I’ve been teaching guitar for the better part of the last 20+ years. I’ve taught in music stores, in schools, and privately, both in individual and group settings. I’ve taught kids and adults from as young as 6 to as old as 80. Through that time, I’ve seen my fair share of students (from the keen and enthusiastic to the down-right uninterested), as well as the student’s parents.
There is one question that I get asked from time to time. It is a decent one, and an understandable one considering that the parents have shelled out hard-earned money on instruments, supplies, lessons, and gas to-and-from the lesson, not to mention their time.
“So, when is my child going to be good at guitar?”
My usual (and most honest answer)...
“Well, have they been practicing?”
As a teacher, I do my best to impart knowledge, make sure they understand what I’m trying to teach and that they grasp it before they leave the lesson.
What happens in those seven days between lessons, I have no control over that. If they just don’t touch the instrument (or barely touch it) between lessons, progress is going to be slow at best, if at all. Ultimately, it’s up to the student to do the work.
The “Ah, ha!” moment as a teacher
When I started teaching guitar, I began by using whatever method books the schools and music stores used but found that the exercises were just that, exercises. Good lessons, but nothing that the student wanted to play. Anyone who tries their hand at guitar wants to play songs and riffs and doesn’t care for scales and theory (at least not at first).
This realization is what morphed into what I do now; I teach what the student ultimately wants to learn. There’s no set curriculum; let’s get them playing what they want to play as quickly and properly as possible.
So after a few basic things (a few chords, some basic rhythms... stuff to get the engine running), I ask “So, what do you want to learn? A song? A riff?” Sometimes I get a straight answer, sometimes I don’t. If not, I’ll ask more questions like “What is your favourite band? What have you been enjoying on the radio? What’s in your playlist?” I’ll usually get something to work with, and the student is more encouraged since we’re now working towards something they want to do. When they enjoy what they’re learning, even the greenest of beginners is happy to tackle anything! That’s how I try to keep them engaged, all while developing skills.
So, when is the student going to get good?
Depends on the student. Do they practice? Are they engaged? Are they encouraged?
Practice is possibly the single most important thing anyone can do to improve anything. The more you do it, the better you get and the easier it gets. If the student is also engaged and likes the material, it certainly helps get them to pick up the guitar more often than not, which is helpful for the parents who want their child to play.
I would love for every student to practice for hours every day, but let’s be real; it ain’t gonna happen (at least not at first). So, here are some tips for students and parents to make the most of whatever practice time they have.
1) Do it once a day (tip for the student)
As far as expectations, this is the only one I have for my students, and I do let them know this. Some days are busier than others, so hours of practice aren’t going to be possible. But, don’t skip days. Pick up the instrument and play it every day. Five minutes, ten minutes, 30 minutes, doesn’t matter. Once a day for five minutes is way better than not playing at all (or, like the student who failed to study until the night before, trying to cram a week of practice into the hour before the lesson. A hint: it doesn’t work.)
For adult students, finding time is even harder than for a child. Arguably, my adult students tend to admit that they don’t practice when asked during a lesson. Still, I try to encourage them to grab it once a day.
2) Set a routine (tip for the student and parent)
Some things are easier if there’s a routine. You can make it easy, along the lines of practicing for a bit after dinner, or before school, or something else that works in your home. If you build it into the day, it will be easier to get them to pick up the instrument. Parents should help their kids maintain this routine.
3) Avoid distractions (tip for the student)
Turn off the iPhone, iPad, Android, etc. etc. and focus on the task at hand. 15 minutes of focused practice is way better than an hour trying to practice with all the electronics bleeping and blooping.
4) Practice to a metronome or a drum machine (tip for the student)
You didn’t think I was going to avoid this, right?
One of the aspects of a great player is a great sense of time, so practicing with something that has a steady pulse will only help develop that sense of time. A metronome or drum machine can also help gauge a student’s progress based on what BPM they’re able to play something well.
For me, I prefer the drum machine to a metronome; both do essentially the same thing, but I find it more fun to practice with a drummer than to a clicking sound. If you need one, my favourite free online drum machine can be found here: https://www.musicca.com/drum-machine (bonus, the site also has a metronome, tuner and other fun tools!)
5) Take small bites if needed (tip for the student)
Working on a piece of music, but there’s just that one section that gives the student a bit of grief. Nothing slams the brakes on playing music more than that one riff or pattern that just stumps the student.
The solution? Start your practice by just working on the difficult parts. Work on them, master them, then add them to the rest of the piece. No one got better by avoiding the hard stuff. The student will find that playing the entire song becomes easier once the hurdles are overcome
6) Make sure the student is engaged (tip for the parent)
For me, one of the best signs of engagement is how hard it is to get your kid to practice and/or to get them to their lesson. If you don’t have a hard time at all, that’s a very good sign that they’re enjoying the instrument and what they’re learning.
Now, interest does take time to build, so if you see their desire to play go up, then the student is on the right track. If they look forward to the lessons, that means that things are really clicking with the teacher.
One of these things can be more evident than the other. If there’s an issue, talk to your child to see what’s not working for them. It may mean that a change of approach with the lessons may be needed, or in some cases, maybe a change of teacher (hey, sometimes things just don’t work).
7) Encourage! (tip for the parent)
Practicing shouldn’t be a chore (where’s the fun in that?), so best to be as positive as possible when trying to get your kid to practice. Some things that help are saying how they’re improving, that things sound better than they did yesterday, etc. Anything that helps the student notice that the work is paying off (no matter how small) will only motivate them to move forward.
These are all little things, by and large, but can make a huge difference in the student’s progression towards ultimate rock god status. Even if all of this is done, every student is different and some will take longer than others. Just stay the course, and good things will eventually happen.
By Kevin Daoust - instagram.com/kevindaoust.gtr
Kevin Daoust is a guitarist, guitar educator and writer based in Gatineau, Quebec, Canada. When not tracking guitars for artists around the world, or writing music-related articles around the internet, he can be seen on stage with Accordion-Funk legends Hey, Wow, the acoustic duo Chanté et Kev, as well as a hired gun guitarist around Quebec and Ontario. He holds a Bachelor of Music in Guitar Performance from Carleton University in Ottawa, Ontario, Canada.