What Is The One Thing You Want From A Teacher?

In my early years of teaching guitar I did not really push the issue of practice. I believed that students were either motivated or they were not. To be honest, as a guitarist making a living from teaching, I was afraid if I pushed students to practice too hard many would just quit. Unfortunately, being soft on practice meant for the most part, my students did not progress. This was not just a problem for the students but also affected my reputation. More importantly, it just didn’t feel right to be calling myself a professional teacher of guitar, yet failing to produce real results for my students. Something had to change.

What Was So Wrong With My Guitar Teaching?

Eventually I came to the conclusion that I needed to research what was wrong with my teaching to find out how to get my students to progress. I quickly discovered I was not alone. The majority of music teachers I interviewed faced the same problem of slow or no progressing students but, there were a few exceptions or what are known as ‘bright spots’. A handful of teachers were producing rapidly progressing students and were not experiencing the same challenge as the rest of us. The first obvious difference I noticed with these exceptional teachers was that most, if not all of their students practised consistently. This makes sense of course because practice is the only thing that brings about progress but why? By why I mean, why were their students practicing with such tenacity? What were these teachers doing differently that the rest of us were obviously missing?

How Do I Get Students To Practice?

When I interviewed the teachers who were having success with getting students to practice I asked a simple question, “How do you get your students to practice?” While I was kind of hoping for one simple genius idea that would solve all my problems around student practice what I got was an assortment of varied responses. For example, some teachers said that asking students to log practice was the key while others said, you need to make practice compulsory. Another common response was to keep students and parents accountable. These were all good answers but there was a small problem. I had also asked the same question of those teachers who were unable to get their students to practice and the answers were basically the same. In other words these teachers were following the same recipes yet getting very different results. How could that be? At that point it became apparent that nobody really knew the secret to getting students to practice. Some may have very well stumbled across it but they were unaware of exactly what it was they were doing. This was exciting because I knew I was onto something. I felt like Sherlock Holmes stumbling across a vital clue.

The Truth About Practice

Before I get to explaining what I believe makes the difference between teachers who got their students to practice and those you did not I want to make something clear. Nobody really likes practice. This is important because it rules out the idea that the successful teachers somehow manage to make practice fun. No matter who you are, practice is a chore. For parents this means your child will not enjoy practice so I recommend you stop wishing it were so. I know some people say they enjoy practising and for a longtime despite my skepticism of their claims I had no evidence until recently. Anders Ericsson is considered the world’s leading expert on experts. He has studied many of the greatest musicians, sports people, chess players and other high achievers to see what makes them great. If anyone knows about practice Ericsson does. In his book ‘Peak’ he makes it very clear that after surveying dozens of the world’s top performers not a single one said they enjoyed practice.

We Must First Define What ‘Real’ Practice Is

Now those who say they enjoy practice fall into three categories. Those rare freaks of nature who really do enjoy the discomfort of real practice, those who are lying to themselves and those are not really practising but performing what they already know. Ericsson coined the term ‘deliberate practice’ to differentiate it from what I call performance practice. i.e. Doing what you can already do. Deliberate practice is where you practice in what’s known as the stretch zone which is just outside of your comfort zone. This means it should be uncomfortable by definition. I would compare it to being in a room that felt a little too hot or a little too cold. Not unbearable but definitely uncomfortable. If someone is enjoying practice they are probably playing within their comfort zone. That’s likely not deliberate practice. You only improve when you work on elements of your playing that stretch you. This leads us to the next question.

What Makes People Do Things They Don’t Like?

This is of course the real question. I established that no one liked deliberate practice yet, it had to be done if students were to progress. I also knew that it could be done because I had found teachers who were getting the students to practice. Motivating anyone to do something that is uncomfortable is never easy but, think about what motivates you to do something you do not like. It is usually a vision of your future whether it be positive or negative. On the negative think of a performance where you are motivated to avoid embarrassment. I have seen students go from doing almost no practice to practising several hours a day to avoid humiliation from a poor performance. In fact, I find my own practice doubles or even triples when I know I’ll have to perform. The other side of the coin is for the positive outcome. Imagining yourself on stage being admired by all your friends can also be very motivating. Either way, we’re often driven by our future vision.

Creating And Developing A Compelling Lasting Vision

If you are not motivated to do deliberate guitar practice every day giving it 100% for at least 30 minutes there is room for improvement. By improvement I mean developing the vision of your future self. Such visions rarely just miraculously appear. Even when they do I have found they quickly fade. This means in most cases a strong vision needs to be created by you or someone else and also needs to be maintained. When I was a young teen I began learning drums after my best friend suggested the idea. He was playing guitar and thought it would be great if I played drums. It was my friend who first put the vision in my head. I proceeded to find a teacher and begin lessons. My teacher furthered that vision which was all going very well until that vision was replaced with the new one. I had been dabbling in guitar for a few years but nothing serious. I then went to a Stevie Ray Vaughn concert at the Sydney Opera House in the 80s and was blown away. From that moment on I decided to get serious about guitar. Over the years my motivation to practice would go up and down as it was dictated buy that vision in my head. So what does this have to do with different teachers mentioned above?

Find A Teacher Who Knows How To Develop A Compelling Vision

My conclusion after much research is that strategies like making practice compulsory, keeping a practice log and making students accountable are all important factors but are not enough. Students who lack a compelling vision will still likely fail. The teachers with highly motivated practicing students all appear to possess the ability to craft such a vision for their students. Most of us are simply not motivated to practice without a compelling vision. You don’t need a teacher to create a compelling vision of course which explains why some students thrive under any teacher or through self teaching. These students create the vision for themselves. That said, it’s not something most of us can easily do without help. You should seek out teachers or mentors who can help you develop your vision. Don’t leave it to chance. Even if you are one of those people who is very good at creating their own compelling vision, surrounding yourself with the right people will only add to your motivation to practice and ultimately accelerate your progress. Remember its deliberate practice that gets results and the most deliberate practice comes from being motivated by a compelling vision.

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2 Comments Add yours

  1. Dev Sawh says:

    I have read and understood the above. Deliberate practice, creating a vision to work to and practice – practice – practice are vital to making a success of learning guitar. It is also important to keep focused with your sights firmly on your goal.

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