Imagine this plan for buying a car: call the two or three dealerships nearest your house, find the cheapest car available on these lots, and buy that one without any further consideration. Does this seem like a good plan to you? I hope not! Yet this is how many aspiring guitarists approach the search for a guitar teacher. I hope to persuade you that guitar instruction, just like cars, comes in many levels of quality, features, and value. You need to know something about Teacher Tenure Pros and Cons and also how to find the right guitar teacher for you before you even begin looking!
So let’s take another look at the car analogy. How do we identify the right one for our needs? First, we know that however much it costs this is more than we want to spend, so we may as well put that aside for the moment. We start with what we need. If we have to carry four or five people routinely then we need a large sedan. If we need to carry four or five people and a bunch of equipment for the kids’ extracurricular activities, then we need an SUV. If the need is for general purpose cargo hauling, then of course we need a truck. Towing a boat? We need a big motor. No boat? More concerned with fuel economy? Then a smaller motor is in order. We pick the vehicle FIRST, before even considering where to buy or how much to pay.
Once we know the vehicle we need we might do a bit of research on the web, ask some friends, etc., to find what brand and type are most reliable. Then we find out the nearest places we can find such a vehicle. Only then do we go looking for an actual example of the vehicle on a lot somewhere… not necessarily only the closest lot to home. Why not the closest lot? Because the closest lot may not have the car that most closely matches all of our goals and preferences, and of course at this point we are looking for a car that we can afford!
The final decision is a balance among multiple considerations, and so it is with a wise choice in selecting a guitar teacher. You are going to spend a year or three or five of your life with your guitar teacher, and hundreds or maybe thousands of dollars. Is it wise to make such a life-impacting decision with no forethought? It is conceivable that one by sheer luck could go the closest music shop, pick the cheapest guitar teacher, and end up with the best possible outcome. It is also possible to win the lottery. The odds are about the same for both scenarios.
What are the steps for identifying the best teacher for you?
As a beginner or early intermediate guitarist you may have difficulty discerning if a particular guitar teacher is the right one for you. Varying stages of your progress may require different teachers. The idea here is to eliminate the ones you can KNOW are not right, and then make an informed guess as to which one is the most appropriate for your goals and other pertinent considerations. Follow the steps below to greatly increase your odds of correctly identifying the right guitar teacher for you early on, and thus avoid wasting precious time and money with a poor match.
Step 1. Know the facts:
Guitar teachers are not all the same. Some are ineffective, some are great, and most are in between. Not all good players are good teachers. A music degree does not automatically make for a good music teacher. Cost is certainly a factor for all of us in considering any kind of financial investment. However, as with most any other investment, generally you will get what you pay for. If an ineffective guitar teacher charges you a fraction the price of a good teacher, but it takes you four or five times as long to reach your goals, then you have come out behind both financially and in terms of your guitar skills. Likewise, if the closest teacher to your house is not the right guitar teacher for you then the extra months or years to reach your goals eclipses the few minutes of driving time you save per trip.
It is very important to remember here that you are looking for a person at this point – not a location or a price. We will come back to cost and location later. Learning an instrument takes a lot of time and money. You must not waste either with a guitar teacher who is not a good match for you. If you have to pay more per lesson and drive somewhat farther to get a good teacher who can get results for you, then do it – or regret it later!
Step 2. Identify your goals:
You need to know what your end goals are before you go looking for a teacher to help you reach them. The guitar is a very versatile instrument. A classical guitar is very different from a heavy rock guitar. They require very different physical techniques and knowledge. Just like most other areas of human endeavor, you may have some interest in a wide range of specifics but your resources permit pursuit of excellence in only one of these areas. Identify the style of music that you most enjoy and want to be able to play well. You will need a guitar teacher who knows how to develop the knowledge and physical skills specific to this style. There is significant overlap between some styles, such as Blues and Classic Rock. However, if you want to excel at bluegrass flat picking then a heavy rock oriented player/teacher is not going to be your best choice.
You also need to consider how far you want to go with guitar. Hobbyist, pro, or something in between? If your goal is campfire hobbyist with just enough skills to carry simple folk tunes, then the average guitar teacher at the closest shop might work for you. If your goal is at the other end of the spectrum, then you need an experienced teacher with a strong grounding in music theory and performance.
Step 3: Seek out the teachers in your general area that appear to match your goals.
This does not need to take six months, but it need not be confined to a day or two either. Yellow pages blurbs typically provide very little information, often only an address and phone number. You may have to make a number of phone calls and ask a number of your musically experienced friends who they recommend. Many guitar teachers now have personal web sites that you can examine for clues as to whether they are a match for your goals.
Most importantly, try to get an interview with the teacher before investing in any lessons with them. You can do this by phone, but a face to face interview is best. A personal interview is a chance for you to perceive your potential teacher’s personality and character. In addition to your guitar-specific goals, you will need a teacher who inspires enjoyment, respect, and trust. At first your lessons are exciting and fun, but there will come a time when it starts to get challenging. If you do not like your teacher and do not trust his or her expertise then it will be difficult for you to stay motivated to keep showing up for lessons when you run into the inevitable frustrations.
Step 4: Interview your prospective teacher.
Let’s qualify this “interview”. There is no need to approach a potential instructor with a cold list of demands. When I say “interview”, I do not mean as if questioning a suspect. I simply mean to ask some pertinent questions of your prospective teachers within the context of a friendly conversation. Here are the things you want to find out…
-What styles do they teach? If circumstances permit ask of this before you share what kind of style you most wish to learn. You are looking for someone who plays and teaches in a style that is the same or closely related to the style you want to learn. If the answer is “I teach all styles” then it is most likely in your best interests to continue looking for a specialist in your preferred style. Use good judgment with this. A teacher may teach in two or three styles that are distinct styles, but still use similar knowledge and techniques. If you call a music shop or school and ask this question then they may answer, “All styles”. For a shop or school, it may well be that they have multiple teachers who specialize in various styles. In this case try to get an interview with the teacher who is most specialized in your style.
-What kind of person are you dealing with? This is a more subtle criteria without obvious identifiers. Look for a person who is genuinely interested in you as a person and is internally motivated toward helping you reach your goals – a person with a “teacher’s heart”. To illustrate this kind of instinctive measure I refer you back to your school teachers and athletic coaches. You probably remember some who you knew really cared about you and your success, and some who didn’t. Which teachers and coaches got the best results from you and for you? If your potential teacher is cold, acts as if you are a bother, or as if your questions are insulting and irritating, then you will know this is a person who does not have a teacher’s heart.
At the risk of being a bit redundant and tedious, let me tell you that I can not overemphasize how important this is! You may not care much about how your guitar teacher feels about your progress and results, but you do want the results. That is what it boils down to for you: a person with a teacher’s heart will be passionate about your results. Driven by this passion, an internally motivated teacher will do whatever it takes to become effective at teaching and getting results for students. I have had guitar instructors with true teacher’s hearts, and others who were lacking in this vital element of effective teaching. The difference in results is exponential.
-Organized, structured program of instruction. Unfortunately, some guitar teachers have no idea what they are going to teach you until you sit down in front of them every week. You want a teacher who uses organized reference material such as a recognized teaching manual, proven method, original custom course, or a combination of these, as well as means of tracking your progress. You do not want a teacher who is going to passively let you tell them what to teach you. A teacher like this is not committed to your long-term best interests. A good teacher will strike a balance between your short-term goals and his or her greater expertise as to what you need to know. You want a teacher who will push you to learn and consistently utilize proper physical technique, help you set up an effective practice schedule, and help you identify and reach short and long-term goals.
-Considerate of your goals. There are some guitar teachers who couldn’t care less about your goals. They simply wish to hold a job playing and talking about guitar. They are pretty easy to spot… most of the time you spend with them consists of you listening to them play. A potential teacher should in fact ask you some questions… your previous experience, your current skill set, and your goals. The focus of your time with any instructor should be on your skills, not theirs. Of course they will need to demonstrate things for you, but the general focus of your time together should be on improving your skills rather than showcasing their own.
-Trained to teach. Teaching is a complex art form entirely separate from musical expertise. There are some people who are naturally gifted at communications and this lends itself well to teaching. You may find a good guitar teacher who has not had any specific training in teaching. However, your odds of finding a good teacher are higher if you can find someone who has specific training in teaching as well as good musical abilities. Your odds are even better if you can find someone who has specific training in teaching guitar.