I’ve been giving private guitar lessons for the past 16 years and in that time, I’ve given a lot of advice. From how to pick more efficiently in sweep arpeggios to how to analyze a jazz standard, most of the topics I discuss with my students end up being guitar-focused, or at least musically focused. There are occasional things that I work on with people that are more big-picture kind of concepts, and an important one is how to be a good student and get the most out of our lessons together.
It might seem obvious — just do what your teacher says and you’ll get better — but there’s more to it than that. As a student, you have to make sure you’re staying dedicated and you’re working on the right stuff in the right way to accomplish what you set out to do. If you stay on point, you’ll end up being a better musician and, of course, will make sure you’re getting your money’s worth!
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Here are a few of the things I often recommend to musicians of all instruments and skill levels who want to get the most out of their lessons. And while you’re here, if you’re new to Soundfly, check out our four-week mentorship program which pairs you with a Mentor for a personalized goal-oriented session. It’s a totally reinvented way to learn online, and what you read in this article can help your learning go a long way!
Set goals for yourself
Before you start lessons, you should have some idea of what you want to achieve. Maybe you want to be able to play the chords to a few songs, maybe you want to be able to improvise on John Coltrane’s “Giant Steps,” or maybe your dream is to start a band that sounds just like Deep Purple. Whatever the case may be, have some idea of what you’re hoping to get out of your lessons and let your teacher know.
Once you set your goals, don’t be afraid to change them or add to them. Once you realize how much fun playing a note-for-note rendition of your favorite solo is, do you want to try something else, or do you feel like you’ve achieved everything and don’t need to take lessons any longer? Both answers are absolutely fine — you’re in control — just make sure you consider these questions and decide.
This might seem like a no-brainer to some, but it’s a frequent conversation I need to have with students of all ages. If you don’t have time to practice, you probably don’t have time to get any better. In that case, you should reconsider what your goals might be. If you’re just taking lessons to de-stress and have another person to play with, maybe this is okay. But if you have a skill-related goal, you’ll need to put in some time to get the most out of your lessons.
Find the time and create habits
It’s not only important to find the time to practice, but also to have fun and play music. That’s what this is about, right? Fun?
Especially when you first start, it might be hard to see how this will fit into your lifestyle, but if it’s something you really want to do, you have to be able to find the time. With kids, I always ask if they play video games and, if they do, I ask them if they want to play guitar as much as they want to play video games. If the answer is yes, I tell them they need to put down the video game for 30 minutes a day and pick up their guitar. If the answer is no, it’s time to talk with the parents.
That might make finding time to play sound easier for a kid than it is for an adult, but a simple adjustment of habits could be all it takes. Are there things you could change around in your schedule? What do you do when you immediately get home from work? Or are you an early riser with some extra morning time? Simple decisions on a daily basis can really add up to results and, once you start making progress and you’re having fun, playing your instrument will likely work its way more easily into your lifestyle.
Pick the right teacher
If your teacher doesn’t have an answer to why they’re teaching you that piece you really can’t stand, are you actually studying with the right teacher? You might not be. Don’t be afraid to try working with another teacher if your personalities don’t click.
It can be really helpful when you’re getting started to try lessons with a couple different teachers and see whose approach and style works best for you. If you’re really clear about your goals, you’ll be able to make sure you find a teacher who is equipped to help you meet them.
Listen to your teacher
If your teacher tells you to learn something that you’re not sure about, give it a chance. Don’t be dismissive if you don’t like the piece or song you’re working on. There’s probably a reason your teacher chose this for you specifically. Maybe it deals with a certain skill that you need to work on in order to reach your goals. If you trust your teacher, do what they tell you. And if you’re not sure why you’re working on something, ask! They should have an answer.
Play with other people
This is one of the most important pieces of advice I give to students. No matter how much you practice what you’re taught in your lessons, if you don’t use it, you’ll eventually lose it.
The best way to get the most out of what you learn in your lessons is to play with other people (not just your teacher!). This could be a friend or family member who plays, or maybe there’s an open mic/jam kind of thing you can attend where people are into the same type of music you are. If you’re not sure, talk to your teacher about it — they probably have another student at a similar level that they could put you in touch with to work together.
If you’re not sure about performing in public, or nervous to step outside your comfort zone at first, that’s fine. Think about it like a study group and get together in private before you start going out to jam. You’ll end up being a better and more well-rounded musician every time you sit down with a new partner!
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