Saturday, October 29, 2011

So you want to be a guitar teacher

Occasionally I am asked the question by a student "What do I need to do to become a guitar teacher?" The short answer: If you believe you know enough about guitar and are confident you can communicate what you know you are at least ready to give it a go. Teaching is somewhat like performing on stage. You need to learn your material, practice until you are confident and then just step up and do it. To become a good teacher like a good guitarist takes experience. When you begin teaching especially where you are being paid you will most likely make many of the classic mistakes but that's okay. We often learn more from our mistake than our successes especially those mistakes that are embarrassing or painful in someway. Research has shown we are best at retaining information when learnt through an emotionally charged negative experience. How often have you said to yourself after a humiliating experience 'I will never do that again'. Still, I think we all want to avoid such experiences if possible so for those of you who want to become guitar teachers here is my advice.

Find a mentor

A mentor will make a huge difference for several reasons. Firstly you can learn from their mistakes rather than your own. By watching, listening and if possible asking questions you can learn more in one hour from a good mentor than you could from 10 hours of actual teaching. Next a mentor gives you a vision of hope. When you first start teaching it is easy to lose your confidence especially when you become frustrated because your students are showing no signs of progress or dropping out of lessons. A mentor sets a path for you to follow. Think about how you were inspired by great guitar players. You may not have known them personally but they still unwittingly mentored you. I have almost always had mentors in the areas where I hope to progress and I believe they have made all the difference. Especially with teaching. As a teacher you are looking for teachers not necessarily guitar players. Anyone who you believe to be a successful teacher will make a good mentor.

Use a method

When I began teacher some 25 years ago I would mostly make up each lesson as I went along. A typical lesson would begin with a quick revision of last week's lesson followed by 'So what do you want to do this week?' I had no clear direction for my students. I just wanted to make them happy by giving them exactly what they requested. In some cases they would bring in a song but there were always those students who would just say "I dunno". This was especially true of young children. They honestly did not know what they wanted to play. In most cases it didn't take long for both student and I to become confused about where it was all heading. I knew I needed a guitar method. When I began to look for guitar methods all I could find were books on reading music and they were missing many important elements of learning guitar so I knew I had create something that would cover at least the essential skills. The G4 Guitar Method was basically the answer.

Keep learning

Too often teachers neglect their own learning. They stop going to a teacher because they feel they can teach themselves. Whenever I would interview a teacher my first question would be "Do you have a teacher?" and if the answer was no I would ask why not. After all they are selling the concept of lessons yet they themselves do not have a teacher. The best teachers know the value of a teacher. The know that a teacher means a lot more than just information. A teacher keeps them feeling accountable and moving forward. When we have a teacher we of course have a mentor but probably the biggest benefit of having a teacher is you now how it feels to be a student. Understanding how your students feel will dramatically improve your own teaching.

Involve parents

When I began teaching it simply did not occur to me to include parents in the process of their child learning guitar. I just assumed my young students understood what they had to do and would do it. When I failed to get results I just believed they were too young to learn guitar. It wasn't until I witnessed the success of a piano teacher with young children that my opinion began to shift. Teaching adults and teens is very different to teaching young children. Adults and teens are old enough to understand the process and to take personal responsibility. They know learning guitar takes time and requires practice if they hope to progress. Young children on the other hand need support from parents. Practicing one skill for months can seem like a lifetime to a young child. They quickly lose interest and need parental support. When parents are involved in the process there is almost always a dramatic improvement. Parents also help to feedback what is happening at home. Young children may not always be able to articulate the way they feel or what is happening at home whereas a parent can make all the difference.

Want to become a G4 Guitar Teacher?

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Saturday, October 22, 2011

Your child is NOT too young for guitar

Any parent who witnesses the development of their child can't help be amazed at how much they learn in such a short period. Their development is truly phenomenal. To put this into perspective, a child under 5 learns an average of 1000 new words a year and manages to put it all together to the point where by 5 years of age they can converse fluently with anyone who speaks the same language. This is all while learning to survive in the unknown world around them. Any adult who has traveled to a foreign country and lived in a remote area where no one speaks the language might have some idea of what this is like. Also remember that unlike the adult the child has no point of reference. They can't ask questions like "In your language how do I say .....?"

Gifted children are everywhere

Now naturally when a parent sees their own child learning at such an incredible rate they can't help but feel their child is gifted. You might think I am about to disagree but the fact is your child is gifted as are all children compared to adults.  If adults were to learn at even half the rate of a child we could all complete a university master degrees on any subject every year. When you stop for a minute and think about the mind boggling pace of a young child's learning it is truly phenomenal. Even those children who at school perform below par at times demonstrate unique talents that are not always obvious in their youth. Chance are they are just developing a different part of their brain that is not connected to the school curriculum. We only have to look at Einstein (teacher said
"Einstein, you will never amount to anything"), Sir Isaac Newton (failed at school), Thomas Edison ( teacher said he was too stupid to learn anything), Steven Spielberg ( placed in a learning-disabled class) as some good examples.

Is your child too young to learn guitar?

Parents sometimes hold back their children from learning music often believing that they are too young. This surprisingly is quite common with guitar. There is a misconception in the public that guitar should be learnt later. When asked most parents will say children should start guitar between 7 years and 12 years. Even many music teachers believe this to be the ideal starting age but we need to make a distinction between popular opinion and actual fact. I am not about to say that I have any scientific proof that starting guitar from 2 years of age is best but I am quite convinced that starting early has definite advantages providing it is done right. When we compare the elements of learning guitar to similar skills a young child learns we see that starting early is often critical. Playing guitar requires fine motor skill development and can be compared to a skill like hand writing. Even by the age of 3 or 4 most children can write their name in most developed countries. My 2 year old daughter can hold a guitar pick and individually pick each string on the guitar. While this may seem a simple task it is actually very difficult (just ask a robotic engineer) so it demonstrates how sophisticated a child's brain really is. The aural skills of music can be compared to language and there is no question that the best time to start learning any language is the day you are born or even earlier. Imagine waiting until age of 7 before introducing your child to reading and writing.

Some points to consider when starting young

While I fully encourage starting children as early as possible on guitar there are a few points to consider. Firstly do not put the same expectations on to a 2 year old as you would a 10 year old. Allow them room to experiment. This may mean banging the guitar, pulling strings, turning the tuning pegs etc. It is all part of the early learning experience. Secondly you are not looking for results in terms of performance. You just want them to become curious. You can use the the guitar to play games. With my 2 year old for instance we have given each string a familiar character. E.g. the low E string is Shrek while the high E string is Fiona so now several times a day she will pluck a string and say it's character name. Lastly its important to be aware that many guitar teachers have zero experience with young children so they will simply say they are too young. What they really mean is your child is too young for them to teach. What you need to do is seek out a teacher who is prepared to work with young children. If this is not possible where you live start by enrolling them into an early music  development course. Also feel free to contact myself if you have any questions.

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Tuesday, October 18, 2011

Can you know 'too' many songs on guitar?

I recently read an article about Steve Jobs and how when he rejoined Apple his first priority was to axe as many of their products as possible and focus on only a few. Initially there were about 300 different products which he managed to cull back to around 10. Jobs certainly did not invent this philosophy but he did come close to perfecting it and proved that less can be more. A lot more.

Party tricks

I have seen this with guitar students time and time again. Typically they have a guitar case full of half tabbed out songs and when asked to perform they happily show off a dozen different riffs or intros to songs but no actual complete pieces. The problem is not really the fact that they cannot play a complete song but it usually highlights an underlying issue. Many songs include sections that are simply beyond the beginner student so rather then develop the skills required many students just move on to a new song. For example there might be a simple intro but a challenging solo so the student will learn the intro almost like a party trick hoping they will never be put in a situation where they are required to play the song in it's entirety.

Songs are projects

 Students who jump from one song to another often fall into the habit of skipping difficult sections or what they may perceive as boring. Songs should be seen as projects either long or short depending on the difficulty. You should aim to finish any song you start. If you learn say the intro and then find the verse too difficult don't just give up. Instead talk to your teacher and ask them what you need to do to be able to play the section in question. In other words what skills do you need to develop. It may require a skill that will take you several years to learn but that's okay. The process of developing this skill will lead you often to new discoveries. Like Jobs treat songs like products and get good at a few songs rather than average at many.

Focus on skills

When we focus on developing a specific skill there is a real sense of achievement whereas jumping from one song to another can leave you feeling frustrated. Taking the approach of finishing what you start will help you to become more selective about the songs you learn. Like Jobs you need to throw out the hundreds of songs and focus on a few. Don't try try to be the ultimate guitar songster but instead work on a Top 10. Your friends may even be impressed initially by your extensive repertoire but you will end up dissatisfied with yourself knowing that you are not really improving your guitar skills. Playing a hundred riffs that all require the same level of skill will not make you a better guitar player.

Your ultimate song list

To get around this problem I created what I call the Ultimate Song List (USL). On this list students write down a maximum of 25 songs they ultimately hope to be able to play. I usually ask students to fill this list in over the first few weeks. Once the list is complete it's not written in stone. Students are free to change songs at anytime but their list can never be anymore than 25 songs. It usually takes 6 to 12 months for a student to finalize their list. When the list is complete the student has a clear direction. New songs and riffs may come along and of course they can learn other songs but the USL is the goal. It keeps the student focused and acts as a reminder of where they are heading and what skills they need to develop.

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Friday, October 7, 2011

How to positively influence your child to practice guitar

This is a good question and I will begin by saying that forcing a child to learn against their will tends to backfire over the long term. There are definitely responsibilities in life that children need to accept whether they like it or not but guitar should not be one of them unless you live on an island where playing guitar is critical for survival. Generally speaking force when applied to learning guitar will only cause them to hate the guitar, their teacher and probably their parents. While I may be stating the obvious it can be frustrating for parents who have spent hundreds of dollars on a new guitar and lessons only to find out a month or two later their child won't practice and refuse to go to lessons. The good news for parents is you can positively influence your children to learn guitar but like your children it takes patience and commitment.    

There must be a way

I have been teaching for over 25 years and in my early years of teaching guitar I saw a lot of children start guitar and give up within the first few months. I found this difficult to accept. I felt like it was a personal failure each time a student quit guitar. I felt I was letting my students and their parents down. People were paying me to learn to play guitar not to give up. I decided I had to find a way. I experimented with many ideas but also sort expert help by reading about great teachers, talking to successful teachers as well as listening and watching them teach. There was of course not one easy solution but I did notice one key factor that stood out among teachers who were successful with young students. 

Parent involvement

Parent involvement was the key. Once I began to involve parents in the process I saw a dramatic reduction in student drop outs. Teaching guitar is completely different to school because we only see students once a week for a relatively short time. This is simply not enough time to make any real progress. A lesson is mostly about monitoring progress and planning the week ahead. Your guitar teacher has no real way of ensuring practice therefore progress happens at home but at the same time it is progress that parents are paying for. No parent wants to fork out hundreds or even thousands of dollars for guitar lessons for no result even if their child is enjoying the lessons. A good teacher knows that involving parents means students are more likely to get the help and support they need at home between lessons. Parents are almost always the one who make the difference between success and failure and there is a good reason why. 

Daily routine
The secret to success for children is also about creating a daily routine. (Just like brushing their teeth, doing homework etc.) Children need their parents to help them to establish the routine of practice. This takes 3 to 6 months (sometimes longer) of monitoring your child or better still sitting with them while they practice but the impact will usually last a lifetime. I can almost guarantee you that if you sit with your child each day for 3 months (15 minutes a day) you will succeed especially if you communicate with the teacher from week to week to ensure you are understanding what is expected. Parents are the secret ingredient. 

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Thursday, October 6, 2011

Would you like to master guitar in just a few weeks?

We have all seen the ads claiming that you can master the guitar in a few months or even weeks. These types of ads play on a part of our personality that secretly wants there to be a magic system of learning. This is the part of you that you really want to ignore because there is no magic system. There are of course good and bad methods but the best methods are the honest ones that make it clear that there are no magic spells. Its simply all about practice. In the following paragraph I am going to describe what typically happens to students who believe guitar can be learnt in weeks or months. The result is usually not good.

Super keen Cliff

Let's call the student Cliff for reasons which will become apparent. Cliff is full of enthusiasm at his first lesson and is ready to be the next guitar hero. Cliff practices like crazy clocking up several hours a day despite his sore fingers. He believes that at any moment his fingers will suddenly be blazing up and down the neck with the speed of Petrucci and the feel of Santana. After weeks perhaps even months of practice he suddenly just quits guitar lessons never to be seen or heard from again. For young inexperienced teachers this often comes as a complete shock. Some teachers even feel they may have offended their student in someway. They can't believe someone like Cliff who was so dedicated could just stop so suddenly.

What happened to Cliff?

I choose the name Cliff not because I once had a student named Cliff who matched the above profile but because a cliff is basically a sudden steep drop off the side of a hill. If someone was running as fast as they can toward a cliff they would suddenly just drop. To the observer when Cliff reaches the edge he just suddenly disappears. I think we have all been like Cliff at some point. I  remember some years ago deciding I wanted to be super fit so I went out and bought all the gear, signed up to the gym and started an intense program of running, swimming, cycling and weights only to get sick a month later due to over training. My body was just not ready. I went over the cliff and it was a fast painful drop to the bottom.

Avoiding the cliff

Avoiding the cliff starts by being realistic about your expectations and mapping out a plan that will work for you. I have found that it's better to start small and lift the intensity gradually. As with say fitness don't begin by running marathons. Start with a stroll around the block. Guitar takes years to learn if you hope to play well so there is no rush. If you increase the intensity in steps you are less likely to overdo it in the early months and statistics show this is the time most people give up. Avoid becoming a statistic by easing into it. Guitar is not strenuous physically like jogging but mentally the effect can be the same or worse because at least with exercise you get a rush of endorphins afterwards.

Start small and avoid burnout

When you go too hard you risk burn out so take it easy and set yourself up for life. The goal for beginners is to stay in the game and staying in the game is about pacing yourself. The real goal of any life long pursuit is to work on developing consistency. You should of course have clear and definite goals as these goals give you a direction but your practice needs to become a daily routine that works for you and the best way to find out what works for you is to start small and build on it. Some people can focus for 20 minutes a day others 60 minutes but what usually happens is beginners are most comfortable with 20 minutes a day and over time their practice sessions naturally get longer. The Cliffs of the world start out at 60+ minutes a day and soon find it tedious and quickly lose interest when they don't get instant results. So start small and lower your expectations and you will not be disappointed.

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Monday, October 3, 2011

Guitar's historical rise to fame thanks to Rock

In 1962 a Decca records spokesperson made the following comment after being presented a Beatles demo;  "We don't like their sound, and guitar music is on the way out."

It just goes to show that the experts do get it wrong sometimes. Guitar in the years to follow would become the center of the pop music world at least in the western world. By the late 60's guitar bands were all the rage. Even Elvis would strut the stage with a guitar despite the fact that he only knew a few basic chords. Chuck Berry in my opinion laid the foundation not only for guitar but Rock n roll influencing almost everyone including Hendrix, Eric Clapton, Keith Richards, Angus Young and of course The Beatles who in turn influenced most of the popular guitar players today.

The 70's and the rise of disco

By the end of the 60's guitar was synonymous with rock music but by 1970 it appeared as though everything possible in terms of rock music had been done. The 70's was the era of disco which dominated the pop scene but as they say, 'If you can't beat em...'   Guitar bands like KISS for example who were venturing towards a disco sound while maintaining their rock roots were not unusual. Even serious jazz guitarists like George Benson turned to disco. It seemed that 'Stayin alive' musically speaking meant going disco. Yet despite the concerns of the day that rock was dying and disco had taken center stage the 70's still manage to produce some of the all time great guitar rock songs.  Songs like 'Stairway to Heaven', 'Smoke on the water', 'Hotel California', 'TNT' and 'Sweet home Alabama'   became the songs most requested by guitar students for years to come.  In hindsight it was the rock songs of the 70's that catapulted rock into the 80's ushering in a new era of Guitar legends.

The 80's - Guitar worship

The 1980's could arguably be named the age of guitar. Van Halen, Bon Jovi, Guns n Roses, Journey, Queen, U2, Metallica, AC/DC, The Rolling Stones, Toto, The Police are examples of  guitar based super groups who ruled the 80's music scene even though several were formed in the 70's or even 60's. Even Michael Jackson got in on the act recruiting several guitarists from the above mentioned bands to play on his albums. The guitar hero had truly peaked. Guitarists like Joe Satriani, Steve Vai, Slash and my personal favourite Van Halen were literally worshiped. Teenagers everywhere wanted to be guitarists. The 80's was also a time for virtuosos rock guitarists. There were literally dozens of guitarists who were able to  make a room full of very accomplished guitar players jaw's drop to the floor in amazement. Rock guitar had in someways become a circus with audiences being wowed with the latest techniques often combined with effects. Guitar skills were worshiped especially by the youth but by the end of the 80's audiences for the most part had grown tired of the freak show it seemed and were back looking for catchy songs.

A time for Grunge

While some of the 80's guitarists continued into the 90's and virtuoso rock guitarists were still popular the 90s brought something new to the table. Grunge was the new sound which was actually somewhat retro being based on Neil Young's raw guitar sound. The most popular band was Nirvana despite only releasing three albums over 4 years. The 90s also saw a decline in guitar bands in the charts but there was still plenty on offer for guitar lovers such as Red Hot Chilli Peppers, Sound Garden, Pearl Jam, Radiohead, Green Day and so on.

Rock guitar from 2000 onwards

The guitar has experience a slight decline in the last decade but the quality and quantity of great guitar music is still out there. Much has changed mostly due to the internet especially in the way music is distributed but rock guitar is well and truly alive and well. You just have to know where to look.

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