Written by Roz Bruce
As somebody who has been teaching guitar for a number of years, I must have made a million mistakes. I will probably make a million more. However, if I can help a few of you to learn from my mistakes, without making them yourselves, then great! If you read this and feel that one of the points in this list could be what’s causing communications with your pupils to suffer, I hope that identifying the problem will help you to sort it out.
1) Showing Off
For some reason, even though we have chosen to advertise our musical expertise along with a list of instrumental and teaching qualifications, we feel the need to assure new students that we do, indeed, know how to play. New teachers, especially, seem to lack confidence in their musical authority and flaunt their technical skill in an attempt to reassure the student, “Look! Honestly. I do know what I’m doing!” … Unfortunately, rather than reassuring the student, this alienates the person in your classroom/studio, and does nothing positive for your relationship with them. Personally, I have a rule that I never play anything beyond the pupil’s means (in front of the pupil). If you’re a passionate musician, you can make even the simplest, one-finger-on-the-E-string, 3-string-strum G chord sound good. And so can your student.
2) Moving Too Fast
Timing is everything in music, and timing is everything in music learning. I think, like with the first point, this stems from a teacher’s insecurity: “Look, I am teaching you! We’re moving on!” … Sadly, speeding through pieces and then moving on makes for quite a shallow learning experience, as well as students’ lack of satisfaction. The popular – and highly effective – Suzuki method of teaching recognises how repetition of newly learned pieces is essential to understanding. “Constant repetition is essential in learning to play an instrument… …They add it to their vocabulary or repertoire, gradually using it in new and more sophisticated ways.” (SAOA, 1998).
There are ways in which you can encourage repetition without it becoming tedious. Timed games which see how many times a pupil can, for example, play a chord then take their fingers off then play again, or play a short melody, are great fun as well as good for the memory.
3) Over Explaining
Your pupil doesn’t need to know that the G major pentatonic is actually, in fact, the relative major of the E minor pentatonic, and both scales can be played in multiple positions all over the fretboard, and this twiddles would sound good over this chord, and the notes in this gets into a fancy shape chord are all in the sca- STOP!
Painful, isn’t it? We’re all guilty of it, at times, throwing ideas out there which rely on previously established ideas to make any sense at all to the listener. It’s not that I think we should dumb down our lessons, just that we should empathise thoroughly with our pupil and understand what it is that they would like to hear. Psychologically, sitting with somebody who is talking completely over your head is uncomfortable, so keep it accessible.
4) Being Too Business-like.
“If you don’t give 24 hours notice, I am going to have to charge you for the lesson.”
I know it’s fair enough, I know we all need to make a living, but sometimes things happen which can’t be changed. It’s one thing if you have a student who is never turning up and doesn’t seem particularly interested, sure, then, maybe be upfront and ask them what their deal is. However, if they do seem genuinely interested, but they occasionally can’t make it at the last minute, I would really strongly advise you to not ask for the money! If they offer it, maybe take it, play it by ear, but chasing them for it is just a reminder to them that you are a business, and it puts an emphasis on that side of things.
Better ways of dealing with this are:
1) Offering them a double-lesson to make up for the learning they have missed
2) Asking them to give as much notice as possible should it happen again, so that you can fit somebody else into the slot.
3) Sending them some new stuff to look at, to make up for the learning they have missed.
Trust me, do this and your students will be for life (not just for Christmas).
5) Creating Dependence
It has been said that teachers should aim to make themselves dispensable (Bali, M. 2014 Welsh, J. 2010, Yarbro, R. 1980). We should, as teachers, give pupils time to understand the directions in which we are guiding them, to teach themselves and really learn.
Music is tough, and sometimes there is so much on the page that we feel we have to do something, e.g. writing the notes on, that’s fine, for a certain amount of time! Judging when to stop this, and empathising with learners’ stages of development are important. If it’s reading they’re struggling with, show them how to find out what’s going on, rather than telling them. Sometimes if a chord diagram isn’t being read effectively it is tempting to go for the quick-fix and tell them them how to do it, however they are then simply doing as they’re told, not thinking for themselves.
I’d urge you to always encourage a student to play by themselves each lesson, and you’ll find that they don’t actually need much encouragement. Most of the time, the question “do you want me to play it with you or do you want to play it on your own?” is responded to with, “I’ll do it on my own!” They can do it, they know they can do it, they do it!
I hope that these points have helped you to identify what you’re doing right in your teaching, as well as bringing to the light possible ways in which you could improve your practice. Rock on!