As a participant in several online musician/songwriter forums, I can attest to the fact that the "lessons" question, is a fairly common one. It's natural to be curious about how others acquired their knowledge & skills. Many players are self-taught, but many take the formal lessons route. I actually recommend a combination of both. I'll spend the remainder of this blog elaborating on my preference & sharing some tips on how to get the most out of formal lessons.
Let me begin by giving you a bit of background. I was a drum student 44 years ago, followed by several years as drum instructor. I became a novice guitar student 17 years ago and in recent years, have done some basic instruction in that capacity. My point is........I've seen the pros & cons of lessons from both sides, several times, with various instruments. Bottom line.........I speak from experience!
Freelance music instructors are an extremely diverse group. When I say freelance, I'm referring to teachers who either:
- teach from home or
- teach in conjunction with a music store or some other type of retail entity (on or off-line)
In the US at least, these are the most common, readily available type of instructors! Their skill levels, knowledge & basic qualifications run the gamut from virtually unqualified to extremely gifted. There is no certification process and no standardized list of requirements. In most cases, instructors are completely unregulated. What I'm getting at here, is that the responsibility for choosing a decent teacher rests entirely upon the student. Buyer beware, or in this case....student beware!
Unfortunately...this model, which makes the student, or student's parent responsible for selecting the teacher, has one serious flaw. It assumes that the student (or parent) is qualified to make the selection....that they know what to look for. In many cases, they don't! Hopefully, I can offer a little assistance in that area. Here's a short-list of qualities that I look for in a teacher/instructor:
1) Reasonable competence as a player - They don't have to be great, but they should come across as being at least comfortable with their instrument.
2) They should seem more concerned about your learning, than about feeding their own ego by dazzling you with their ability & brilliance.
3) They should not only allow, but encourage questions from you. As a student, I never walked into a lesson without having at least 1 or 2 pre-prepared, written questions! Don't trust yourself to remember. Write them down! Typical lessons are only a 1/2 hour long. It's easy to get rushed, busy with something else, or simply forget....write them down! Always remember that the instructor is only half of the equation here. The other half is you! You're paying this person. Make sure you're getting your money's worth! This is the area in which a combination of self teaching & formal instruction can be most beneficial. Trust your instructor to guide the direction of the lessons, but don't hesitate to do extra reading & research on your own. This is where many of your weekly questions can come from. Use your teacher's knowledge to help you gain a better understanding of how all these musical concepts work together. Show initiative, be inquisitive & get them to share as much of that knowledge with you as possible. In doing so, believe it or not, you're probably making their job a little more interesting.
*One quick caution about on-your-own reading & research. Try and stick to concepts that you're already somewhat familiar with. When it comes to music theory, skipping too far ahead isn't a good idea. Chances are.....if you've ventured into material you're not yet ready for, you'll know it. It won't make any sense to you! Whatever the subject is...don't panic. You're just not prepared to deal with it yet. Yes, this too...is on my list of past mistakes. The funny thing is though, when the time is right....and you're able to place that information in the proper context, it'll make perfect sense to you. The trick is that the fundamentals always need to precede the more advanced concepts. Fundamentals are the building blocks. Skipping over them would be like trying to learn how to read, without first knowing the alphabet.
4) This final quality is a little hard to describe, but it's also the most critical for an instructor to possess. They need to be capable of remembering what it was like to be a student! If they can't, it's unlikely that they'll be able to explain things to you in an understandable way. If your teacher has forgotten what it was like not to know, you'll begin to see that within the first few lessons. Even though it not their intent, teachers like this tend to frustrate students. Too many times, frustrated students become ex-students. They walk away, assuming that their inability to understand is somehow their fault........and they never pick up the instrument again. Obviously, that's not the end result you want! Always remember that a teacher is there to be of benefit to YOU......not the other way around. Regardless of how brilliant & talented they may be, if they can't find a way to pass some of what they possess...onto you, it's a waste of your time and money! With this type of situation, my advice is simple......find yourself a different teacher! I did!
When I first decided to take up guitar, I did what many folks do. I walked into the closest music store & signed up with an available instructor for lessons. Many times, new students don't even have the opportunity to meet the instructor before signing up. I didn't. However, I did have an advantage over many new students. I'd already spent time on both sides of this student-teacher equation and I knew what to look for! So.....my first lesson rolled around and I met with my instructor. He was a 21 year old, 4.0 GPA, pre-med student at a prominent local university. I'd played with enough good guitarists in my day, to recognize that this guy had skills! Anyway, if I had any doubts, he was only to happy to remind me of it....often . In his defense though, he seemed like a genuinely nice guy & appeared to have nothing but good intentions. Unfortunately, as an instructor, he did have one pretty big problem. He didn't have a clue how to teach beginner or intermediate students! Apparently, his own knowledge had evolved to the point where everything seemed simple to him. Rather than bore his beginner students with fundamentals, he decided to dig right into subjects that he considered more interesting. As part of my 2nd lesson, he proceeded to explain to me how a diatonic major scale & it's relative natural minor scale, are essentially identical. The only real differences being the starting & ending points of each....& the fact that the same note holds a different numeric position, depending on whether it's part of the major or minor version. If I've just lost some of you, I apologize. For those of you who do understand the concept, so did I.............one year later!
I'm one of those people who still has every note, from every lesson he's ever taken. A year after that 2nd lesson, I pulled out my notes...looked them over and the light bulb went off in my head. After an additional year of guitar method & theory, it actually made sense to me! I understood exactly what he was trying to tell me. I also understood how completely insane it was for him to think it was appropriate to teach that in a 2nd lesson. But there-in lies the problem. In his mind, the concept was no longer difficult. Because he understood it so well, he'd come to believe that everyone would. He had simply forgotten what it was like not-to-know. Needless to say, he didn't remain my teacher for very long........3 lessons to be exact. I went to a different shop & got myself another teacher. My second teacher was also my last. He was very good at what he did. I wasn't unkind about leaving the first guy, but I did leave.
In closing, I'd like to offer one last suggestion. Before you decide to change instructors, take a good, hard look at your part of the student/teacher partnership.
- are you actually practicing regularly?
- are you asking questions?
- are you genuinely interested in learning & improving?
If you're not, the best instructor in the world can't help you! A good teacher can make an immense difference, but even the best can't teach someone who's not interested in learning! Be honest with yourself because there's nothing to be gained by placing blame where it doesn't belong. If it's you, fix that! If it's them, try a different teacher.
Thanks once again for your interest!
HAVE A HAPPY HOLIDAY SEASON!