The Importance of Having a Good Guitar Teacher and Common Mistakes Made in Choosing One: Part I

By James Flood

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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