something I can share here. Suffice it to say that teaching an instrument is by itself a skill, and if teachers are trained to teach, they they will be better teachers. If they are better teachers they will make for a more successful music school, and, more importantly, produce better musicians.

The Importance of Having a Good Guitar Teacher

Part III: And How to Assess Your Teacher

August 10, 2016

In Part II I discussed how to go about finding a good teacher. In Part III I will discuss how to assess whether or not to stick with the teacher once you’ve begun lessons.

Positive signs

-The teacher is fully engaged.

-He or she appears determined that you be successful in learning the guitar and/or becoming a better guitarist.

– If you are a beginner, his or her emphasis is on proper technique, i.e., how to hold the guitar, how to position both hands, arms and fingers, and the proper movements of these.

– If you are a beginner, rather than rushing to play songs you happen to like, the teacher emphasizes the basics, or fundamentals, not only of guitar, but of music in general. This should include how to read music and how rhythm works. Songs that you play at the beginning are not based on the criterion of what you want to play, but rather songs that will best function to help you gain basic guitar skills in a step by step fashion. Only after you attain certain basic skills does the teacher begin to select music based in part on what you simply want to play.

-The teacher’s approach appears well thought out, organized and methodical. Skills seem to be introduced in a logical step-by-step fashion.

– The teacher introduces new material, new songs, new skills only after you’ve achieved a certain level of competence on the songs and skills that you have been working on. Only a certain number of skills can be learned at a time, and new skills cannot be properly attained if the preceding skills are not properly learned.

– While the teacher may be challenging, they assign songs and skills that are within your reach, and avoid assigning things that are beyond your skill level.

Negative signs

-The teacher appears either bored or disengaged as if they would rather be doing something else rather than teaching you, or teaching at all.

– The teacher acts as if you’re taking up their time or is even a little rude, even though it is within the time you are paying them for.

– He or she doesn’t seem to care much about your success in learning the guitar.

– If you are at the beginning level, the teacher may be nice but fails to go into detail about technique, that is, positioning of body, hands, and fingers as well as how all of these should move.

-He or she seems to have a haphazard and disorganized approach. Last week it was something, and then the following week there is no follow up with what was discussed the previous week and you’re onto something new.

-The skills taught do not seem to be progressing in a logical step-by step fashion.

– He or she often shows annoyance or impatience though you’ve done your reasonable best to practice.

-If you are a beginner, the teacher immediately starts giving you songs simply based on what you want to play, rather than songs that act as building blocks.

-He or she can’t seem to come up with solutions to the problems you are having.

– He or she spends a lot of lesson time simply playing rather than teaching, as if they’re more interested in showing off.

– Before you’ve learned to play a song or songs well, the teacher drops them and starts assigning new songs.

– He or she assigns songs and/or exercises that are simply impossible for you to do well. They are beyond your level.

– You’ve been taking for a number of months and you’re not seeing progress, but the teacher doesn’t seem to care.

One other thing that needs to be mentioned is the right fit. It is possible that a teacher is a truly good teacher but is not the right fit for you. This could be because they are not competent enough in a certain area of guitar. For instance, you may want to learn classical, but while the teacher plays classical it is not an area that they have committed years of serious study to. Classical is a different beast that demands years of single-minded study as well as good training before one can teach it to others. The same can be said more or less said of jazz. But it may be that someone who is very competent in classical or jazz doesn’t have the competency level enough for another style like say blues.

It could also be that a teacher is one who pushes their students hard. This is a very good trait, but if you are in 30s, 40s or 50s, and learning the guitar is merely a hobby to enjoy amidst your busy schedule, you may want a more relaxed approach. Likewise, if you are young and talented and are thinking about guitar as a possible career, your teacher may be good, but you need someone who will push you harder.

The point is, you have a goal in mind for either yourself or your child and personal monetary resources as well as time are being expended. You should make sure that the teacher is a good one and the right one for you.

The Importance of Having a Good Guitar Teacher

Part II: And How to Find One

July 20, 2016

I discussed in Part I the importance of having a good teacher and common mistakes people make in choosing a teacher. I did not, however, get into how to actually go about finding a teacher, and that is what this section will discuss. Remember there is enormous variation in the abilities of guitar teachers when it comes to their teaching skills, and your success and enjoyment will depend largely on the skill of the instructor.

 

On the minds of many people when searching for lessons is cost. People are used to trying to find bargains, but one needs to keep in mind the old adage “you get what you pay for.” Now this does not mean that a low-priced teacher is necessarily bad, nor that a higher-priced teacher is necessarily good. But good teachers with experience and credentials tend to be more in demand and therefore charge more, and lesser teachers with less experience and fewer credentials tend to be less in demand and therefore charge less. If you can afford the higher-priced teachers, I would broaden your field and not jump at a teacher just because they’ll save you money. If you can only afford the lower-priced teacher then your choices will be more limited, and you might have to look a little harder. But if you know what you’re doing you should be able to find a good one.

 

And this leads to, “how do I know what is high-priced and what is low-priced?” Well, that will vary a bit from region to region. In the Cleveland area, the prices seem to range from $17 to $30 per half-hour. One way to get an idea is to call music schools in your area if you have any. Call about three in various locales which cover a range of income level neighborhoods. Schools in mid to upper scale neighborhoods will charge a bit more, and ones below that will charge a bit less. Many will have a range of prices depending on the teacher. This should give you a feel for the price ranges out there.

 

Now you have four avenues through which to go when looking.

 

Private instructors

Music schools

Music stores

Online directories

 

Private instructors should have a website. The advantage of this is that you should be able to get more info on a teacher from their website than you will at a music school or music store. Also, teachers who don’t teach at an institution might be doing so because they have enough of a reputation to get students without the aid of a music school/store. It is much easier to get students at a well-known school or store than it is on one’s own. Musicians who need or want a lot of students but don’t have the experience and reputation to draw a lot by themselves typically teach at a school or store. But again, this is a generalization. The best teacher in town may be at your closest music store.

 

Google search

So, you do a search on Google, “guitar lessons peoria,” and you get a bunch of options. You might have to click a few places to figure out who is a one man/one woman business, but it should be obvious enough.

 

Here are a few things to look for:

 

  • Is the website about hiring them as a teacher or both as a teacher and as a performer for gigs? If it is as a combination of performer/teacher, how much of it is devoted to them as a teacher? If it mostly about them as a teacher, then it’s a good start. If it is mostly about them as a performer and the lessons part is mere side bar, a kind of after-thought, move on. This is probably what I discussed in part I of guitarists who are focused only on performing but use teaching as a necessary income supplement, not because they really want to teach. On the other hand, if in addition to selling themselves for gigs they have a substantial section on their teaching, if they seem to have an honest passion for teaching, they are worth looking into.

 

  • Does the person have a degree or degrees in guitar? If they don’t it doesn’t mean that they are no good, but having a degree or degrees definitely increases the chances that they’ll have a more systematic approach, that they know a lot about the guitar, music theory, technique and music in general. But again, it’s just a start. There’s no guarantee they are a good teacher even if they have their doctorate!

 

  • In their description of their teaching are they able to articulate a philosophy of teaching beyond “having fun.” Believe me, learning the guitar won’t be fun if you are laboring under a bad teacher, even if they’re giving your favorite songs to learn. Success in gaining guitar skills leading you towards the music you want to play is what will make it fun. Trying to play music you like but doing it badly will only be frustrating. Their website should indicate that they have a step-by-step systematic approach that is tailored to the individual.

 

  • If they say learning the guitar is “easy”, or you’ll be playing your favorite songs in just a few weeks, move on. Remember the old adage “if it sounds too good to be true, it probably is.” Learning the guitar takes time and patience.

 

  • How much experience do they have? Do they even say? If not, they probably don’t have a lot of experience. I’ve been teaching for 26 years, and my skills are far, far beyond where they were when I was in my first few years. If a young teacher has been trained how to teach by an experienced teacher, this is huge. But for whatever reason apprenticing with music teaching is extremely rare. It should be the norm. But without that, ten years experience is a decent amount of experience.

 

  • Can they point to successes with their students? Do they point to long lengths of times that students have stayed with them?

 

  • If you are a beginner, avoid somebody who says that they’ll give you hour-long lessons. If they do, half the lesson should be learning music theory to justify the time. Most beginners cannot fill up an hour lesson because the amount of music they are practicing only adds up to a few minutes or so. Some (not all) teachers will give hour lessons to beginners only because they can make more money from the student. They will need to dilly-dally here and there to fill up the time and will thereby eat up your funds. A weekly half-hour lessons for beginners, and even the majority of intermediate students, is the standard across the world of music lessons as that time is sufficient if the lesson time is used well. Hour-long lessons for a beginner is probably a waste of money.

 

Music Schools and Music Stores

First, music stores in general do not have the best reputation for lessons, so a music school should have a higher priority, but there are no hard and fast rules.  You might be able to go on what reputation the school or store has, but do not dispense with looking into individual teachers who teach independently of any school or store. Don’t let the school or store simply assign you a teacher. You need to look into the teachers they have and make your own choice. The items above (with the exception of the first) are the same criteria to use for teachers at an institution. But that information might be more difficult to obtain at a store or school.

 

Online directories

These are a mixed bag, and generally suspect. Typically these are nationwide services that are based in one place, (Los Angeles, Phoenix, or wherever), and claim to have teachers across the U.S. They’ll say all of their teachers are good, or they may even claim that they are the top guitar teachers in your city! First of all, it is difficult to judge how good a teacher is when a music school interviews a prospective teacher. If that is so, how much harder is it for a person sitting at a desk in New York to judge how good a teacher is in Arkansas by looking at an online form they’ve filled out? And some of these services don’t hire at all. All they ask is that you pay a small fee and you’re one of their teachers! You could be anyone! The one advantage to the online directory is that you might be able to learn more about the individual than you would be able to at a music store or school.

 

Word of Mouth

Does the person have good reviews on their website, on the music school’s website, on Google, or on Yelp? Has a friend sang their praises. These comments go a long way. Instead of someone touting themselves, you have a (hopefully objective) third party vouching for them.

 

In the third and final section I will discuss how to assess the teacher once lessons have begun.

The Importance of Having a Good Guitar Teacher

Part I: And Common Mistakes Made in Choosing One

James Flood

May 17, 2016

In my over 25 years of teaching guitar it has become clear to me that many, if not the majority of those seeking guitar lessons are not looking specifically for competency in a guitar teacher. Many will sign up for guitar lessons at their nearest music store or music school and will accept whatever teacher the institution or business assigns them. And if they go so far as to ask about the qualifications of the teacher, they accept vague assurances that the person is a “really good teacher” or “an experienced performer.”

One thing that has also continued to be an eye-opener for me over the years is how radically unequal the competency between guitar teachers is. There are great guitar teachers, good teachers, so-so teachers, and exceptionally poor teachers. The latter two are unfortunately very common, and I will explain why a little further down.

Why is it so important to have a competent guitar instructor?

A good teacher is often the difference between success and failure. You will sometimes here people mention how their children took up a musical instrument, or how they themselves did as youngsters and how they didn’t stick to it. Yep, just another example of good intentions but a lack of discipline, interest, or talent once the rubber hit the road. I am convinced that many who quit guitar lessons before reaching a status of “can-play the guitar” did so not because they lacked the necessary interest, discipline, talent etc., but because they lacked a truly competent guitar teacher. Learning under an incompetent teacher can be confusing, frustrating and ultimately discouraging. And then there is the whole class of those who stuck with guitar lessons long enough to be able to play songs at a fairly decent level, or maybe even became good players despite the lack of a good teacher. Is it all success? Well, if they were able to accomplish this despite their instructor, hats off to them. But they would be better players now (possibly a lot better) had they been under the tutelage of a good guitar teacher.

Common Mistakes in Assessing Whether or Not a Teacher is Good

Mistake #1. He/She is a great guitarist

This is a mistake I made back when I was at Peabody Conservatory studying for my masters. I wanted to study voice as a minor, but decided I wasn’t going to be like all the other voice minors who were assigned a teacher who taught in the Peabody community outreach program. Not only did I get one of the conservatory teachers, but I got the one teacher on the faculty who was world famous. I hit the jack pot! Or so I thought. Despite this teacher’s fame he was a very humble and kind man, and was the first to admit that he had no experience teaching someone who did not yet have a professional-level technique. I greatly enjoyed lessons with him, in part because he was such a great person. But some years later I decided to take up voice again. I asked an internationally recognized vocal instructor for guidance and he told me to take lessons at the home of a woman of whom I had never heard. It was after taking one or two lessons with her that I realized that she really knew how to teach voice to someone at my level, and that my previous teacher did not. I was finally learning a solid vocal technique. Ironically this woman also taught at the Peabody community outreach program. I could have taken lessons with her in the first place!

Just because someone is a good, even phenomenal guitarist, this provides little indication that they know how to teach guitar. Teaching is a completely different skill set from playing. Being a good player can certainly help, but often the best players are incompetent teachers, and guitarists who are so-so players are extraordinary teachers.

Mistake #2. He/she is very inspiring

While being an inspiring personality is certainly a very important aspect of being a teacher, it is nevertheless just one aspect. Can the person order their instruction according to a step-by-step method? Does the teacher teach a sound guitar technique and can they communicate such a technique in a detailed and effective manner? Do they know how to teach interpretation beyond just “feeling” the music.

I had a teacher who was very inspiring and for that I will always be thankful as he hooked me to the classical guitar. But it wasn’t until after I moved on to another teacher that I realized there were large holes in my development, and I needed to spend a long time unlearning deeply ingrained bad habits.

Mistake #3. He/She has a Bachelor’s, Master’s, or Doctorate in Guitar

Well, this is important, and one should seek out degreed teachers, but is by no means any guarantee that he or she is a good teacher.

First, there are many college/university/conservatory guitar programs out there, but there is no guarantee that the program from which they received there degree is one that gave them solid principles in guitar technique or that it even was even a particularly good program.

Secondly, most guitar majors unfortunately get little to no training in guitar pedagogy, that is, training in how to teach guitar.

Thirdly guitar majors are accepted based on their playing skills and not their teaching skills (in fairness, how could they since they have likely had no teaching experience?). Just as the merits of one’s playing is based in significant part to natural talent, likewise, the ability to teach well is also a natural gift that individuals have to varying degrees. Some musicians are highly gifted teachers, some are modestly gifted, and some have no teaching talent whatsoever.

Fourthly, in order to be a good teacher one needs to have a passion for teaching. Without that passion one is simply going to be limited in their development as an instructor. The guitar teacher who doesn’t really want to be there will not be able to teach well.

Mistake #4. He/She is really nice/likable

These are good traits. I certainly try to be kind to my students and strive to make the experience of learning the guitar an enjoyable one. But such positive traits not only do not guarantee that the person will actually teach well, they are not even necessary for being a good teacher. (That being said many would understandably choose to avoid a “great teacher” who is not very pleasant, especially if lessons are a hobby to be enjoyed!)

Why Is It a Challenge to Find Decent Guitar instructors?

First of all, I want to clarify that guitar teachers, if they are lacking, are more likely to be lacking in the area of beginning guitar teaching. This is the opposite of of what people typically assume. But granted the teacher is an advanced player, it is easier to teach someone who’s already a pretty decent player than it is to teach a beginner. So the lack of teaching skills is definitely weighted more heavily on the side of beginning guitar teaching.

Nevertheless, there are several reasons for the situation of the challenge in finding a decent teacher.

Have you ever known someone who decided to embark on a career as a professional guitarist? Did that person say that they wanted to do so because they wanted to earn a living playing/performing or because they wanted to teach? If I took a survey I bet the answer “playing” would get 99%. Guitarists don’t pursue a career in guitar to teach it. I certainly didn’t. In fact, during my naive teen years I used to proudly assert that I wasn’t interested in teaching guitar, only performing. But the fact of the matter is that there are simply too many professional guitarists (and musicians in general) for the market to absorb in such a way that all can make a living only from playing/performing. A minority of musicians succeed in doing so. And so what do these musicians who can’t make enough from gigging do to supplement their income? You got it, teach. But if they had their druthers they would dump the teaching if they could perform/play full time. Any musician who feels this way should probably find another means of supplementing their income. If they don’t want to teach they simply are not going to be good teachers. (Those who are contemplating being a professional musician should weigh whether or not they would like to teach, as there is a decent chance that will be necessary for a “music-only income.”)

I first became open to teaching guitar when I realized that I wasn’t going to be able to pay the rent just from playing, so I took a job teaching at a music store outside of San Francisco. What I discovered was that I became wrapped up in teaching. I wanted to be there.

Secondly, the state of guitar pedagogy is chaotic. I remember when a student of mine played at a local recital which included young classical guitarists from a multiplicity of teachers. This student’s mother had her doctorate in piano and attended the recital. When she came over to me after the recital, instead of talking about her son’s performance, she looked puzzled and explained to me that when one goes to a piano recital one sees a consistency in how young students position their body and hands. But at this recital she saw no consistency at all among the players. Each player had their own way of holding the guitar and positioning their hands. There was no consistency on how these young players were being taught. There is a lot of great guitar information out there, but there is a lot of very bad information and a lot of conflicting information – and that includes published information. Some things that pass for publication show an astounding amount of ignorance. Unlike the piano, violin, cello, clarinet, trumpet etc., the guitar pedagogy world has trouble organizing a consensus of what constitutes good technique. I believe one of the contributing factors in this is the “good enough for rock ‘n’ roll” mentality that many guitarists develop within. Many guitarists and teachers give almost no thought to any kind of proper technique (but this isn’t limited to the rock world.) The other factor for this challenged pedagogical state is that while the guitar has been around for 450 years, it’s popularity over that span has been spotty. The guitar has only been a consistently popular instrument for about the last 70 years. The above mentioned instruments, however, have had a two or three hundred year run with an ongoing tradition giving them much more time to develop a consensus about what works best on their respective instruments with regard to technique.

I believe there would be more people around who could play the guitar, and play it better if there were a higher number of good and dedicated guitar instructors.

In the next blog entry I will discuss how to find a competent guitar instructor.


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