Teaching Tips

Tips for teaching music

Guitar classes for groups–do you have questions about how to conduct them? 

I have a first article about guitar classes at MTH dealing with details like age ranges, finding a location, group dynamics, materials to use, policies and how much to charge. Below you will find the nitty-gritty of actual class times, songs to choose, and more.

In an 2014 article, I gave week-by-week specifics of a class I was teaching at the time.

Here are things I wish I’d heard before starting my first classes.

 

First Things First

Do they have working guitars?

  • I prefer not to mess with amps, so I require a six-string acoustic—either nylon or steel will do.
  • I need to see their guitars ahead of time unless they tell me the manufacturer and that they recently purchased it from a store I know and trust. I’ve had students show up with guitars so warped they couldn’t be tuned, strings so far off the fingerboard it would take a bench vise to press them to the guitar, strings missing, and strings so old my fingers turned black touching them—and they appeared ready to break at first touch.
  • I want to know if the guitar will hold its tuning. I’d hate to be in class before I discover it must be re-tuned every three minutes! (If you’re thinking that sounds like a toy guitar and that I’ve been in this situation, you would be correct. Don’t ask. It was turquoise blue plastic, so it should have had a great tone, don’t you know.)
  • If I have time, I’ll put new strings on for them. If there’s more wrong with it than strings, I make recommendations to rent one, buy a new one, or get theirs repaired.
  • I keep a watch-out at garage sales for decent guitars, and sometimes rent them to students until they learn enough to go looking for one for themselves. I go through a policy sheet with renters, educating them about the care of the instrument.

While I’m checking out the instrument, I can get to know the student a little. Find out what music they’re interested in, and what they already know (or don’t know) about music in general and guitar in particular.

 

The actual teaching time

Planning is essential!!!!

What do you hope to cover over the course? Jot down ideas and put them in a logical sequence. You might consult a beginner guitar method for ideas.  You might try Alfred’s, FJH or Hal Leonard.

  • Basics: guitar parts, finger numbers, string numbers, fret numbers, how to read a chord chart.
  • Music reading basics: staff, lines and spaces, quarter notes, half notes, whole notes, the music alphabet…
    • I only get into notes on the staff if I have at least ten weeks or a semester.
    • I find out if anyone has had piano lessons. If so, that person can be of help.
  • Rhythm basics: if you have the luxury of time, you can get into reading rhythms. Otherwise, consider how you’ll “check their pulse.” Will you have them clap rhythms after you? Or perhaps strum across their open strings?

If you prefer a ready-made group guitar course, look at Mel Bay, Jerry Snyder or the adult group class book by Alfred’s.

How much time will it take to tune the instruments at the start of each class?

Will I hold one complete class to teach them to change strings?

In a group you might not spend as much time with students individually. You certainly can’t let the rest of the group sit doing nothing while you work with one person. If you have a strategy in place, you can get the class going on something while you spend a couple minutes with one student. Plan for that time.

Ideas for what to do with the group while helping an individual:

  1. Use a backing track you’ve pre-recorded. I use my digital music recorder to create mp3s for them. You could have tracks with a two-chord or three-chord progression. Spend enough time on each chord to allow for students who are changing chords very slowly. You could add a metronome click on the recording to help them keep the tempo. I send an mp3 of tuning notes, too.
    • Early beginners might do a downstroke on each beat.
    • Some might be able to manage a two-four or four-four strum.
    • If you have a more advanced student, he or she could practice a simple finger-picking pattern or even power chords.
    • Show them the bass note of the chords. Some could simply play the bass along with the progression.
    • This way you have an ensemble going. How exciting for the group!

When they can play along easily, you might play the same progressions with some sort of groove, or in different styles. The fun factor shoots higher.

  1. If you have one or two students who have mastered some chord changes, instruct them to lead a certain number of measures on each chord.
  2. Allow time for each student to work on their own piece while you work with individuals. This could take up fifteen minutes of class, or whatever you determine works for you. If the noise level is too distracting, have students mute their strings with a cloth or sponge under them.

 

Be on the Lookout for Songs to Teach

Look for lists of songs with two, three or four chords. Do a search for two-chord country, folk, kids’, or rock songs. Do the same for more chords. Try The Guitar Three-Chord Songbook by Hal Leonard, which includes fifty songs in the first volume. There are three volumes, another book of 3-chord worship songs, acoustic songs, etc.

How often do chords change? Choose songs that stay on each chord for awhile before switching, especially in the first few weeks. Gradually add songs that have quicker chord changes.

Make sure you give plenty of chord review by teaching more songs.

If the first two chords you use are the I and V in a key, let the next chord you add be the IV chord in the same key. After that, your next key could be related. Example: start in the key of G (G, D, C), and go to the key of D next, which adds only one new chord (D, G, A). Or instead of going to the key of D, you might simply add G’s vi chord (Em), for their first four-chord song.

There are dozens of two-chord songs. Hundreds (perhaps thousands) of three-chord songs, and no end to four-chord songs!

 

Train up Future Worship/Praise Band Members

Many churches these days have worship bands. Who will train the next generation of musicians?

Perhaps the church would allow you to teach in their facility for free. Find out their present song list. Often these choruses have three to five chords. YouTube can be a super tool to help your students learn the songs. You could look into Spotify to create a playlist for them.

Inspirational music can be of great encouragement to others, too. Have your students share these songs at a park or other venue.

 

Find performance opportunities for your students

What motivates students to practice more than knowing they’ll be performing in public?

Christmas is a wonderful time to get your students playing. Set up a time for your studio to ring the bell for Salvation Army, and have them bring their guitars and fingerless gloves!

But don’t wait for Christmas. Set up mini-recitals at the local assisted living homes, memory-care units, or nursing homes. The residents not only enjoy it, but music gets brain cells firing like almost nothing else. And the benefits to students go far beyond the musical realm.

Libraries often welcome musical programs.

How about some easy listening at a coffee shop?

 

Wrapping it up

I like to invite guest guitarists to play for the class from time to time. Especially former students! I encourage them to mention how difficult it was at first, and what practice did for them. Also what guitar means to them now. Let them talk about what vocals and other instruments, listening to music, and playing with other musicians means to them.

Before the guest guitarist visits, teach your class a piece your guest will know. Tell the guest so (s)he can prepare something special on the song. Invite the class to play along with the guest on that piece.

Mini-recital to end each class. Spend the final five to ten minutes letting students volunteer to show the others some improvement, what they learned today, or a new song. I never qualify this suggestion by saying “if you’re comfortable” or mentioning nerves. I’ve found that if I’m matter-of-fact about it, most students simply do it. No big deal. I’ll show them what I’m working on currently, too.

A short recital could be your grand finale for the group session. Sometimes I’ve taught them a song they can share at a local church for special music. If it’s well-known, the whole congregation might be invited to join in singing, with your class accompanying.

If you happen to teach voice, recorder or ukulele as well, perhaps you could combine all of your groups for a few pieces!

Group classes can create buzz to promote your studio. And you can use Music Teachers Helper to do your bookkeeping and provide a website!

I hope you’ll give serious thought to teaching group guitar classes. You can reach and influence so many more people with your music!

Let us know some of your experiences in the comments. Music Teachers Helper readers would appreciate hearing your ideas.

 

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  • How can I get my piano students to play musically?
  • Will they ever learn to truly perform rather than just play?
  • How can I help them to become more confident music readers?

These are some of the challenges that Alison Mathews has addressed in her new book “Doodles” published by Editions Musica Ferrum.

Aimed at beginners to around grade 3 (ABRSM), this chunky book contains 128 little pieces of 4-8 bars (measures) arranged in four difficulty levels.

Now the interesting part! Rather than name each piece, Mathews has provided a small picture, often an emoji, hence the title “Doodles,” which is meant to inspire a mood in the music student. She has also given lots of interesting directions like, “playfully – fish are chasing in the coral” or “fast and furious – what else could you do to make it sound stormy?” I love how at the centre of these short activities the emphasis is on performance. The pupil just simply can’t resist but will soon be inspired to create their own pieces. Watch out John Williams, we will all be writing shark music at this rate!

An interesting feature is the use of the same pieces at each level but with increased difficulty and technique. This a great way to help a student see how to develop a composition. I can see my pupils having lots of fun improvising with these pieces and using them as the basis of their own compositions. Young pupils love engaging their imagination, so this book will inspire them not only to be better readers of music but more importantly, to play with feeling and understanding.

Lots of different playing techniques are explored through the pieces and are an intrinsic part of each song. Legato, staccato, dynamics, tremolandi and glissandi are all represented. I’ve even picked up a tip for helping young pupils to play a glissando without hurting their fingers by using a roll of sellotape!

My only criticism is that there are no key signatures used. I’m very keen on introducing a sense of key very early in development but this is a “minor” grumble compared with the fantastic way that musicality is being taught here. Maybe this is an issue that could be addressed in later editions or subsequent volumes.

For its ability to inspire musicality in such a fun and engaging way, this book gets a big thumbs up from me.

To purchase the book, click here.

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Our job as a private instructor gives us unique perspectives and insights regarding a student’s abilities, potential, and character. Recently I have been asked to write various recommendation letters for my students for high school/college applications, summer camps, special recognition awards, as well as supporting documentation for competitions and scholarships.

Here are some of the tips I have to share:

1. State the facts – I always start by stating how long the student has studied with me. This is very important. Piano study requires time and perseverance. Being able to state that someone has stuck to the same activity for a decent number of years and not give up says a lot about that student’s character.

2. Make a list – What has the student accomplished during their time with you? List all the assessment exams/tests they have taken, what level, any high scores/honors they received. Also list any competitions they have participated in, including any prizes they won. If a student has not done any exams or competitions, then list approximately what repertoire they have studied, what level you think they have accomplished, whether they have progressed into an intermediate level or advanced level.

3. Personal observation – This is probably the most interesting part of the letter. What have you noticed about this student? What makes this student stand out from others? What are their special qualities? Does the student show enthusiasm and love? Is the student a consistent hard worker? Is the student conscientious and responsible? Does the student have a high standard for themselves? Does the student learn quickly? Is the student a joy to teach? Focus on the positives.

4. Other involvements – This is where I mention any other facts that I know about the student that may not be music related, such as academic or sports achievements. I also emphasize all the wonderful skills a piano student learns that can apply to other areas – goal setting, time management, accepting constructive criticism, etc.

5. Special mentions – Sometimes an organization requesting the letter asks for specific comments regarding the student – ability for independent study, leadership skills, community service involvements, etc. In this case, it may be necessary for the student to create special opportunities for themselves before you write the letter so that you can comment on their involvements. For example, ask the student to make arrangements to perform for retirement homes/charity concerts, so that there is something you can say about.

6. Wrap up – I also end with another personal note about my relationship with the student. How they have inspired me as a teacher, where I see their strengths lie, and where I see them grow.

7. Contact details – don’t forget to include all your contact information, so you may be contacted for further comment if necessary.

Do you write recommendation letters for your students? What do you include? Do share with us!

 

Photo by Adolfo Félix on Unsplash

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