On Teachers and Lessons (2/3) – 8 Ways a Guitar Teacher May Fail You (Signs of Bad Teaching)

Studying guitar with a teacher can be a life-enhancing experience.  A teacher can guide learning so that music unfolds with grace in surprising ways. But not all teaching is created equal.  Teaching is a skill.  Like music in general, it is learned and developed through practice and study. Below you’ll find ways that teachers can miss the mark or fail in their duties to you as a student.  Most teachers have failed in the following ways at least once in their careers.  Ideally, they learn and grow from the experiences. If you keep these in mind, you can recognize where your instruction may not be optimal.

This is part two in a 3-part series on teachers and lessons.

Teacher Failing #1: Lack of Knowledge

A teacher may not know the subject matter.  For example, classical guitar is a specialized study.  A teacher may not have the background to teach this well. A teacher may be very accomplished in one area (jazz, rock, etc.), but completely ignorant of another.  They may not know the best repertoire or studies, the techniques, or the common challenges. When choosing a teacher, make sure he/she has specialized knowledge in the area you want to study.

Teacher Failing #2: Lack of Teaching Experience/Expertise

As said above, teaching is a skill.  If the teacher has not built this skill, the lessons will suffer. The teacher may be just beginning in their teaching career.  They may have not yet learned the many skills involved. They may be a stellar player.  But playing well does not mean that they can teach well.  The skills are separate and learned in different contexts. The teacher may have the best of intentions.   But they lack the teaching experience to offer a quality learning environment.

Teacher Failing #3: Lack of Preparation

Perhaps the most common failing, a teacher can fail to prepare for the lesson.  An ideal lesson is planned in advance.  It exists within the context of a larger timeframe, such as a quarter or semester. When the teacher does not prepare, they then have to come up with something on the spot.  This may conflict with previous lessons.  Or it may derail a trajectory set in motion earlier. This can be confusing and demotivating for the student.

Teacher Failing #4: Poor Repertoire Choice

One of the teacher’s biggest responsibilities is to choose music. They need to choose the appropriate music for the student.  They need to present pieces and studies at the right time.  If a teacher gets this wrong, it can be disastrous for the student. Poor music choices can make daily practice difficult for the student.  It may be too challenging, too easy (boring), or even distasteful.  This can lower motivation and create tension in the learning process. Teachers learn through experience and study of pedagogy what music is available.  They learn the pros and cons, applications, and benefits.  If they have not done this work, they may miss the mark.

Teacher Failing #5: Easily Distracted

In the interplay of a lesson, some teachers may become distracted and go on tangents.  This wastes time and can leave a student baffled. Teachers are more likely to become distracted if they also fail in other ways listed on this page.  And likewise, if they succeed in the ways listed, they may be less likely to become distracted. Either way, a teacher should have a positive agenda for each lesson.  And when the agenda is unearthed willy-nilly, the lesson may not be as effective as it could be.

Teacher Failing #6: Lack of Progressive Plan

Ideally, a teacher has a long-term plan for your education.  The small points, such as specific exercises or pieces, may shift along the way.  But there should be a deliberate trajectory, with goals and benchmarks. When this is lacking, it can be more difficult to know if we’re succeeding or not. One lesson should tie to the next and vice versa.  Over the course of a semester, season, or year, there should be a clear progression.  Skills are built upon.  Pieces grow one from the next.  Technique improves and musical understanding expands.

Teacher Failing #7: Lack of Lesson Structure

With limited time in a single lesson, it matters how we use the time.  The best teachers divide the available time between the different areas of study. Time is dedicated to technique, pieces, and more.  Specific goals are set for the upcoming week.  And the goals from the last week are confirmed met. A predictable lesson structure can help the student feel secure and well-cared-for.  Both student and teacher feel confident that the lessons are progressing as planned. Note: In lessons with advanced students, lesson structure may be less prevalent.  For example, with an advanced student, it’s not uncommon to spend an entire lesson on one piece of music.

Teacher Failing #8: Not Teaching You Specifically How to Practice

Perhaps the most important lessons a teacher can offer are on how to practice.  Solving problems is a big part of ongoing musical study.  And for a student to enjoy a lifelong musical pursuit, he or she needs to know how to practice. Some teachers only tell the student what to practice.  The best teachers show the student precisely how to practice.  They point out what to look for.  They explain how to improve through measured challenges.  They offer methods, formulas, and recipes for productive practice. The student develops a set of practice skills they can use in future practice sessions. The best teachers strive to become obsolete.  They teach the student how to practice. The student is then able to continue learning on his own, without a teacher.

To Err is Human

Even the best teachers may not completely ace all the above all the time.  But a good teacher will avoid these most of the time. Most of the above speak to the habits and outlook of the teacher.  And these are often evident early on. However, even the best teachers can be derailed by certain student behaviors.  A student needs to let the teacher guide the lesson and structure and time. And there are other ways that you can get the most from lessons with a teacher.  In the next installment of this series, you’ll find ways to ensure successful lessons.  You can help a teacher become better at teaching you.  And you can progress more quickly as a result.

Allen Mathews

Hi, I’m Allen Mathews. 

I started as a folk guitarist, then fell in love with classical guitar in my 20’s. Despite a lot of practice and schooling, I still couldn’t get my music to flow well. I struggled with excess tension. My music sounded forced. And my hands and body were often sore. I got frustrated, and couldn’t see the way forward. Then, over the next decade, I studied with two other stellar teachers – one focused on the technical movements, and one on the musical (he was a concert pianist). In time, I came to discover a new set of formulas and movements. These brought new life and vitality to my practice. Now I help guitarists find more comfort and flow in their music, so they play more beautifully.
Click here for a sample formula.

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