When you start working with a new teacher, the first few lessons are often a preliminary feeling-out process. It can take some time to get a complete sense of how they work, how knowledgeable they are, and whether their approach speaks to you.
I always make a real effort to make a connection in the first lesson: to find out what the student is really interested in and needs most, and show them something that can make an immediate difference. To some degree, that’s the job description in a nutshell. You should expect a teacher to want to know your specific goals, or to help you set them based on your musical interests and current skills. But what about what a teacher should expect from you? What can you do to help them guide you down a successful path?
The obvious answer is, practice. But there’s more to it than that. Here are five points that will really help you get the most out of your investment in formal lessons.
1. Communicate your interests and goals.
What kind of music do you enjoy most? What would you really like to be able to do? If you haven’t thought about these things, you should. Everyone puts the most effort into the things they enjoy most, so help your teacher find what those things are.
2. Recognize that you should always learning more than just how to play a song.
Ideally, everything you learn should help prepare you for the next thing you’re about to learn. Learning a song should also teach you something bigger, whether it’s a specific technique or a musical pattern that will also be used in other songs. Recognize that a good teacher uses songs as illustrations of a specific approach or concept. When you view the music this way, you’ll get a lot more out of the effort you put in than just memorizing a new song.
3. Take every opportunity to play.
Simply put, the difference between people who get better and people who don’t is in how much they play. The more time you spend practicing and playing, the faster you’re likely to improve. If you’re a busy person and find it hard to find time to practice, find small windows throughout the day to play for just a few minutes. Even if you can only pick up the guitar for a moment, do it.
4. Be clear on the difference between playing and practicing, and do both.
Detailed and focused practice is very powerful, and you should spend some time every day working very slowly on something you find challenging. Slow practice is mentally challenging, and it can feel less satisfying when a song becomes an exercise. But that detailed work is what allows you to solve problems. Think of “practice” as time spent on things you can’t do yet, and “play” as time spent on things you can. One builds your skills, the other feeds the love. Both are essential.
5. Be rigorous in your evaluations. but gentle in your judgments.
Many people don’t set a high enough standard when they practice. You need to do more than just memorize fingerings: you need to know the music and be able to execute it cleanly. So if you’re buzzing, missing notes consistently, or tripping over your fingers, you’re probably going too fast and letting mistakes go uncorrected.
At the same time, though, there’s a difference between judging a performance and judging your potential. Self-talk matters: it’s ok and understandable to get frustrated, but don’t let a challenging song convince you that you don’t have what it takes to learn. Recognize that learning to play is a process that takes time to unfold, and do your best to be patient enough to enjoy the journey.
All of this is good advice. Take #3, “find small windows throughout the day to play for just a few minutes.” The most important thing about practice is not what you practice or how long you practice, the most important thing is how often you practice. It’s like brushing your teeth; brushing them for an hour once a month doesn’t work as well as short but often. We all suffer from “mañana”, whether by being too busy or too lazy. Apart from becoming a better person (starting tomorrow), there is an easy trick.
Don’t put your guitar away. Keep it in a stand within easy reach of where you mostly hang out. Make it tempting to pick up. Feel free to pick it up “just for a moment”. You might even consider buying another guitar to go near another favorite chair.