Why I Teach Guitar

About 26 years ago I was asked to take my first guitar student. I had been in and out of the guitar shop for six years leading to this. I struggled to teach myself guitar for 5 years and had one year of classical guitar training (I was a rocker at heart but they only offered classical at the university).4181823128_a8b4b9c806

The kid they wanted me to teach was considered to be difficult by the guitar teachers at the shop. They said he was tone deaf and had no rhythm. They thought that these traits were a permanent part of the kid, unchangeable, and not things that could ever improve. I didn’t know any better than them. I was a 19 year old who never taught anyone anything (at least not intentionally).

I worked with the kid for about a year, and gradually I noticed his rhythm and his ability to hear differences between notes improving. At the time, I didn’t realize the influence this would have in my life. I began to realize that anyone, with a desire to do something, could eventually do it. In retrospect, I think the other guitar teachers, by branding the kid with the traits mentioned above were actually working hard to cover their own shortcomings as teachers.

Since then, I’ve taught hundreds of kids and adults and I learn something new every day. Every guitarist plays and learns differently, is motivated by different music, and different parts of the music, and brings me new challenges. There is no right or wrong way to play beyond the basics that keep our wrists free of tendinitis or carpal tunnel and our bodies free of stress. Listen to what your teachers say because they most likely have your best interests in mind, but remember, anyone who tells you they know the only right way to play is a fool.

Finally, one of the things that I’ve grown to feel strongly about is the idea of student-centered teaching. Each guitarist who has come to me over the past 26 years has had his or her own vision of how the music should sound, what music is good, what aspects of the guitar are most important.

From shredders to folk guitarists to classical guitarists to straight ahead rockers, they all knew what music they wanted to play. Most of the time, this vision was radically different from my own, and if I had tried to force mine on any of them, their learning experiences would have suffered, and worse, they might have abandoned music altogether!  It’s easiest and far more motivating when you’re learning what you want to learn. We should use the music the students love as a bridge to the musical concepts they need us to teach and we should help them to find their own voices in the music so it becomes a greater affirmation of who they are!

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How We Learn: Communities of Practice

As a guitarist I’ve spent hundreds of hours learning alone. Most classical guitarists perform alone too. It might seem that being a part of a community of practice is unimportant in the guitarist’s learning process.

Not true.

For many guitarists there seems to be no community of practice. Musicians who study with a private instructor have a limited community composed of instructor and student. If they play in an ensemble, the community of practice is larger. Guitarists, more than most musicians, tend to spend most of their time as solitary learners.

No one ever learns in a vacuum. Though we seem solitary, we are surrounded by examples of good technique, online repositories of music, tips, tricks, and of course, the sound of our favorite players. But this is not enough.

There are plenty of amazing players out there who learned completely alone, but the learning that happens in groups is far more profound.

Communities of Practice, according to Etienne Wenger, are:

groups of people who share a concern or a passion for something they do and (who) learn how to do it better as they interact regularly.

The last piece of Wenger’s definition is crucial. Online, we see information from thousands of players who share our interests, but there is little or no interaction. When you get 5 guitarists in a room discussing their art, sharing their triumphs and challenges, and teaching each other new things, the learning process increases in ways that are amazing. And because there is regular interaction, the solitary practice has more meaning as the guitarist prepares for the next meeting.

It’s absolutely true that you can learn anything completely alone if you have the right information. Learning within a community of practice can take you to a higher level than you could ever achieve alone.