Your shopping safari for a gift guitar was successful, and your gift guitar recipient is serious about beginning lessons. But there can be seemingly endless choices between commercial music schools, private instructors in your town, teachers in music stores, and online. So how do you find the right teacher?
- Use Word of Mouth
Guitar teachers usually build their businesses through referrals, and good teachers are often in demand. Music teachers in your local school district may be just what you’re looking for. Some teach on the side or can make a referral. Kids may find a good teacher through their friends who may already be studying with one. Public (and often, private) school teachers can have an advantage because of their credentials, the least of which is State teaching certification. The music outlet that sold you the guitar may also offer lessons. One-stop shopping can be a powerful incentive. Guitar teachers employed by music stores also have the experience and education to deliver guitar instruction. But be prepared to pony up for prepaid lessons by the month or similar arrangement. On the other hand, you may save some money in the long run.
Private study with a local independent instructor/musician has advantages. Like many of their colleagues in the music stores, independent instructors usually have a degree from a university music program or from an institution like the Berklee College of Music, The Juilliard School, The New School, or another renowned conservatory. My first jazz instructor was a summa cum laude graduate of the Cincinnati Conservatory of Music, with an diverse and profound knowledge of music from which I benefit today. A bonus is that in this harsh economy your tuition dollars stay in the community instead of funneling into a big corporation.
Recreation or community programs in your municipality may also provide a good start to the guitar. Instructors–such as yours truly here in central New Jersey–offer affordable workshops each spring and fall. Workshops can help teach children collaboration, good socialization skills, and discovering the joys of making music with others, to say nothing of making new friends. Even The Beatles started somewhere!
A word about online learning: like it or not, YouTube videos, lessons over the Internet (e.g. via Skype), DVDs, or other non-traditional instruction have changed music education, indeed, the very business framework of music. What may help one guitar student learn may not work for another. Some students risk becoming “parrots”–that is, mimicking what they see on the screen but without understanding of what and why they’re playing it. Emulating a favorite star musician or band can be instructive and inspiring, and thus isn’t necessarily bad. However, learning the actual music and guitar playing techniques offer personal growth and development that can be a source of personal satisfaction, far beyond simple monkey-see, monkey-do.
- Talk with the Teacher
Spend a few minutes getting to know the teacher. Asking instructors about how they feel about teaching can be a good barometer of how they work with students. While by no means the last word, here’s mine:
Facilitate an engaging environment in which students feel safe taking risks in their learning, and where it’s okay to say “I don’t know”–but it’s not okay is to ignore it or shove it under the rug.
It can also pay to ask about how they give a lesson, whether they teach supportively and are sensitive to possible learning disabilities or cultural differences. If a teacher is certified by your state and attended a college or conservatory, you’re in pretty safe territory. Some teachers gained their music backgrounds and educations though hard work, formal study with an alternate music program (e.g. Berkee Online), and practical experience. The key is whether teachers know their stuff and can communicate it clearly, concisely, and correctly to help the student retain material. Case in point: did you ever have a teacher, say in college, who was a leader in her discipline but couldn’t get the material across at all? You may remember being frustrated and in all likelihood didn’t get much from that class.
Ask for a brief professional autobiography and where the teacher has worked. If s/he has successfully is teaching a larger number of students, that’s a good sign. That the teacher can read music comfortably is important, too. Many teachers are superb musicians but they may not be adept in reading notes.
What teaching materials does s/he use? Many guitar teachers use the Mel Bay, Hal Leonard, Berklee, or Jamie Aebersold workbook series, to name just a few. Some musicians develop their own material. In addition, find out what styles of music s/he teaches. As students progress they might want to focus on blues, metal, classic rock, classical, or jazz. An excellent rock ‘n’ roll teacher may not know classical guitar techniques.
Ask about lesson scheduling. A good guitar teacher will have a nearly full schedule. It will pay for you to have several days and times your student could be available for a weekly lesson. Mondays can be tricky because many holidays are observed on that day. While you’re at it, ask about the teacher’s rescheduling policy in case of illness or other obligations, such as religious observances.
Effective teachers adjust to each student’s learning needs, keep accurate records, and track each student’s progress. It’s okay to stay in touch with the instructor to see how the student is doing. Even a very brief verbal report at the end of each lesson can be helpful.
How about payment? Guitar teachers are professionals who provide a service, and most independent instructors charge a fair and competitive tuition. This may also depend upon where the teacher works. Some music shops require a monthly prepaid agreement about which the teachers have no say.
Likewise, some private guitar teachers offer prepaid monthly plans, and community education programs require payment up front for the entire session. Those are all the more reasons to be sure your student is serious about learning the guitar. If a private teacher wants a significant number of lessons paid in advance, ask if you could pay for the first few lessons and see how the student does. Some private teachers I know invoice their students at the end of each month, while I prefer students pay by the lesson.
Major music stores usually accept all major credit cards and personal checks for lessons. However, some private music schools hire teachers as independent contractors and they may handle payments. While that’s a common and perfectly legitimate practice, it’s also another good reason to ask about payment policies ahead of time.
Most private guitar teachers like cash (who doesn’t?), but more and more (like me) adopted technology like the Square Register card reader to accept payment by credit and debit cards right on our iPhones. And the new EMV credit cards offer security as good as it can get, to date. Personal checks work for us too, but like any other business some of us have policies covering returned checks.
3. Talk with the Student
Your student’s success also relies on how s/he feels about guitar study, once it really begins (“Wow, it really isn’t like ‘Guitar Hero’!”). It bears repeating that you would be wise to be sure your student is serious about learning the guitar before you invest in the instrument (see A Guitar Gift-Giving Guide) and lessons. Many music fundamentals such as scales or arpeggios will sooner or later appear to be boring, especially younger students but without them, proficiency in playing the guitar will be impossible.
Social maturity plays a role in student feedback but by the same token, you’ll be able to see whether a student is benefiting from guitar study with a specific instructor. Even just asking, “how’s it going?” can go a long way. If things appear to be going rough, work with the teacher to see what can be done to help the student. By collaborating and supporting a guitar student, s/he can be guided on track to developing good musicianship and to reap the benefits of playing the guitar.
© 2015 John’s Guitar Studio