Teaching and being taught are the gifts of human interaction. We get to explore material together, see through the eyes of each other and actively discuss our different points of view all within a strict time frame and on a regular basis. that is, when it goes well and both student and teacher are invested in the learning process, but how do we get to that point? How do we create a lesson habit where eventually our students will find their own feet and be bringing material to the class to show us? The secret is in structuring your lessons both so that your student has a solid framework and knows what to expect and so that you are never bored of a student or at a loss for what to work on.
Understanding Different Types of Guitar Lessons
All too often as teachers we set ourselves in the reactionary position; a student comes to the class and plays a piece through for you to comment on - and this is most likely because this is the style of teaching we receive as conservatory students in our twenties, the last time we received lessons. However, think back to when you first started playing, what are the memories from that time of how you were first introduced to guitar? These memories and positive or negative associations can inform the style of teaching that you may find useful to adopt in your own teaching career.
The reality is that for beginners, the most useful lessons are those of guided discovery or of being told information and having to relay that to the instrument. Bear in mind that teaching a complete beginner will likely require more active involvement and preparation than for a student who is more advanced.
As the student moves into more intermediate playing you, as the teacher, will probably find your job shifting into that of somewhere in-between leader of guided discovery and extra set of ears. A student at any level can also benefit from supervised practice style lessons where the teacher may point out certain things the student might otherwise miss during a simulation of their practice, or where teacher and student work together though a passage discussing and discovering ideas together.
Only for students who already know what they want should the masterclass style lesson be applied - this is a faux pas that turns away many young students from the instrument or is a scenario that can quickly create a toxic relationship or unhealthy power dynamic between student and teacher and should be treated with care and caution.
Structuring a lesson for a beginner
The moment the student enters the room is an important one as it sets the tone for the lesson ahead, there should be a welcoming atmosphere in the room and you should not be distracted or teaching another student. If you teach students back to back, perhaps try being strict with your timings, or letting the next student wait outside the room instead of entering and both disturbing the end of the current lesson and the beginning of theirs.
The first impression of a class is paramount, your student should feel at ease in your presence. Running over time with each student creates a feeling of instability that prevents your student from knowing what to expect of your class which can be stressful for both of you. Welcome the student into the room, let them unpack their things and refresh your body and mind for the class ahead.
It can be helpful to keep a log of all of the work completed with each student at the end of each lesson so that you can keep track of your trajectory with each person. If you forget and have to ask your student what they are playing or what you have previously worked on they will likely feel that they are not important to you and that the work you do in the class is not of great importance. At the very beginning of the lesson you can set out some goals so that the student knows what you are working on today, this will also help keep their concentration, e.g ‘today we are going to learn two techniques for the right hand and then we are going to play through page 6.’
It might not sound like a lot, but stability and regiment go an incredibly long way when it comes to cultivating motivation. It also helps a student to justify to those around them what they have been doing in the lessons and helps to give them clues as to what to practice and how to practice with goals in mind.
It is so unbelievably important to make time in every single lesson to ask your student at least one question about their experience of playing whatever it is you are working on. This is of great importance because, ultimately it is not you, but they who are learning and should be asking questions of themselves. Curiosity has to be both inspired, learnt and cultivated and each student should feel like instead of being part of something, they are instead leading their own learning of a skill.
Questions can be asked during discovery of something new; ‘what does this sound like to you?’ ‘How does that feel?’ Or once your students have become accustomed to answering questions asked by you, you can prompt them with questions about the pieces they are playing. Importantly your personal opinion in these lessons must be secondary, you should encourage all kinds of answers from your students and explore the answers with them if they happen to be negative.
Keeping the Promise
Manage your time well and your students will manage theirs well. Keep to your lesson time and make sure you are completing the tasks you set out in the beginning of the lesson. It is for this reason that it can be useful to start out with just one very basic goal for each lesson, observe how far you get with the student and then log this for future reference. Eventually you will develop a system for each student and how much they can get done in the lesson and this will guide your lesson plans.
As important as the welcome, the goodbye of each guided discovery lesson for beginners should end in an uplifting way. You want your student to leave the room feeling that they have accomplished something or are on their way to accomplishing something and have them leave feeling happy. Set clear goals for what you would like to see by next lesson but make those goals in collaboration with the student based on their schedule and make it clear that should things change, or should they feel not up to it, these goals are flexible. Always make sure these goals have a clear instruction manual and that they are not extensive, remember you want to excite your students about work, not force them into it.
Structuring a lesson for an intermediate player
The Extra Set of Ears Lesson
By this point, if you have created a space in which you can ask questions to your student and they feel comfortable enough asking questions to you, the student will start to need some guidance based on what you hear from outside their sphere of experience rather than guiding from within it. At this point you can begin to discuss reference material and recordings to get your students immersed in and excited about what they are playing and you can guide them towards discovery of other players and their own personal practice discovery.
By this point the beginning of your classes will have taken on a life of their own, perhaps there is a little small talk about their day at school, or about their job. This is the moment where, for an intermediate player, you can also begin to discuss how they found this week of practice, ‘what were the good moments?’ ‘Did you discover anything this week?’ Sometimes these questions can sound forced, but at this point hopefully the student will also lead much of this discussion. It is important that whatever comes up technically or in the music, that you make a note of these remarks but do not dive in immediately and lose the structure of your lesson. You will want to cover these answers and explorations throughout the class, weaving them into the pieces or techniques that you were already planning to work on with the student.
At this point you can also afford to work on much smaller details of a piece of music, so long as that is what you set out to work on! You can also start to drip in a little more of your own personal opinion - so long as the student is made aware that that is your subjective experience and not an objective truth.
Much like that of the beginner lesson, the goodbye is all about setting expectation for the lesson to come. What should be done before next week? What might be a good starting point for some discovery online? What piece will you work on next week, make sure you both write down what you decide on, and keep to your word.
Structuring a Practice Supervision Lesson
This type of lesson is all about the role you play, or don’t play as teacher in the class. From the offset it serves both of you to define that this lesson is all about guided practice, otherwise circulating one four-note passage for your student may feel like a defeat. Start by prompting questions from the student ‘how has your practice been feeling lately?’ ‘What have you been struggling with recently that we could practice together?’. All of these types of questions will lead you into a lesson where both of you can explore the practice process that your student is engaging in, and this should be treated with immense care.
It is important that you do not judge how your student practices, but instead offer suggestion as and when the student asks for your input. Another way to conduct this type of lesson is to practice yourself and show the student how you would go about practicing a certain passage. Remember that unless you have taught your student practice strategies, they are unlikely to have developed a healthy practice routine on their own. Take this opportunity to impart some of the lessons you have learnt throughout your years of study and show them how to practice speed or precision before immediately diving in and critiquing them. Give them the tools before criticizing how they use the tools available to them.
‘The best teachers are those who show you where to look, not tell you what to see’