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Selecting A Guitar Teacher

by: Uncle Tim's Guitar Newsletter
Selecting A Guitar Teacher, My Thoughts On Teachers

Sooner or later every guitar player will ask this same question. Should I get a teacher and take guitar lessons or just teach myself? It can happen for a variety of reasons. Usually the person just wants to get better or feels something is missing. When you find yourself in that position, it can be daunting.

Do you really have to worry about carefully selecting a guitar teacher? This is a questions that I am asked time after time. The answer is different for everyone. The best answer for you will depend on what you want to achieve? How good do you want to get? How hard do you want to work? What is it that you want to learn? And where do you live? Thanks to the Internet, this last consideration may become less and less of a factor.

Let's start at the beginning and take some time to examine these questions. Did you notice all the questions above point in the same direction? Where are you going with your music? It really doesn't matter how good you are now or how much you know. These are reasons you seek out a teacher in the first place. The more important questions have to do with what you expect from the experience.

These questions assume one thing. They assume you have a reason for getting an instructor in the first place. Everyone actually does have a reason, even if they don't know it yet. In other words, often times a person is not sure why they are going to an instructor or what they expect from this experience. They just think they will get better if they do this. So they go!

But there are problems with this approach. First, it puts all the responsibilities on the teacher to make sure he (or she) figures out what you want and then supplies instruction that will instill it. Although it is the teacher's responsibility to make sure you get what you pay for, it is not his or her responsibility alone. The correct answer is for both of you to share the responsibilities.

Another problem is you may get better but not in the way you intended. It probably would not be a satisfying experience if a 15 year old started lessons thinking he would learn to play heavy metal, only to go through classical training. He would be learning to play a guitar, but not the way he intended. Most of the time when something like this happens, you can count the days until the person quits. When it happens no one may notice. Often times the student doesn't realizes it for awhile. He just quits!

Why? Because it's not fun (in part). The reality of the situation never measured up with the vision he had when he decided to start. It wasn't at all what he expected. Here is another reaction. A student wants to learn a few chords and nothing more. He is trying to learn just enough to play some very basic rock songs. He takes lessons from a teacher that uses a standard program for everyone. It turns out to be ten times the information the student wanted and it points him in the wrong direction. The result is often the same. The person stops playing.

It does not matter if we are talking about teenagers or 50 year old Dead Heads. The problems is, if you feed a person information in the wrong way, they don't get it, they don't like it and they stop playing. They never got close to the vision they had for themselves when they got motivated enough to start in the first place. How does this happen? Better yet, how can you avoid this?

Often times a student will pick the wrong avenue to achieve their goals. They know what they wanted when they dreamed up the idea. They just didn't figure out how to get there. There was nothing wrong with the intention. They just didn't get enough of the answers that wanted from the instructor to keep going back.

So what is the right answer? Choose your teacher carefully and figure out before hand what you want. Selecting a teacher is not an easy task. Teachers are all different. They are as diverse as students. They all know a different subset of information. They all have a different perspective. Each teacher holds a mental collection of experiences. This mental collection is made up from life experiences. It is a major component of how a teacher thinks of his or herself. Maybe she has extensive experience in performing, or maybe he has an accreditation from a teaching school. Maybe she taught all the other kids in the neighborhood. Whatever.

Each one learned a different way, had different teachers and different styles of learning. They all teach a little differently too. They all have different ideas of what should be taught and what is the proper way to proceed. They all have individual biases too. Everyone does! Because of their diverse backgrounds, they all have different things to teach. A classical teacher probably won't be able to teach heavy rock lead line construction. He probably doesn't know it because he doesn't play it and doesn't study it.

All teachers have something to teach. They all have something that they know well enough to be able to teach someone. The trick is to find the one that teaches what you want to learn. In order for that to happen, you must have an idea of what you would like to learn. It all comes back to what you want? And for that to be known, you have to have some direction.

You can start with the vision of what you want to do. What drives the whole thing? What do you want? Do you want to play lead guitar? Do you want to play rhythm? Are you just trying to meet someone to date? Maybe you are looking for a combination of skills. Your direction may be to play rhythm but concentrate on Latin music. Or acoustic folk or jazz/rock fusion. Maybe you want to learn how to pick up songs from the radio, no matter what they are playing. Or maybe you want to learn to sight read traditional classical pieces. All of these are good answers. They are all great ways to experience a guitar. But in order to choose a teacher you will benefit if you can at least describe what you want. If you do that, you can zero in on a guitar teacher that can teach it, and raise your expectations.

Remember we go to teachers to get better. You can use a teacher for an extended period or just to pick up some specific skills. Usually if you find a good teacher, you can speed up the process of learning. Teachers can make the subject easier to grasp and quickly turn that information into new musical ability. When you find the right teacher you can jump to a higher degree of confidence and extract more fun from the instrument. It's very cool. They can help a lot!

But it is helpful if students takes their rightful place in this process and takes ownership. They are the managers of the idea. They are also the ones that have to live with the results.

Be a partner in the process. Don't just show up and ask when you start. Interview the guitar teacher. Find out about what he or she likes. Chances are, that is what they teach well. Find out how long he has been playing and how long he has been teaching. Are there any students you could talk with? Present a set of goals you would like to achieve and see what he or she can offer to help you get there. Talk about specific guitar players you would like to emulate. There is a lot to learn in this process. You will get a variety of answers too. This also gives you an excuse to go in music shops and talk to different teachers without hiring one or buying anything. You are just gathering information and checking things out.

You may find that some of the people you talked with communicate more easily than others. Some of them make more sense to you than others. Some of them are easier to understand. Some of them can play things similar to what you are trying to learn. You will probably like some more than others. Some of them would be difficult to work with. Some of them are hard to understand. That is not intended as a slam on anyone. It's just that there will always be a difference in the way you feel about different people. This will affect the amount that you can learn from them. Everyone is different.

By managing the process, you will be able to evaluate several different sets of teachers and shops. You can see the teaching rooms and how often disruptions occur. Do outsiders just walk in teaching rooms. Do teachers get up and leave in the middle of a lesson? Are there materials and hand outs that are used in a class? Maybe you can see these materials before you start.

The music dealers in an average town will offer different types of lessons. Each store will have a different teacher (or teachers) on staff. Some stores hire and fire teachers faster than other stores. Some stores teach only beginners while some cater to intermediates. Some of the bigger stores will have a classical teacher and a rock teacher or even a whole line of teachers. Some will concentrate on only one type of music while others will try to cover everything. Some stores invest big money in training equipment, while others provide straightforward lessons in a quiet room. All of them want you to take lessons from them.

This is still tempered by where you live. People in bigger cities will have a multitude of teachers available to them. Small towns by their size do not typically have the wealth of resources found in a bigger setting. The pool of available human resources is probably smaller. You may still find a great teacher there, but you will not have as many choices. It may be harder to find the exact right teacher. So now what?

Well the Internet offers some solutions. You can sign up and take lessons but the level of communication presently available limits supplying rich content over standard modems. You also cannot read a face to see if someone is confused. It's not quite there yet for most of us. You can buy a video or a beginner book like Uncle Tim's First Year, a book that I write. It can be general in approach or very specific. But there are literally hundreds of choices available. I visited a website where you could sign up and take lessons from a person that has played for a little over two months. In the end it all comes down to this. What is it that you want?

We can reverse engineer this too. Look at the amount to time you may spend playing a guitar. For me this is how it went. I would get up about 6:30 AM. I started with an hour of scales right off the bat. Somewhere around noon, I would put in another hour. Usually that time was spent memorizing chords and playing different progressions of chords. After the second hour, I would then play all the songs I knew. Usually I would spend about three hours playing every day. In one year I usually played about one thousand hours not counting jam sessions and extended days. It would vary from year to year because my lifestyle changed in those early years. But the point is you spend a lot of hours playing a guitar if you continue to play. Maybe for you it will only be three hundred hours a year, maybe more. If you are going to spend so much time at something, the direction and instruction you get up front becomes a critical issue. It shapes your direction and provides the structure you employ when you play. It forms the backbone of experiences you have with the instrument and it determines the level of fun you get out of all this. And it magnifies over time. The effect accumulates as you continue.

Here is a hypothetical situation, however, I have seen this happen many times. Take two people that start to play on the same day. The first player plays every day for 45 minutes. They just start learning songs and they do improve. After three years the first player increases his playing to three hours day. The second player starts differently. He puts in three hours a day right from the beginning. He studies music and learns faster because he is putting in more work up front. After a while he cuts back to an hour a day. After three years he has put in a similar amount of hours as the first player. Usually there is a big difference in their abilities. The person who puts in more time up front usually has better control and more ability. The only difference is the amount of time put in up front and the effects of incubation. While he cut back on the hours he puts in, player two has the additional advantage of incubation (his skills have been developed and now they are in his muscles and brain incubating). He keeps working out and his new abilities compound on top of his existing abilities. He has leveraged his time and the gradual effect will keep him ahead for a very long time. It is not this way every time. But this is very common. If you push hard through the beginner stage you set yourself up for greater abilities when you become an intermediate. Hard work up front can really pay off.

In the end, knowing what you want determines how you approach things. A person that knows what they want, has a greater chance of crafting a plan to get there. When applied to the guitar, this plan will ultimately determine how well you do and how you feel about your progress. Teachers can shave a lot of time off a standard learning curve. If you know what kind of teacher you want , you stand a better chance of finding him or her.


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