Not as easy as it seems…
By Jamey Mann
As a private music teacher, I have found that there is no way to have a set lesson plan in place for every student at every age or level. Every 30 minutes to an hour is a new student with differences in, age, learning style, playing ability, and goals. Trying to have a cookie cutter method for all these students just does not work. The most difficult of these students to figure out is the already somewhat accomplished students who are a little self taught or were shown some things from a family member or friend. They get outside advice and lessons from others which can be a detriment to what you are trying to accomplish, and bring with them bad habits that are difficult to fix.
For many reasons the guitar world is awash with this type of student. Unfortunately, in my experience, it is difficult for many of this type to fall in line with an instructors’ methodology to help them proceed effectively. They often have ideas and goals lined up as to what they should be working on and how often they want to do it (practice). I have dubbed these students the Songaweeks (early teens to adults). Students that do not practice often, but when they do want to learn something it’s on their own terms whether they are ready to or not. They will attempt songs such as Stairway to Heaven without knowing what an arpeggio is or without learning proper barre technique and sometimes, without accomplishing anything, want to move on to the next song.
A common theme between these students is the desire to play pop music (rock, blues, country, etc). As classically trained professional music educators it is easy for us to discount this music as being easy, droll, and lacking in real musical substance. We might at times inadvertently pass this feeling along to the student as we work through the music with them. Lately, I have changed my approach with this type of music and how I use it in my lessons.
- It’s not as easy as it seems. – Well it is, but imagine those first couple weeks of playing your instrument. What is like breathing to us today was a completely new world for us in the beginning and thus is the same for the student. Knowing this and being careful when assigning even the simplest of pop tunes is best to not overwhelm the student. Even the easiest pop song can be too difficult for a beginning student to attempt. This situation can be exacerbated by the teacher telling the student that the song is easy. This can have a harmful effect when the student comes in the following week and nothing is accomplished and the student feels discouraged.
- Let Them Try- If a stubborn student wants to work on a song they are not ready for I let them give it a try. Most of the time the student has a difficult time barely making progress with their chosen song. Hopefully this makes the student realize some basics they need to work on before taking on a difficult song.
- Learning Opportunity- It is unfortunate that a lot of popular music is looked down upon in the academic world of music. Although many of these artists do not have degrees from prestigious universities hanging on their walls, they still work just as hard if not harder for their accomplishments and craft. When a student is struggling I will ask the question “How many hours did you practice today or this week?” The answer is generally never more than an hour. I like to remind the student that the artist that composed this piece most likely spent hours a day practicing by themselves, then band rehearsal several hours a week, and then spent even more time just writing and refining their music. With this I hope the student realizes what they are trying to take on and the amount of work they need to do to accomplish it.
- Pedagogical Tool- There are many skills that can be studied when teaching popular music. In guitar playing everything can be worked on from finger independence, scales, chords, song form etc. The key is finding the right song for the right student. I suggest creating a catalogue of popular music that you can reach for to work on a specific skill or to compromise with a student that is trying to work beyond their skill level. Many of these songs may have to be simplified or what I often like doing is creating exercises based on the songs that will help the student work up to it. As an instructor this is a fun challenge and leads to the student developing skills that are used in other songs and they end up having a better understanding of the music in the end.
- So Much More to Accomplish- I try to make my student realize all the other skills and songs that we can learn working their way up to a piece. This is something that I have experienced in the classical world as well: students that will continuously throw themselves at a difficult piece making little or no progress. So much more can be gained in the long term when working at the students appropriate level and learning basics.
- Goal/Reward- When a student has their heart set on a song that is out of their reach I will set that piece as the students short term/long term goal. A goal is necessary for any discipline. I try to make this clear for the student so they may understand the methodology. I will also use a song as a reward if I’m having trouble with a student practicing. “We will get to X song, but I need you to complete ABC for me first”. When you have a clear goal or reward set, the methodology is accepted more easily.
With patience and care all students can be turned into productive students on a clear path to fine musicianship. Most of all I believe these students need to be on a consistent practice routine with realistic goals in place. In addition the instructor must help them understand what they should expect in progress week to week. Beginning students often do not realize the progress they are making so teachers must make a point to show the students how they are progressing and how it is helping them achieve their goals.