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3 Reasons why you may not be
getting big results from
taking guitar lessons
by Tom Hess
Have you ever tried taking guitar lessons and ended up quitting in frustration, because you felt you weren’t making enough progress? Or perhaps you have considered taking lessons but because someone you know had a disappointing experience with a teacher, you began to doubt if lessons are worth investing your time and money. This perception prevents you from getting all that you want from your guitar lessons.
There can be many reasons why people quit guitar lessons. Sometimes it is because the teacher failed to inspire you, or because the lessons weren’t focused enough on your specific musical goals, or because the teacher was only mediocre and didn’t know how to help you achieve a specific result. (To avoid this problem download this free guide on how to choose a guitar teacher) However, another (often misunderstood) reason might be that your own approach to lessons wasn’t as effective as it needed to be in order for you to make real progress.
After teaching tens of thousands of music lessons to all types of guitarists and also mentoring guitar teachers around the world on how to teach more effectively, I began to notice similar and consistent patterns used by most students for learning to play guitar.
I also noticed that the specific approach the students applied to studying with a teacher had a direct influence on their progress. Very often 2 different people can get very different results by studying with the same guitar teacher, because the ways in which the students approached the learning process in general are very different. For example, one student believed that he knew better than the teacher did about how to reach his musical goals and resisted some of the instruction his teacher was giving him. It later became very clear to him that he did not know better. You can hear his story about how he failed here. The other student soaked up everything his teacher was instructing him to do and quickly became a world class guitar virtuoso.
I have found there are 3 types of students who become easily frustrated with their lessons. As you read the rest of this article, be honest and ask yourself if any of these 3 descriptions sound like you. I’ll be the first to admit that at one point I had the characteristics of each of the “ineffective student behaviors” presented below. Looking back many years later, I now understand that one of the reasons why it took me as long as it did to master the guitar (more than 20 years), was due to my own inefficient approaches to learning when I began the journey.
The “Teach me something new today” student type.
You may think it is common sense that guitar lessons should consist mainly of presenting new content, and expect that the guitar teacher’s primary job is to show you things that are “new” to you. However, if we examine this approach a bit deeper, you will see that focusing “only” on seeking out new information will not bring big results long term.
First of all, too much new content quickly leads to overwhelm and burn out (and does not allow enough time to apply the information you are learning). This feeling of overwhelm is what causes you to become frustrated and quit lessons (or worse yet, quit guitar). Second, simply “learning new things” does not lead to mastery. I have had many students come to me being able to do some cool things on guitar. For example, they may have good technique, or a good understanding of how music works, or have good ears. But more often than not, their ability to APPLY and INTEGRATE what they “know” to playing music was very poor. At this point, “learning more new things” is not going to help these students to significantly advance their guitar playing. Simply being “aware” of a concept is not enough. You don’t truly “know” something until you can apply and integrate it with your other musical skills fluently.
This type of training in applying and integrating what you know is probably the single most valuable thing you get out of music lessons and is one area of musical development that is almost universally lacking in many guitarists. This results in massive frustration and disappointment that many players often experience (but often do not realize WHY they are frustrated).
When you take lessons for the first time, you may think that it is great that your teacher shows you something new in each lesson. But if your teacher does nothing else than “show you things”, then as more lessons go by, you will start to notice that you are not really making any significant progress (because no application and integration is taking place). Most people will quit lessons at this point, and will continue to perpetuate the myth that guitar lessons are ineffective, without really understanding the real reasons for their lack of progress.
The type of student who is only interested in learning new things, typically does not stick with lessons for very long. If a teacher begins to talk about a concept the student may already be familiar with, the lesson is perceived to be a waste of time. Because these students may have heard about this concept from somewhere else, they believe that they “already know it”.
Of course, receiving new information is a part of any comprehensive lesson plan (and certainly you will learn a lot of new things by taking lessons), but it is the order in which this information is presented, and the way you are trained to USE, APPLY and INTEGRATE that information that makes lessons with a good teacher so valuable. If learning “raw data” in a linear fashion (and practicing) was all it took to become a great musician, then anyone could buy some books and after studying them for a few years and practicing on his/her own become a highly advanced guitarist. Of course most of the time, this doesn’t happen.
The moral of the story here is to remember that you came to your teacher to learn and grow as a guitar player. In order for this to actually happen you will need to have some patience through the process and realize that sometimes when you ‘think you know something’, you in fact may not really know it yet to the point that you can apply it and integrate it with your other musical skills.
The next type of student wants to master every little thing their teacher presents in a lesson (or that they discover on their own) before working on anything else. While on the surface this seems like a good idea, it is far from the most efficient approach to becoming a great musician. Learning music is best done in a non-linear approach, meaning that multiple things should be worked on simultaneously without stressing out about totally mastering everything in a linear order. Discover more about why the typical linear approach guitar players follow often fails in this video about how to learn and master guitar playing.
I like to compare learning music to baking a cake. You don’t make a cake by cooking one ingredient at a time and then finally putting them together when each one is ready. If you baked your cake in this way, it would take you a long time to finish and more importantly the cake would not taste as good as when the ingredients are cooked together!
The same goes for musical skills. If you waited until you became a great virtuoso master of technique before beginning to work on (mastering) music theory, then turning to songwriting, and then switching to improvising, it could take you many decades to finally become really good and your skills would not likely be integrated together. What I recommend to you is to follow a non-linear approach (as described in the video above). When learning a new skill, don’t wait until you completely master it; only make sure that you have the fundamentals down and begin immediately to look for contexts to apply it. Then work on integrating this new skill with everything else that you know how to do/play. Application and integration are unique skills that must be practiced separately. This key link will enable you to go from being “the student” who is able to “do lots of things” on the guitar, to becoming a great player who can use all of his musical skills to achieve complete musical expression.
This (non-linear) approach will also prevent you from getting out of balance with your skills and at any level of your musical development, you will be able to apply and integrate everything you know. It is important to note that a ‘non-linear approach’ is not an ‘illogical’ approach. So if you are looking for a systematic and logical approach to learning guitar, you should understand that this systematic, geometric (non-linear) strategy IS in fact the most effective, most efficient and most logical path possible.
This personality type often comes out in a player who has been playing for a while and has studied with other guitar teachers in the past. This student may come into their first lesson full of preconceived ideas about what lessons should be like, and dictating to the teacher what and how to teach. I should clarify here that I am not talking about asking questions when you don’t understand something or telling your teacher about your goals. There is a big difference between doing that, and trying to dictate to the teacher what and how to teach. If the student knew that much more about teaching than the teacher, then the student would BE the teacher, right? If you know how to successfully learn guitar on your own and you are TRULY happy with your progress without a teacher, then maybe you don’t need guitar lessons. But if you seek help from a qualified teacher, this means you realized that whatever you were doing on your own wasn’t working as well as you wanted it to. Therefore, you should accept the fact (or at least the high probability) that your teacher knows many times more about playing and teaching guitar than you do and can successfully teach you to play well. (Otherwise, why would you give the teacher your money?) Of course not all guitar teachers are the same, and some are much more qualified to teach than others. If you follow the advice I give in the guide for choosing a guitar teacher, you will be sure to find the best teacher for you.
I always tell my students that in order for them to receive the most benefit from working with me, it is their job to articulate to me their specific musical goals and list their musical challenges. Then it is MY job to come up with the most effective strategy possible to solve their problems and get them to their stated goals as quickly as possible. But in order for that to happen, they need to have faith in me as a teacher, and commit themselves to moving forward together through the learning and training process. My most satisfied and advanced students all followed this advice.
If your guitar teacher has already created many great musicians, chances are, he knows what he is doing and will be able to help you as well. But his ability to help you will be limited (and the process will take much longer), if you constantly challenge everything he tells you to do. Again, asking questions about something you don’t understand is normal, and is part of the learning process. But creating the overall lesson plan is your teacher’s primary responsibility, not yours.
In many of my previous articles, I mentioned that working with a teacher is the fastest and most direct way to achieve your goals. But if you want to truly maximize your rate of progress, you should also analyze the way in which you approach studying with a teacher. Even if you choose to study on your own, I still strongly encourage you to analyze your approach to learning and practicing the guitar and see if it can be improved.
There are many variables that affect the rate of your improvement while learning to play guitar. If you align all of them in your favor (by studying with a great teacher, adapting the most effective approach to learning, developing powerful practice habits, and more) then you will become really unstoppable!
If you recognize yourself as one of the student types described above, think about your current approach to learning guitar and if necessary, make the decision to change that mindset. On the surface it may seem like a small action to take, but the difference this can make to your guitar playing may be greater than you have ever even imagined before!
Want to know how to choose the right teacher for you? Download the free guide for choosing a teacher.
©2009 Tom Hess Music Corporation
All rights reserved. Used By Permission
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