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Choosing the ideal teacher.

by Craig Winston, guitar Instructor

Today’s post is a lesson for all music students. I’m going to provide a few tips to help you pick the ideal teacher at different points in your musical advancement.

In my guitar lessons I hear many students say that they rely heavily on content they find online to learn their instrument. And truly, for guitar, beyond all the other instruments there’s an extreme wealth of tablature, apps, and free video lessons that can help you to learn a ton of skills. I don’t discourage students from using these tools, but I can say from firsthand experience, it is extremely important to work with an instructor.

The instructor is an expert who can hear and see your musical abilities with a wealth of experience and an external vantage point that we often miss when absorbed in our performance of music.

Additionally, for intermediate and advanced students their instructor can be a valuable mentor as they make important decisions about pursuing music to higher levels.

So how do you choose your teacher? By style, accolades, yelp reviews, Instagram followers, performance history? Should it be the first result in your Google search for “Guitar Lessons Near Me”?

I’ll offer some easy tips from my experience taking lessons and teaching lessons. And I’ll offer a bit of advice for students of each skill level.

Music Lessons for Absolute Beginners

For a lot of us, our first teacher is an older sibling, a relative, or a family friend who plays music and teaches us a thing or two. These free lessons are great and definitely where I began as well. While the people listed here might not always be master musicians, they all possess an invaluable quality and that is a positive relationship to the student, a lot of times it’s the “cool older sibling” factor.

I definitely recommend that all students look out for something akin to this when they do trial lessons for their first instructor. Is the instructor fun, patient, and do they talk to you like a real person? Do you respect the instructor, not because they might be older or have a list of degrees from all the best schools, but because they set a good and exciting example of what it means to be a musician?

Again, think “cool older sibling”

And lastly, do they know how to relate to beginners? Many teachers don’t do great with new students because they don’t know how to get a fair assessment of a student’s skills in that first lesson. So be on the lookout: is the material too difficult, are lessons moving too quickly, or too slowly; is the music fun and interesting?

Music Lessons for Intermediate Students

Hopefully you’ve found a teacher that you like, and they can help you build a good foundation of skills to become an intermediate player. There’s no set amount of time to get to this level as it’s all relative to the time a student can commit, but this is really where music starts to get fun and exciting.

The most obvious symptom of an intermediate player is incessant playing of musical instruments. They spend hours learning new riffs, starting bands with kids at school, writing songs, and listening to music. You could say these students sometimes seem like advanced students, because they are playing so much music, except advanced students have a bit more discipline as far as what they work on.

I’d been playing for about a year before I took my first real guitar lesson. Up until then I had learned tons of riffs from friends and was spending whatever loose change I had on guitar magazines and cassette tapes of my favorite bands and transcribing songs from these.

This new teacher was a classical guitarist. At the first lesson he humored me and taught me the beginning of “Fade to Black” by Metallica, but all the lessons thereafter progressed through classical repertoire, from Malaguena to the Etudes by Villa Lobos. He was definitely a great teacher and I learned a great deal from the lessons, almost always feeling like that hour was worth it for the improvement in my vocabulary and technical ability.

However, my biggest struggle with these lessons was the material because I just wanted to rock, but this was the only teacher in town. While I didn’t come away with complete mastery of Steve Vai’s whole catalog, I did have the help of an excellent guide who taught me chords, arpeggios, some music theory, and a repertoire of beautiful classical music that I still love to play. We also met halfway on the whole rock ‘n roll thing by learning blues, jazz chord theory, and some flamenco rock a la Gypsy Kings.

The advice I would give to anyone seeking lessons as an intermediate student is to firstly find a knowledgeable and experienced teacher who will make sure that you know the basics and progress through this next level in a logical sequence. Many of us can get caught up in the excitement of music and tend to learn a ton of random things, arriving at the “advanced” level with gaps in our knowledge that take a long time to pinpoint.

And with that, it’s really important to find someone who can speak to your musical interests but also introduce you to new material. In my case, though my teacher was not cut from the same cloth as Yngwie Malmsteem, he was ultimately able to turn my ear to classical guitar music, which heavily influenced many of the heavy metal shredders of the 80s and 90s, and the technique would later be useful for my own songwriting.

The Lesson Studio’s Guitar Program currently has four instructors who all specialize in the style that they’re most passionate about, but we all also have such a wealth of performance experience that our students will always have the opportunity to explore music they’ve never heard before.

Music Lessons for Advanced Students

I would say that beyond skills or repertoire, the mark of an advanced student is someone who has clear and realistic goals and whose practice is consistently guided towards these goals.

As you can imagine, this would make it a challenge to find the right instructor at the right moment.

What are your goals?

Over the years, I’ve taken lessons with many different teachers with many different goals in mind. Sometimes it was to learn jazz to keep up with everything else at music school, other times it was to learn some new technique.

I’ve taken single lessons with completely new instructors just to prepare a piece for a performance or to get an outside opinion as I prep for an audition. Sometimes an instructor for advanced students can once again be a friend or colleague who happens to specialize in the skill you’re hoping to acquire.

If you’re a student in your teens and thinking about attending music school, your decision will be easier to make as you can find an instructor that graduated from the school you want to attend. Or you can find a teacher based on their expertise: someone who specializes in classical performance if you hope to attend a conservatory or an instructor with more rock, jazz, or pop experience if commercial music is going to be your focus.

For advanced students who are interested in performing, seek out instructors who are active in the local music scene or who have great past experience touring and performing. These teachers can be great mentors for advising you on finding gigs, prepping auditions, building repertoire. Some instructors can be so involved in the local music scene that they become the resource for talent when a band or show needs musicians, often connecting their best students with great opportunities.

How can your teacher help you be a better you?

Lastly, it’s important to find someone who not only speaks to your interests but also can help you capitalize on your strengths beyond just trying to fix your weaknesses.

For a long time I was obsessed with improving my skills as a shredder and felt terribly bad about myself when I’d meet someone who I deemed was “better” than me because they played faster, knew more tricks, etc. But I had the opportunity to take a lesson with a great instructor at Berklee who helped me figure out that one of my strongest assets at the time was my ear for writing melodic ideas and when we began to focus on that, my vocabulary and speed on the guitar began to increase naturally because we stopped focusing on the idea of dexterity as my major road block. And ultimately, I could get back to the fun part of all of it, which is playing good music.

As musicians the playing field becomes more populated by intense technical ability and we can get hung up on any sort of short coming that we might see in ourselves versus someone else. A good instructor can help you see beyond that.

For anyone hoping to get into lessons over the summer, or maybe you’re looking ahead to the fall, I hope this advice can help you pick the right instructor for your goals.

Do you remember your first instructor? Or maybe an instructor that really helped you to get over a hurdle with your playing?