“Learn the songs you want to learn”. What’s wrong with this statement? It’s an all too common claim from music teachers and music schools and on the surface tit can seem very attractive. After all who wants to learn songs they don’t like? I think its a bit like casinos luring in gamblers with the idea of becoming rich quick because telling you the truth (put your money on our tables and we will keep 80%) wouldn’t be so attractive. In the case of guitar lessons the truth is beginner students will not be able to learn their favourite songs because they simply don’t have the skills required. They must firstly spend time learning the essential skills of guitar before they jump in to songs played by professional players with years of experience.
Setting students up to fail
In my first 10 years of teaching my aim was to keep students happy. Give them what they want was my philosophy and they will keep coming. Teaching the songs students enjoy created interest but the problem I found was that very few of my students made any real progress. Typically what I saw was this initial peak of excitement when they set about learning a new favourite song but within a few weeks they had lost interest. Within a few months the students confidence had been eroded because every song seemed impossible for them. Students would conclude that they were just not cut out to be guitar players and would quit. At the time I concluded that guitar was like a gym membership. Most people would be motivated for the first few months but only a small percentage would continue on long term and I should just accept the fact. The reality in hindsight was I was setting them up to fail by giving them inappropriate songs to learn week after week based on their requests of course.
What do great coaches do?
I knew at the time something wasn’t right and I had decided I was going to find a solution or quit teaching. I was totally frustrated but the breakthrough came when one of my mentors suggested in his book to ask a simple question. “What would a great coach do?” It soon became apparent that great coaches don’t ask their students ‘What do you want to do?’ but instead say “If you want to be a champion this is what you need to do”. It took a while to summon the courage but eventually I decided that I was no longer going to be a typical ‘keep them happy’ kind of teacher if the end result was failure. Everywhere I looked music teachers would promote this ‘Learn what you want to learn’ idea but I knew they too were failing. If we were in almost any other industry be it medicine, air travel, competitive sports and we only had a 10% success rate we would soon be out of business or worse. So I stepped up to plate and was now committed to being a great guitar teacher.
A system for success on guitar
I started by creating a system to teach guitar students the skills necessary to be great guitar players so they could then learn their favourite songs at some point in the future. The system needed to prioritise learning to ensure students developed the essential skills but I also took into consideration the psychology of learning in the same way that today’s sports coaches use psychology. To succeed you must develop a winner’s mindset. You must believe you have what it takes to be a great guitar player and you must be motivated when you practice with a clear view to what you hope to achieve.On top of all this you must be realistic about what to expect. Teachers who promote the idea that you will be able to play your favourite songs after a few lessons are misleading you. A realistic teacher will make it quite clear that without at least 500 hours of skills practice you are unlikely to be able to play most of the songs you probably want to learn.
A typical lesson with me
When students turn up for lessons rather than saying ‘Hey what would you like to learn today?’ which is really music teacher code for “I just want to keep you happy so you pay me money each week” I would say; “I have a plan for you to learn guitar so you can eventually play the music you like. I am not going to say its easy and everything will be fun but if you stick to the plan you will reap the rewards. Are you with me?” By being upfront students realise that the journey ahead is not an easy one so their expectations are realistic. They are not expecting to be able to play ‘Stairway to Heaven’ after a few lessons.Lower your expectations and you won’t be disappointed.
Seek out teachers with a plan
When serious musicians, actors, athletes and so on learn anything they do what needs to be done. They are optimistic but realistic. They know its not always going to be fun and true champions seek coaches who will push them to do what needs to be done. If you truly want to learn guitar avoid teachers or music schools that offer to teach you what you want to learn. Instead seek out teachers who have a plan and stick to the plan. If you are skeptical about their plan find another teacher but a teacher with no plan whose only purpose is to keep you as a happy paying customer will likely disappoint you in the end.