The Perpetual Beginner: what makes a good teacher

January 29, 2018
The Perpetual Beginner: what makes a good teacher

Many guitar teachers seem to feel like they need to choose between two paths: what the student wants to learn, and what the student needs to know.

You would think it’s not an “either-or” proposition, and I don’t believe it is. But I hear from many people about how their past experiences with lessons seemed to fall on one side or the other. Some will say “my teacher just asked what songs I wanted to learn” or “I just learned a few songs”. Some say “I got bored, I wasn’t learning any songs”. In both cases, I think the problem was in the balance between the two approaches.

Effective teaching addresses both the wants and the needs. This can be a tricky balance to strike, but to me the goal is always to find the “teachable moment” in every song. What can you learn about music and guitar playing in general from the song you’re learning right now? I do select songs because they use particular chords, rhythms, or techniques, and I have a general sequence of go-to beginner songs. The songs are supplemented by exercises to help build technique. But it’s usually not hard come up with a similar sequence using the music you listen to.

Remember, whatever song or style you might be learning to play, you’re working with the same twelve notes.

Those notes will be strung together one after another to form a melody or a riff, or sounded together to form chords and harmony. So your learning process is to identify those notes, located them on your instrument, and get your fingers to articulate them.

Sometimes we need a teacher for all three parts of that process, and sometimes we don’t. With all the resources available to us now, though, it’s usually not hard to find the “what” and “where” on your own. A quick search will likely turn up lyrics, chords, and tabs. But that information has to be evaluated and deciphered. Are the notes and chords right? Are the tabs and fingerings accurate? What about rhythm and timing? These are areas where good teaching makes all the difference.

There’s also the very important matter of sequencing. If you try to play songs that are too difficult too soon, you might get frustrated and quit. At the very least, it will take longer to get to that first “aha!” moment than if you had started more simply. So good teaching also guides you up a graded slope instead of giving you a rope to climb.

 

Know the shortcomings of shortcuts.

I often have students come to me with a book full of tabs they can’t play. Part of the problem is the nature of tab itself: the thing that makes it useful is also its biggest musical shortcoming. It doesn’t tell you what notes to play, just where to play them. It’s a convenient shortcut, because you can play a song without needing to know what the notes are. But when you do, you’ve effectively just memorized a series of moves…you haven’t actually learned any music.

Think about all the elements that go into playing even a simple song. You need to play the right notes and chords in the right order with smooth transitions between them, in time at the right tempo and with the right rhythm pattern or groove. Then there’s dynamics, the rise and fall of energy to match the feeling of the song. If you haven’t addressed all of these things either consciously or intuitively, you haven’t learned the song.

 

Any musical element could be the basis for an exercise that will help you perform that action in the song.

A good teacher will help you recognize these individual elements, and give you tools to build the skill or vocabulary you need.

Sometimes that means breaking down a chord change or a technical passage into a very small segment: finding the kernel of the problem, so to speak. Every mechanical problem has a mechanical solution if you break things down far enough. That process of breaking things down is also a great learning tool in itself, because you learn how to separate the elements of a piece of music and put them back together. Not only is this great for your technique, it’s a great mental and musical exercise.

If the challenge is rhythmic, break the rhythm down to a simple pulse and try to really nail down when things happen. Think of the steady beat like a ruler…you’re literally measuring distance, but in increments of time. At 60 bpm, there’s exactly once second between one quarter note and the next. That doesn’t mean we need a stopwatch, but it does mean we can map out precisely when something is supposed to happen on a timeline and then practice the coordination we need to execute it.

Then there’s the bigger picture of musical progression and song structure. All music uses patterns. If you learn to recognize a pattern in one song, you’re hear it when it comes up in another. It’s very useful to learn to hear chord progressions, and to understand enough theory that you can articulate what they are. Every time you learn to identify something musically, you’re adding to your ability to identify that pattern in another song later.

 

The bottom line is, learning to play is going to take some grunt work.

But you can still be working towards playing your favorite songs as you do it, and a good teacher will understand how to do that. If they’re doing their job well, your task is to practice and to maintain your perspective. When you’re assigned exercises, remember why you’re doing them. If you get bored, either the task is too easy or (more likely) you’re not paying close enough attention. But when presented well, that work is part of the bigger picture of your overall development as a player and musician.

Sometimes your lessons will follow a specific sequence, and sometimes they won’t. It depends on your current abilities and goals. The most important thing is that your teacher can find the “teachable moment” in everything you work on. When that happens, everything you learn to play is a step towards learning something else. Ultimately, that’s the mark of good teaching.

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