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Lessons in university

I taught guitar in university for ten years. Since there were playing exams at the end of every term, I devised a curriculum that I could test. This involved the students learning chords, arpeggios, scales, etc. and being able to use this material playing pieces and improvising.
By the middle of the term, students knew pretty well everything they needed for the exam. All they needed to do was work on it to bring it up to a high standard. Students came in each week to check with me that everything was going ok.
Except for one guy who would reliably miss lessons just before the exam. One term he missed five in a row.
My obvious concern was that he would fail the exam. This caused me quite a bit of stress; I really want my students to do well.
He came into the exam and totally nailed it. Other students who reliably showed up for lessons didn’t do as well. One of them failed. What was going on?
Well, two things. First of all, this guy practiced. He came to lessons until he was sure that he had all the information he needed, and then he just worked on it. And he worked on it a lot if the exam results are any indication.
The second reason was more compelling, at least for me: my lessons weren’t interesting enough to show up for. I was basically drilling students on what they needed to know, and giving feedback.
But there was no creative work. I wasn’t discussing ideas, having them write their own exercises, or expand on the material I gave them. None of it was theirs. It was just me saying “Do this,” and then standing in judgement.
For some students, drilling is what they need. In a university environment with timelines and tests and grading, the drilling/feedback model makes sense. Some students just want to get the mark and get out.
But music is about expressing yourself and making things, whether you’re improvising or writing pieces. It isn’t hard to make that part of every lesson. All you have to do is ask, “How would you do this?” Get them to think. Get them to make things.
For some people, it takes longer to buy into this; thinking is harder than just doing what you’re told. But once it kicks in, students come to lessons more engaged and energized. They know that they have responsibility for what they’re learning, and they know that i’m going to give them support and encouragement for the work (or is it play?) they’re doing.
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Achieving success

To achieve success on the guitar, you need to work on it. I’ve developed strategies over the years to help students pick up the guitar and practice. It’s not always easy.

Getting the guitar in your hands

Just picking up the guitar can be hard. Anything that isn’t a habit takes a little more effort, but having a few strategies makes it easier. The following have proven useful for many of my students.
1. Create alerts on your phone for each day of the week. When the alert goes off, you have five minutes to pick up the guitar.
2. Before going to bed, check your schedule for the next day, and write down when you will practice. As a reminder, put that wherever you eat breakfast.
3. Pick up the guitar with the intent of practicing for only five minutes. Students often don’t pick the guitar up because they don’t think they have enough time. But five minutes isn’t long, and once you have the guitar in your hands, you’re usually there for more than five minutes. Especially if you’re trying to get better at something.
4. Use the pomodori technique. This was developed as a way to deal with procrastination. Simply get a timer, set it for however long you want to practice, and then stop as soon as it goes off. This motivates students by removing open-endedness. If you know when you’re going to stop, you tend to be more focused in your practicing, and you’re more likely to actually practice.
5. Have your guitar on a guitar stand, and have the music you’re working on that week on your music stand. Picking up the guitar is easier if you don’t have to prepare to do it. Make sure that you can just walk in your room, pick up your guitar, and start playing.
6. Attach to habit. Practice immediately after something you’re already in the habit of doing. For example, if there’s a show you watch every day at the same time, practice for 15 minutes once it’s done. Or practice right after you play your favorite game.
7. Have the end result uppermost in your mind. For example, if you’re practicing a difficult move between two chords, keep in mind that they’re part of your favorite song. When you’re working on details, it can be difficult to see the big picture.
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Why teach?

Poet William Butler Yeats said the following: “Education is not the filling of a pail, but the lighting of a fire.” I love this, because It implies the discovery-making process for the student, the excitement of encountering new things.

For the teacher, it implies a focus on discovering the interests of the student, and using those interests to establish a relationship in which the student feels valued and heard.

Why teach?

There are many reasons to teach, but for me, it comes down to one thing: the opportunity to have a positive impact on someone’s life. Having that gives me a sense of purpose.

Having a positive impact means helping students:

  • build confidence
  • nurture a sense of self-worth
  • love learning
  • be able to deal with failure
  • become satisfied, well-rounded people

As for me, I get to

  • spend time with interesting people
  • have a positive impact on the lives of others
  • learn more about myself and the needs of others
  • grow and to stretch as a teacher and musician
  • become a better communicator
  • find the key to each student’s growth

Doing this is a privilege. In order to do it well, I strive to bring these qualities to do the work:

  • kindness
  • patience
  • clarity
  • empathy
  • and as the following quote implies, an open mind

“Take risks. Try new things. Encourage creativity. Learn from your students. Expect a lot. But always allow for the unexpected. Don’t be afraid to give your students control, because you will often be surprised at the direction their hearts, thoughts, and dreams will take them… and you.” Angie Miller, English and Language Arts teacher.

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Student-directed learning

A lot has been written about student-directed teaching.
For my purposes, it means taking my student s interests into account. This is essential. It’s difficult to get people to practice if they’re working on things they aren’t interested in.

Guitar skills

There are two broad categories of skills that a guitar player works on: rhythm playing and soloing. Everything you can learn on the guitar (outside of avant-garde techniques) falls under one of these two categories.
So instead of teaching chord technique using a song that I provide, why not use a song that the student provides? I can teach the same techniques regardless. The student is more likely to practice, and less likely to get frustrated.
Of course, I may need to provide supplemental exercises to improve technique, but these are given with the overall goal of learning something they want to learn. This is inherently motivating.

Autonomy

Along with creating motivated, interested students, this approach creates autonomy. Since the student is encouraged to pick material they want to learn, they are able to ultimately take responsibility for their own learning.
They not only begin to look for material they like; they look for material that may be more like work, but which they know will make them better. Doing research like this means that they are able to find material on their own.

The ultimate goal

With the student-directed approach, the ultimate goal is that the student will be able to teach themselves. They will be motivated, interested, independent, and informed. And they won’t need to pay for years of guitar lessons.
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Why guitar lessons?

Beginners

It isn’t hard to start, but it’s difficult to continue. There are many reasons for this, but the two most common are a pre-existing routine that crowds out practice time, and uncertainty about what and how to practice.
Once you know what and how to practice, guidance from someone who has been doing the same thing for much longer, and has training and experience gives you the ability to move along the path quicker. This gives you success, and the motivation to continue. Theory, technique, learning chords, songs and solos are the core of the learning process.

Intermediate/advanced

If you feel stale, need new ideas, or need to talk about what you’re working on, getting feedback from someone who understands – and has been in your position before – can help.

Organizing yourself

For each student, I construct a weekly practice plan. This takes the form of a flow chart that they can refer to during the week.
For a beginning lesson in strumming, it might look like this, depending on the student.

 

This clearly outlines what to practice (everything on the chart is discussed in-depth during the lesson), and how long to practice it each day. It’s important to see how long it will take. That way, you can figure out how to fit it into your schedule.
Breaking it into chunks implies that you don’t have to do it all at once, although it’s a good idea just to make sure it gets done.

The optimal result – independence

The goal is to get students to the stage where they can confidently teach themselves. It is not to keep them around as long as possible so that you can make more money.
At the end of every month, the student and I assess their level of interest and commitment, and discuss the best course of action. This could be ending lessons, continuing on the present course, or introducing new types of material. If they decide to leave and get stuck later, or want to learn something new, they can come back for however many  lessons they feel they need.
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