MICHAEL MURRAYGuitar Teacher and Performer
What to Look For in a Guitar Teacher
The biggest problem in choosing a guitar teacher is that most people are completely unqualified to make a decision about who is a good guitar teacher. A corporate personnel manager making a hiring often has a degree in the area of expertise he is searching for and may have himself performed the job for which the various candidates are applying. In contrast, the majority of people searching for a guitar teacher know very little about the instrument other than their desire to learn how to play. Often someone studies the instrument for several years before realizing that the instruction they previously received was poor. Do not take the stepwise approach to finding a guitar teacher, starting with a poor one and graduating to a mediocre one. Once you reach a good teacher he may have to teach you the guitar from the beginning again in order to get rid of the bad habits you have developed. It is far better to start with the best teacher you can find in your area so you can develop a good foundation instead of correcting bad habits several years later. The following section is designed to aid those searching for a teacher in making an informed choice even if their knowledge of the instrument is limited.
The most important quality in a good teacher is that he is qualified to teach the instrument. If someone does not possess the knowledge to teach the instrument properly then it does not matter how well he can convey information, how enthusiastic he is or how much experience he has, he will still not be a good teacher. The various criteria for establishing someone’s qualifications include academic qualifications such as degrees and diplomas, playing experience and playing ability.
The easiest way of judging a teacher is by his academic qualifications. The higher the level of degree a teacher has the higher the possibility that he possesses the knowledge required to be a good teacher. Does having a degree guarantee that someone is a good teacher? No, it does not. In guitar like in all subjects there is a great variety in the quality of education provided by different universities and music schools. In guitar, however, the quality difference is particularly acute since so much is dependent on the quality of the one or several guitar teachers with whom the person studied not the large number of professors that students of most subjects would study with. There are some excellent music schools who have poor guitar professors while some lesser schools have excellent guitar professors. Studying with someone who has a good degree from a respected music school is no guarantee that they are a good teacher. They may not have had a good guitar teacher at that school or may lack teaching ability. That being said, the percentage of guitarists who have degrees and are also good guitar teachers is much higher than the percentage of guitarists without degrees who are good guitar teachers. The higher the degree a teacher has the higher the likelihood that he will be a good teacher. Studying at an institution shows a level of seriousness and dedication towards the instrument and at any school a certain level of knowledge and playing ability is required to graduate. There is at least the assurance that someone in an official position and also possessing some degree of qualification themselves has certified that this individual is qualified to be a teacher and/or professional musician. It is also much harder to falsely claim to have a degree than to falsify claims of less concrete qualifications because at some point anyone claiming to have a degree should be able to produce the certificate.
Are there other qualifications beside academic ones from an institution? Yes, there are many other types of qualification such as studying privately with a good teacher, years of playing with good musicians, knowledge discovered on one’s own, etc. The problem with these qualifications is that they are much harder to evaluate especially for someone who is not an advanced guitarist, ie. most people who are searching for a guitar teacher. Someone with a degree has had an independent and documented evaluation of his ability and education level. When evaluating someone with less official qualifications, one is often dependent on that teacher’s own assessment of the quality of his education. It is also much harder to verify the accuracy of their claims and this allows many teachers to exaggerate or outright falsify their qualifications without much fear of being found out.
I am by no means suggesting that only guitarists with academic qualifications are good teachers and that any guitar teacher lacking such qualifications is poor. Unfortunately most people searching for a guitar teacher are ill equipped to judge a teacher’s ability and academic qualifications do provide a measurable standard by which someone’s knowledge can be judged. Students will often think a teacher is great at the beginning of their lessons only to find out several years later when they are more knowledgeable and have not progressed as much as they expected that they have picked up many bad habits through their study with him. Thus, it is important that a student has a knowledgeable teacher right from the beginning. The teacher’s knowledge of the guitar and music is what a student is buying and academic qualifications provide some guarantee that the teacher possesses a certain level of knowledge. Those thinking of studying with people without such qualifications should at least implement an extra level of care when selecting such a teacher.
It is difficult enough to find someone who has the knowledge required to teach you to play the guitar proficiently but this is not the only requirement. The teacher also has to be able to convey his information effectively and in an organized manner. He must also be able to choose a program of study for you that enables you to implement his knowledge into your playing. There are many knowledgeable and virtuoso guitarists whose teaching abilities are far inferior to their instrumental skills. There are many guitarists who do not have the personality to teach, do not like teaching or are not able to express themselves verbally to the same extent that they can express themselves through their instrument. Regardless of how much knowledge a teacher possesses, if he can not convey it to you he is useless as a teacher. Fortunately, if a student is astute he can often pry the required information from such a teacher but this may require a lot of effort and an ability to organize the lessons and information on his own. Nevertheless, it is still better to have a knowledgeable teacher with poor teaching skills than a teacher lacking in knowledge who has a good teaching ability. You can not teach what you don’t know regardless of how good a teacher you are.
This is in my opinion the most overrated qualification for a guitar teacher. Experience is indeed a good thing for any teacher and over the years I have refined my teaching skills and ways of presenting material effectively. Yet without the knowledge required to be a good guitar teacher experience is useless. I know a large number of guitar teachers who have 20 years of teaching experience that one could also describe as 20 years of teaching the guitar badly. Teachers who are lacking in other qualifications often play up their experience when advertising for students. I am immediately suspicious of ads that run with the following wording: Guitar teacher with 30 years of experience. A more promising ad would run: Guitar teacher with 30 years of experience FOLLOWED BY a listing of various qualifications. A teacher with little experience yet the knowledge required to be a good teacher is far superior to one lacking in knowledge with many years of experience. As long as the knowledgeable teacher has some ability and desire to teach he should be a good teacher even if he is just starting out. In 10 years time with experience he may be a great teacher but even now he will be a much wiser choice than a less qualified teacher regardless of any difference in experience.
One good way of assessing a teacher is by the level of his former and present students. If a teacher is consistently producing students who are good players one can be reasonably assured that he is a good teacher. It is important to form your judgement on a large number of students and not just one or two students. Any teacher who has taught a significant number of students will occasionally get a student with natural technical and musical abilities who will develop into a good player despite the teacher’s failings. I know of many teachers have a good reputation because of one or two students despite the fact that they were poor teachers and most of their students were equally poor. I think it is much more important in assessing a teacher to look at the level of their average students instead of the few students who were exceptionally talented.
Personality and Personal Relationship
The personality of your teacher and the personal relationship you have with him can be very important factors in determining how well you progress as a player. If you enjoy and look forward to your lessons this can be a great motivating factor. Alternatively an unpleasant teacher can destroy your love of the instrument. This is particularly true with children. A good and pleasant guitar teacher can build their confidence which will have a positive effect in many areas of their future life while a difficult and unpleasant teacher can destroy their confidence and self esteem leading to problems in other areas in later life as well as turning them off of music. I have had many adult students who believed they did not possess the capability to play guitar because of a previous bad experience with a teacher. Often a teacher will blame a student for his own failings. The student will believe the teacher’s opinion that he has no musical talent because he is not playing the instrument well when the real cause is that the teacher did not give him the information required to learn the instrument properly. While there is a small percentage of people with physical or learning disabilities that prevent them from playing the instrument well, the vast majority can learn to play the guitar to at least a decent level if given adequate instruction. More often than not, if a teacher is blaming a student for not playing well it is usually the fault of the teacher not the student unless the student is not practicing.
Just like in any human relationship there are personalities that get along well and those that clash. This may be an entirely natural thing and not the fault of either party. Some people work well together and others do not. If you are having personal problems with your teacher it is important to evaluate how good your teacher is and how important learning the guitar is to you. I have had teachers who were excellent teachers yet did not deal with their students in an admirable way. As I was studying guitar to become a professional musician, I was willing to endure this because of the excellence of the instruction I was receiving and because I was able to not let the personal relationship affect me. On the other hand I would not recommend a similar approach to someone who is an amateur guitarist or for whom a bad relationship with their teacher will greatly affect their life. Alternatively, I have had poor teachers with whom I had a great relationship which is also not a good situation unless you are willing to pay for some pleasant companionship. You are paying to learn guitar not for good conversation and while it is not necessary to avoid talking about other subjects, a certain amount of emphasis must be placed on playing the guitar. If you have had a recent bad experience in your personal life there is no harm in talking to your guitar teacher about it for a lesson or two (we tend to be cheaper than psychologists) but I have also heard many stories of guitar teachers who were more interested in talking about the expertise of their students in computers, financial matters, business strategies, etc. than teaching them guitar.
The type of personality that works for one student may not work for another. In general, I believe students should be self motivated and a teacher shouldn’t have to aggressively pressure them to practice. Yet there are some people who can not accomplish anything unless they are pressured to do so. If you do not have a satisfactory relationship with your guitar teacher try to find a new one but if you are convinced that he is a good teacher see if you can solve the conflict before taking this step. In doing this, analyze your own part in the conflict and don’t be afraid to speak honestly with him about your concerns. If this doesn’t work then put the effort in to find an equally qualified teacher with whom you can get along with better.
There are some guitar teachers who are not motivated to teach. Some guitarists do not like teaching but have to do it to earn a living while others may be tired of the constant repetition of material required to teach students of differing levels. A sign of such a teacher is that he is happy to spend the whole lesson talking about something other than the guitar. While a teacher may have perfectly legitimate reasons to feel that way there is still no reason that you should have to pay for someone who is not motivated to put in the effort to teach you properly. Do not think it is because you are an untalented student. I have studied with this type of teacher and in a certain way I think this was the worst type of teacher I have had even though the particular teachers in question were nice guys. While some of the poorly qualified teachers I have had do share some blame for not taking the necessary steps to educate themselves adequately, at least they gave an effort to teach me what they could in the lesson. The unmotivated teachers in question did in fact possess some knowledge that they could have imparted to me yet were mostly uninterested in doing so because they did not enjoy teaching and were not particularly interested in whether I became a good guitarist or not. Despite being pleasant people, to some extent I feel they stole both money and time from me. It is one thing to not be able to give someone what they are paying for but another thing to choose not to give someone what they are paying for. In my opinion, if a person is not motivated to teach they should find another profession and if you are studying with such a person you should immediately find another teacher.
It is my experience that beginning students often place too much emphasis on a player’s style of music when choosing a teacher. The optimal situation is to have a great teacher who plays your style of music but it is more important at the beginning to have a great teacher who will teach you the basics of the instrument properly than one who plays the style of music you like. A guitarist who plays a different style of music than the type you want to play can still teach you to play the guitar well. After you are able to play the guitar well you can learn to play the style of music you prefer.
Some teachers may be able to teach some aspects of the guitar well while lacking in other areas. Often a good technical teacher may not be a good musical teacher and vice versa. Of course it is best to have a teacher who is capable in both areas but if this is not possible it is better to have a good technical teacher first and then find a good musical teacher once you can play the instrument well. If you start off with a good musical teacher who does not know how to develop a good technique you may not acquire the ability to fully realize the musical ideas he is providing you with.
Does a Good Teacher Have to be a Good Player?
This is a subject of much debate and various opinions. My opinion is that despite a few exceptions, a good guitar teacher does have to be a good player even though not all good guitar players are good teachers. Usually you have to be able to do something well in order to teach it. One would not study mathematics with someone who is poor at math so why would someone study guitar with a poor guitar player? This does not mean that every good teacher must be a concert performer but rather that at some time in their life they should have attained a certain level of proficiency on the instrument. Some musicians prefer to concentrate on teaching rather than performing and there is nothing wrong with that, a performer’s lifestyle is not for everyone. All of the guitar teachers who I have studied with and who I consider good teachers were also good players although some of them preferred teaching over performing. Among the teachers who I have studied with that I consider to be poor teachers there were a few good guitarists but the vast majority of them were poor players as well as being poor teachers.
There are two types of teachers that I would consider an exception to this rule: the critic and the pedagogue. The critic is someone who does not play all that well themselves but who has attended a large number of concerts and has developed a good ear for what makes a performer sound good. Such a teacher can be valuable for certain types of students, in particular those who already have a solid technique and musical ideas and just need some feedback about them. Such teachers are rarely good for developing technique and are thus not good for beginning students. The second type, the pedagogue, is less common. It is best described by its most prominent example in the guitar world, Aaron Shearer. Mr. Shearer learned to play the guitar at a time when guitar pedagogy was quite poor. Even though he studied with some well known players they had very poor teaching methods and he developed a poor technique. Due to his poor technique, Aaron Shearer developed tendonitis which ended his playing career. Instead of ending his guitar career, he decided to analyse why he developed tendonitis and to devise a method of developing good technique so that other guitarists would not suffer the same fate he did. Over time through analyzing the technique of many good guitarists and experimenting with methods to produce this type of technique he developed a method of training guitarists and went on to teach a large number of prominent guitarists. This type of teacher is, however, quite rare and probably unlikely to be found by someone searching for their first guitar teacher.
Playing ability is a qualification similar to academic qualifications. Not every good player is a good teacher but the percentage of good guitarists who are good teachers is far, far higher than the percentage of poor/mediocre players who are good teachers. Like academic accomplishments, playing ability is one of the easier qualifications to evaluate in a perspective teacher. One has to be selective though. Many beginning guitarists think that their neighbour who plays a few songs is a good player even though a professional guitarist would consider him an amateur of limited skill. Have a high criteria for deciding who a good player is and try to find the best guitarists in your city. While they may not all be good teachers if you can try a lesson with several of the better players you should be able to find one who is a good teacher. If you have a lesson with a guitarist whom you have not heard play it is a good idea to ask him to play something for you. If the way he plays is the level you would like to play at then there is at least a decent chance he will be a good teacher. If it is below the level you would like to play at then you need to search for another teacher.