Know What To Look For
Learning how to play the guitar can be extremely rewarding. Getting on the right foot to learn how to play the guitar requires finding the right resources and the right guitar teacher who will guide you in achieving your musical goals.
With many guitar teachers offering their services, it can be hard to figure out who among them are truly exceptional. Even more importantly, choosing the wrong instructor can be very demotivating and it is likely that a beginning student will blame themselves when they are not progressing.
For 40 years I have been responsible for hiring all the instructors at my music school Starland School Of Music. The following is the best of what I’ve learned to help sort the “wheat from the chaff”:
Teaching With A Plan
The best teachers have a plan. First they assess where you are, where you are trying to go, then work from a system in some methodical fashion. They use exercises to prepare for more complex materials, and they are not afraid to tell you what they are doing. A few of my first instructors taught the “winging it” approach.
What I mean is that they would teach one thing one week, then the next lesson something unrelated, then the following lesson some new song or lick that had nothing to do with what we had already worked on. This led to feeling, after a few months, that I wasn’t really progressing. Maybe I wasn’t. I sure wasn’t clear what to practice.
Caution: Some instructors have the best intentions but give in easily to the whims of the student. Don’t be guilty of nagging your instructor to constantly teach you a cool new lick or song. If an instructor does have a plan be willing to meet them at least half way.
Travel Distance To Lessons
Consistency is an important aspect of the learning process. If you choose an instructor that is reasonably close you are likely to miss fewer lessons. Everyone has a different tolerance for travel and you have to be honest with yourself. I generally think 30 minutes maximum travel time is a good rule of thumb.
Ability To Play
Being the best performer is not a requirement of a good instructor. Many a great football coach knows the game well but would not consider themselves as good as their prize players that they coach.
However, you do want an instructor who is competent on the guitar.
In the beginning stages it’s better to have an instructor that is good at teaching the basics.
When you become more advanced you may want to seek out someone who specialized in a particular style that is of interest to you. A competent player is both an inspiration and someone who has traveled the path and has come back to show you the way. At the same time a good player does not necessarily make for a good teacher.
Student count Reveals Some Information Ask your potential instructor how many students they have and how many students they have taught in the past. There is no magic formula here, but more students generally means more experience. It also means students are staying with them longer.
If they have too many students they either may not have time for you, of not put too much effort into your lesson or track your progress. An organized instructor can handle more students than an unorganized one.
Personal Note: At one point I had 60 weekly ½ hour private students. Even though I was working long hours I had no problem keeping track of each student’s progress and giving them my full attention during the lesson. It is possible!
Level of Current and Past Students
If you are a beginner look for an instructor that has lots of successful experience teaching beginners. Teaching beginners is not the same as teaching intermediate and advanced students new techniques and stylistic improvements.
Age Range of Students
I tend to divide students generally into children, teenagers and adults. Each of these categories have different needs and interests. The teacher that you choose should have experience teaching the category of students that fits your needs.
Training Does Make A Difference
There are two types of training that an instructor can receive. Training on how to play their instrument and training on how to teach.
Instruction from good private instructors can go a long ways to not only becoming a competent guitarist, but also leaning how to teach.
Your instructor will model their previous instructors when they teach you. They can use methods and materials that worked well for them, and also avoid what didn’t work well.
There is also the possibility of getting training from a school. Most college graduates have training in classical guitar since most universities do not offer programs in popular music.
However many instructors that I hire have been to schools that specialize in popular music. Some of the better known ones are Musician’s Institute in L.A., Grove School Without Walls, and Berklee College of Music in Boston, MA.
The second type of training is training specifically on how to teach guitar. At present I do not know of programs for teaching “How to Teach Guitar” other than at my school Starland School Of Music where I teach instructors how to teach using my proprietary system along with the principles and techniques of proper instruction.
There are books on teaching guitar such as “How To Teach Guitar” by Joe Livoti (a wonderful guitarist). I’ve also learned a tremendous amount by studying method books and testing out the materials and ideas with students.
How About References?
Most instructors will give you some references from students they have taught or are currently teaching. They are not likely to give you contact information of anyone but their most satisfied students, but I have gotten valuable information this way to make my hiring decision at Starland. Here are some questions to ask their students:
- How long have you been taking lessons?
- What level would you rate yourself? (are they a comparable level?)
- On a scale of 1 to 10, how happy are you with your (your child’s) lessons – 10 being completely happy?
- If they give you a number anything less than a 10 ask what would make it a 10. I’ve gotten more honest feedback from this single question than any other. People seem to feel less inhibited to reveal areas that could be better when phrased this way.
- Is the instructor punctual?
- Why did you stop? (if they are not currently taking lessons).
- Is there anything else you could tell me to help me make my decision?
What’s Their Motivation
I ask instructors why they teach guitar. Many guitarists understandably want to make money while they follow their passion to play, but occasionally I hear that learning to play has been such a joy to their lives that they get great satisfaction helping others learn to play (or some version of his). Those are the ones I want to hire.
Tools Of The Trade
I always ask instructors what method books they use and what other they are familiar with. I can tell by the materials they use something of their approach and how organized they are.
More importantly, you will want to know if they do not use any instruction books. Unless they have a well thought out system that they’ve created it’s not likely they will be very systematic without some materials.
It’s also very time consuming to use up time in the lessons writing out things to practice. It's not the best use of lesson time that you are paying for. Better to have a book or pre-written sheets.
There are many great books on the market on every aspect of playing, and most are very affordable considering the wealth of material they hold.
Reliable But Flexible
Good instructors will show up for the lesson on time and consistently. They may have potential to be a good instructor, but if they cannot be consistent your progress or that of your child’s will suffer.
There are times they may need to reschedule for a gig or vacation (I like to hire working musicians). That’s fine as long as they are considerate of your time, give you notice, reasonable times to reschedule and it’s not every other week.
At the same time you may need to reschedule occasionally. Most instructors will accommodate rescheduling with reasonable notice. Be aware that if you cancel at the last minute the instructor will lose the income for that time block unless you pay them for the time. With notice they can put someone else in that slot.
The Teaching Space
What is the space like that you will be coming to for lessons? Is it supportive of learning music? I recommend going to a music school where the environment is arranged specifically for learning music.
It is inspirational to see and hear others learning music and to feel the vibe of a place were music is being created.
A second choice is for the instructor to have a dedicated space for teaching music that is arranged both for convenience and to inspire.
They should have all the equipment handy for teaching, be reasonably isolated from outside noise and distractions, and preferably have climate control to improve the comfort level at different times of the year. Some inspirational posters and a pleasant decor are nice additions.
A much less desirable third choice is having the instructor come to your own home.
- Less traveling.
- More likely to have distractions.
- No opportunity to see other people learning and playing.
- Very difficult to get and good instructor that is willing to come to the home because a) they are not making the best use of their highly developed skill (i.e. teaching) by spending time traveling, and b) good teachers know this is not the best learning environment.
- More difficult to change mindset (shift mental gears) and get the most out of the lesson.
There are many aspects that make up a good teaching personality. Everyone has a different personality and style, but there are traits that characterize a good instructor. Over the years I’ve been able to isolate those to help me make good hiring decisions.
Some traits are fairly obvious – communicates well, pleasing demeanor, sincere interest in students, and patience. One trait that may be a little harder to discern is the ability to break complex ideas down to simpler concepts, then help the student put them back together again.
Some people have more natural ability to do this than others, and they tend to make the better instructors. I think this is in part because teaching comes more easily for them and they enjoy it more.
Unfortunately I’ve found some very gifted, natural musicians have a hard time teaching because they didn’t have to go through the steps that most people have to. They assume a student should just “get it” like they did and not break it down. Teachers who have had to work for their skill can draw from their own experience to help their students.
The Final Analysis
Before undertaking a lesson program you may want to interview at least a few different instructors, preferably that have come through referrals. I often meet with 8 to 12 before hiring one instructor.
To get referrals check with friends that are happy with their lessons. You can also hang out at your local music or guitar store and see if they have someone to recommend to you that offer guitar lessons. These people often have connections to music instructors. They may even be music instructors themselves. You can also ask private music schools for further referrals.
Another possibility is to browse through directories like Craigslist or your local newspaper for advertisements about guitar lessons available. In the end it is better to take some action rather than no action.
If you find that the instructor you chose is not the best for you – try another!
Above all – keep on practicing.