ANATOMY OF A GUITAR LESSON

What do you think of when you think of guitar lessons? For most of us who play, the first few lessons entailed chords, little fingers barely making it around a fat neck on a Johnny-Cash like acoustic guitar with painful steel strings. With determination callouses form, fingers grow, and eventually that big guitar will stay on your lap. Or maybe not, and it will collect dust in the corner as you move on to gymnastics or the clarinet.

My dad was my first teacher, so I was blessed to try some licks and chords out on a narrow-necked electric guitar- a Guild jazz guitar with easy action.

It wasn’t long before he taught me 2-5-1’s, with nice jazz voicings, and I could move around the neck. At the same time I was taking classical lessons, during which I sat in fear most of the time, intimidated by my teacher. In retrospect, I know there were some missing pieces to his teaching skills. When I didn’t practice, I was told I was wasting my parent’s money. I was told I had potential but I was lazy. Well, maybe I was lazy and lacked motivation, but he was scary. I dreaded going, I dreaded the practicing because I was so scared in the lessons that I forgot half of what he told me. There was no joy. But there was joy in what my dad, who loved me, taught me.

I backed down off of the classical lessons and played power chords in a rock band and sang Heart tunes and Led Zeppelin. But eventually music took a back seat to ‘real life’. I attempted some lessons as an adult, but they were very frustrating because I couldn’t apply what my teachers were telling me. With so little time because of ‘real life’ considerations, why bother with lessons and be continually frustrated and not make progress?

So many young musicians quit because of distractions and isolation. Much of what I thought was going on in my playing was ‘in my head’. There was no one to tell me otherwise, my teachers didn’t recognize it. They could teach modes and scales, but I couldn’t receive their teaching because they weren’t present with me in the lessons, they were in THEIR heads, it was all about them. They were great musicians, all of them, and that is what they offered in their lessons. A piece of their greatness. They couldn’t begin to see how to help me navigate, they could just demonstrate.

I was able to overcome these obstacles which plagued my playing for quite some time, In returning to classical guitar music I have felt more joy than in any other type of playing. WHen I play a Bach piece for instance, I feel as though I am having a conversation with him, across the centuries, and in using melody and harmony and rhythm, communicating something that words just cannot express adequately. Hans Christian Anderson said it best: “When words fail, music speaks”.

I can readily see the joy on my students’ faces when they experience this. The Suzuki method puts the student at the center of the lesson. The teacher and the coach support the student by acting on and through Suzuki principles: A common repertoire, small steps, repetition, intentional listening, creative motivation, and an instrument sized for the student. All along the way, I am present with my students, in the moment, and making every effort to be gentle, encouraging and responsive to what is needed in the moment for the passage or skill we are working on to be joyfully rendered.

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6 thoughts on “ANATOMY OF A GUITAR LESSON

  1. Thanks for sharing your experience of guitar lessons. I dreaded my guitar lessons at uni because I felt like my tutor was trying to make me see things in the same way that he does and focus solely on jazz and funk. I always wanted to focus on my fingerstyle and accompanist skills so I never believed he considered my interests to contextualise what he wanted me to learn; this is exactly what I hope to avoid as a tutor!

    I’ll have to look into the Suzuki method, I’ve come across the name a lot lately!

    1. Hi James:

      Thanks for reading and commenting. I wonder if a lot of us have had a similar experience in lessons? I bet so. How long have you had your studio? I wonder also if you do any web lessons, I think this is a direction I would like to explore via skype. Blessings to you!

  2. I wouldn’t be surprised if it’s incredibly common and a cause of many students giving up on the instrument. I kind of think that tutors need to act as a Sherpa to guide students through their experience of music in order for them to become the musician that they want to be. When I was at uni I wanted to focus on accompanist skills – I wanted my guitar playing to sound like Jeff Buckley’s as that’s what ‘spoke’ to me. When my tutor gave me bebop scales (I don’t have any real bond with Jazz) it was information that lacked context to me; I couldn’t remember any of it and didn’t know how to practise it! Bebop ‘spoke’ to him and seemed musical due to his encounters with music – not mine. When we had lessons on chord inversions and I realised it’s what I hear and like in Buckley, Radiohead and Dave Matthews – I practised constantly and loved it.

    As a tutor I want find what gets my students excited and use that to teach them. For one of them, it’s the desire write and sing his own songs. Showing him chords and getting him to practice changes by writing seems to be working well so far 🙂

    I’ve only been teaching privately for a little while but was employed by my university to mentor college bands and guide their rehearsals for a couple of months. I’m in talks with 2 colleges about teaching with them because of this!

    I don’t use web lessons at the moment. I use youtube to create videos to remind students what things are supposed to sound like but don’t think I’ll go any further than that to be honest!

  3. Hi James, it has been a while since I have worked on my site and blog, sorry I haven’t replied sooner, but I think it is great that you are mentoring bands. How is that going? I am interested in hearing how your practice as a teacher has been developing and what you have learned along the way. I moved, and am travelling once per week to see my students from last year in another community and hoping to launch in my new studio. I am teaching in my home now, which saves me time and allows me to be pretty relaxed going into the lessons. I had a friend who homeschools once tell me that it is best to teach from a relaxed perspective because if you are anxious your students will just learn your anxiety. Wow. that really helped me take a step back and see where I have been wound up! I have a few students in my new community and am starting a guitar ensemble which I am going to blog about soon. HOpe all is well with you, happy music making and thanks for commenting here.

  4. I took organ lessons with my father and soon lost interest because frankly, it hurt my fanny to sit on that bench so long! I think my father was hoping I’d take after an uncle who was a wonderful entertainer and could play any song off the top of his head to the delight of my relatives at family gatherings. It’s such a talent and takes determination and endurance – hats off to you Robin!! We all loved your music in high school !

    1. Thanks so much Mo, I still remember belting out the Rose in the wee hours of the morning or late at night with you and Greg – those were the days! What are you listening to on your sailboat? Love your blog.

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