A Lesson About Lessons

Hey, you're getting pretty good! At this point, people are starting to take notice, and they might want you to teach them a couple tricks on the ole gee-tar. But teaching isn't quite as easy as it seems. This lesson will give you a couple things you to think about, to be aware of, and a couple tricks to make sure your first forays into teaching go as smoothly as possible.

Ultimate Guitar
So you're gonna give your first guitar lesson pretty soon. This is a good thing; its a noble thing to be a teacher. I remember well the first horn lesson I ever gave. I went in, met my new student for the first time, and promptly realized that I had no plan at all for what to do with the hour we were together. So I said, "So, um... uhhh... what are you working on?" to which he replied, "Well... nothing right now, I was hoping you could tell me." Long story short, we stumbled through the hour, never really working on anything in particular, and while I'm sure he took a few useful things out of the lesson, I know that it could have been so much more effective. So I got to thinking, what can I do to make my lessons the most efficient and effective, so as to give my student the most helpful experience and let me earn my check? And to be honest, most of the things are really just common sense, and really quite easy to implement once you think about them. So without further adieu, lets get started. The most important thing you need to know about teaching lessons is that you're not getting paid just for the lesson. There's a lot of work that needs to be put in both before and after your weekly or bi-weekly or monthly or whatever lesson to ensure that you're ready to teach. Never go into a lesson without a plan. You need to know the skill you're going to focus on that day, why its important to know that skill, how you're going to teach that skill, and which exercises you're going to show your student to enforce it. And, as if those weren't enough, you need to have contingency plans for if you finish early, or for some reason an instrument breaks or is in the shop, or what have you. So, for example, in my next lesson with Johnny Jammer, I want to work on finger dexterity, because being able to put your fingers in the right spot quicker helps develops speed and creates more right notes, which is, of course, a good thing. So, what goes into finger dexterity? Well, there's thumb placement. To help him see how this is important, I'll show him that I have much greater reach with my thumb behind the neck than curled around it. What else? Well, there's pressure on the fretboard. To help him with that, I wanna show him that you don't have to push real real hard to make the notes come out, so we'll work on slowly adding pressure til we get to the minimum push needed to make a note sound. After I've gone through all the things that are needed to promote finger dexterity, (And by no means am I saying that I've listed all of them) we can start putting them into context with exercises. A good rule of thumb is never to give an exercise that you can't play yourself. If this means you have to practice for your own lesson, then good! You've gotten better, and so has your student. So, I pick whatever exercise I pick and then we go through it a couple times. After every time, we go through and talk about what was good, what was bad, how to fix what was wrong, etc etc etc. This brings us to the second point of teaching lessons. Its very important that you teach your student to teach himself. Lets be honest. You only get your student once, maybe twice a week, for an hour or two. The rest of the time, they're on their own, and you definitely want them progressing and getting better all the time, not just during their lessons. The best teachers teach their students how to tell what they're doing wrong, ways to fix their problems, and proper practice techniques. So, if I have a good teacher, I'd know what I'm doing to make my strings buzz, and how to fix it, and even what exercises to do to help enforce the correct technique. Teach both the results, i.e make your students sound good, but also the process, i.e how to make them sound good. Ultimately, they'll get so much more from this method. This is why its so important for your student (and consequently, for you!) to know why we do the things we do. That way, your student knows what he/she needs to do to fix the problems specific to them. Ideally, you teach your student to troubleshoot themselves, so that they can continue learning throughout the week, not just at their lesson. The next point we get to is how to divide our lesson. My personal philosophy is that the less talking you do, the better. Now, don't get me wrong. Of course, it is crucial that you explain the things you want your student to do, and crucial that you explain them well. But, the more time you can spend with your student's fingers on the fretboard, the more chances you have to fix the problems evident in their playing. Let me put it to you this way: one of my friends, who happens to teach public school music, told me that with a class full of kids, you get about 15 seconds, max, before you start to lose their attention. Now, obviously, in a one-on-one environment, this time-frame is considerably longer, but the same concept applies. The less talking you do, the better. Make your explanations, short, succinct, and to the point. Keep your stories, no matter how interesting they may be, to a minimum, and when you do tell them, make them germane to the concept you're working on. You'll find that you get a whole lot more done. Now while you explain the concepts to your student, you need to remain mindful that the way you learned the concept is not necessarily the best way for your student to learn. Everybody learns differently, and it might take a bunch of different ways of saying the same thing before your student finally gets it. Different strokes for different folks. So, if you keep telling your student something, and you can tell it isn't sinking in, think about a different way of saying it, or another analogy you can use to make your point stick. I'll give you an example. One of the most arcane and hard to understand concept for wind players is the concept of tonguing. Tonguing is the process by which wind players produce articulation. One of the toughest things for young players to understand is that the tongue is by no means linked to the flow of air through the horn. Actually, the two are completely different. I've seen this concept illustrated in a bunch of ways, including: shoving a piece of paper in front of a fan, running ones hand through a water faucet, blowing into your hand and tonguing to interrupt the flow on your hand, fancy diagrams, player demonstrations, long, drawn-out explanations, etc etc etc. You see what I mean? There's all kinds of ways to illustrate the concept that all the tongue does is interrupt the air, just as there are all kinds of ways to illustrate techniques on the guitar. And you might have to go through ALL of them before your student understands what you're trying to tell them. Keep at it and don't get frustrated. It only takes one of those hundred ways to make your students get it. While you're teaching, you need to be cognizant of your time management. Don't blow the whole hour on the first thing you wanted to get to. By all means, give yourself enough time to completely and thoroughly understand the material and get some good practice reps in, but if you've already gone over the time you allotted to do whatever it is you're doing, its perfectly all right to say, "Okay, well we've worked on this a little, and its coming along some, why don't you take this one home and work on it for next week." This lets you move on, and gives the student something specific to work on for the next time. Use your best judgment. Now, we've talked about how to prepare before our lesson, how to manage the actual lesson time, but what do we do after the lesson is over? This is where the planning for the next lesson begins. What went well? And more importantly, what didn't go well and what do we need to keep working on next week? If your student demonstrated he/she could do whatever skill, don't hit it real hard the next lesson. Check it, make sure he/she can still do it, and if they can't, then you work on it for a little, but don't fix something that's already been fixed. Again, efficiency is the name of the game. On the flip side, if there's something that really didn't click this lesson, then you need to keep working at it next lesson. Again, common sense. Well guys and dolls, that's your crash course in teaching lessons. Don't forget to prepare for your lessons, be efficient, but definitely don't forget to have fun! The best teachers are the ones who thoroughly enjoy what they do, and their attitude is infectious. Happy teaching! Good luck! -John

8 comments sorted by best / new / date

    Thank you, John. I like to post your lessons. And I hope this one will help the authors to write good lessons.
    I have an interview tomorrow for a job as a guitar tutor; this will undeniably help, thanks alot!
    Great advice man,we seem to forget how the little things make the difference...job well done!
    Guns N Russians
    Hey thanks a lot for this. My guitar teacher is actually teaching me to be a teacher...and that's what I want to do. This is some great advice. Teaching teachers to be teachers...gotta love it!
    I am about to begin teaching my first student soon and this has given me great advice on how to approach teaching. Thank you, John!
    Incredibly ironic, I gave my first formal guitar lesson today and this couldn't have been helpful in terms of analyzing my teaching ability. Thanks!
    Wow, I've been doing all these things for my first guitar teaching lesson, but it's always nice to see I'm doing things right . Always room to improve though! Thanks for the article!