Why the Traditional Approach to Teaching Guitar is Bad for Your Students

Why the Traditional Approach to Teaching Guitar is Bad for Your Students

Music teaching is one of the oldest known professions in history. And although we have come a long way since the Middle Ages, unfortunately the method in which music is taught hasn’t changed all that much.

Traditionally, musicians were hired by the nobility to perform pieces for entertainment and ceremonies of the court and church to compose music for the said events and to educate the children of the nobility on how to play their instruments. The musician provided several services for the noble family and was provided with patronage so that they could continue their craft. If a commoner or lesser noble wanted to learn music, they would have to find one of these musicians and trade labor for their time so that they could teach them. 

While society is much further developed and we now trade money for time, the lesson format of sitting with a teacher one-on-one for 30-60 minutes hasn’t changed at all.

And not once in over 1000 years has anyone ever questioned whether this is the best way to learn.

Let me pose you a few questions…

How do you learn at school?

How do you learn at university?

And how do you train when you’re playing football, basketball and the majority of sports?

The answer is in groups.

Why group lessons is important when teaching guitar

Group teaching isn’t anything new to music. However, it’s always been seen as a lesser option when giving the student the choice of group lessons or private lessons. Has anyone ever stopped to ask why?

There is such a negative attitude towards group lessons and a stigma that they aren’t as good for learning. This is just straight up wrong.

Group lessons are great for learning. And almost every occurrence of formal education you’ve ever had in your life has been in group format. Furthermore, if you go and study music at universities, 23 of your 24 contact hours are usually classes or small groups with only a single private lesson each week.

So why do we stick to the traditional private lesson approach to teaching guitar? Because they are easy, and because they are familiar.

  • Easy to give the student your full attention.
  • Easy to keep track of student progress and allocate them their resources within the time you have.
  • Easy to communicate with them and to build.
  • Easy to take the concept you know and transfer your knowledge to the student.
  • Easier to let them play through entire repertoire pieces.
  • It’s easier to focus exclusively on what the student needs and cater the lesson to that.

But we often don’t even stop to think if there are some disadvantages for the student, such as:

  • It’s a high pressure scenario where you are watching them and critiquing them the entire time.
  • It’s isolated and it’s just them by themselves.
  • If they haven’t practiced then, they feel guilty and don’t want to front up because there is nowhere to hide.
  • If students consistently don’t practice, then they will likely and intentionally skip a lot more lessons. This will lead them to quitting prematurely.
  • They don’t get to jam with anyone at their level.
  • They don’t get to communicate musically or work on their timing by interacting with other musicians.

Related: Keep Your Guitar Students From Quitting with 6 Steps for Better Results

Disadvantages for the teacher:

  • If you have 10 students learning the same topic, you have to teach it 10 times. This is a massive waste of time.
  • If your student hasn’t practiced, they are going to be self-conscious and cancel frequently.
  • You’re limited in how much money you can make per hour.
  • You can only teach the students a limited number of skills without having them exposed to any ensemble playing.

Advantages of teaching guitar for group lessons for the student:

  • They get to be part of a team.
  • They get to make new friends and socialise.
  • They get the opportunity to jam with others.
  • They get the opportunity to be inspired by students further along with them.
  • They get to hear stories of how other students struggled and overcame their struggles instead of just hearing you assure them it will get better.
  • They get low pressure practice time to work on what you’ve given them while you rotate your focus between the group members.
  • They can be part of an ensemble.
  • They get over their fear of playing in front of others in the very first lesson.

Advantages of teaching guitar in group lessons for the teacher:

  • You get to make more money per hour by having multiple students pay you.
  • You only have to explain things once to the group instead multiple times individual students.
  • You can make more money in less time, allowing you to free up your schedule for more students or for more leisure or family time.
  • You can make ensembles and create experiences the student otherwise wouldn’t get.
  • Your students will make friends, form bonds, and stick with lessons for longer because they enjoy hanging out with other students.
  • Your students will be inspired by seeing other students who are ahead of them and know that it’s possible for them, too.
  • Your students will practice more because they will be motivated to keep up with the pace of the other students.
  • You can set a timetable on your terms and not have to try and cater to the specific needs of every student.
  • Makeup lessons are easy because they just come to another group session instead of you having to find time outside of your regular hours.
  • If your personality isn’t a great match for the student, they will get their needs met by another person in the group.

Traditional Approach to Teaching Guitar

Now, there will still be instances where private lessons are better suited to a particular student’s needs and circumstances, such as when the student needs direct or specialised information or feedback when preparing for an exam. In these circumstances, you should have the opportunity for private lessons as a permanent option or in addition to their group lessons.

I know some of you will be reading this and will be absolutely seething at the idea of group lessons because they deviate from the standard. Listen, I know you learned from your teacher in private lessons. And your teacher learned from their teacher that way. And their teacher before them repeated over and over back into the dark ages.

Listen Dude! (Or Dudette) Repeat the same old methods and you get the same old results. You wouldn’t take medical advice from a doctor in the ’60s or athletics advice from a 1920s sports coach. Why are you using dated teaching formats and methods that have long since been advanced upon.

Here’s the truth…

There is nothing you can teach in a private lesson that you can’t teach in group lessons. Sure, having three people on three very different levels can make it more challenging to teach some specific topics. But that’s only if you don’t know how to effectively level and layer content to meet the needs of each of those students where they are currently at. And that can be easily avoided if you just organise your groups around specific levels or areas of interest.

Whenever someone says, “Group lessons don’t work,” what they are really saying is, “Group lessons didn’t work for me when I tried them.

This doesn’t mean that they don’t work at all. In fact, in my guitar school (which has over 200 students) 97% of them are learning in groups. These includes the 12-years-olds who can play Holy Wars by Megadeth, the 11-year-old who can play Hammer Smashed Face by Cannibal Corpse, and the VCE Topclass Guitar Student of 2016 who had the highest exam score in my state out of over 4,000 guitar players.

If group lessons aren’t working for you, you need to do three things to make them work for you.

  • Organise your groups according to level and/or interest.
  • Learn how to level and layer so that you can account for differences in skill or knowledge between students.
  • Learn how to take a concept and make it relevant to where the student is. 

Once you can get these three things down, you’ll be able to:

  • Make much more money per hour by teaching group classes effectively.
  • Save a lot of time in your schedule by condensing individual lessons into groups.
  • Re-invest that time into teaching more students or whatever you want to do with it.
  • Avoid having to double up on the same lessons multiple times per week and explain things over and over.
  • Avoid the scheduling nightmare that comes with private lessons.

If you’re a guitar teacher but you can’t teach groups, you’re seriously doing yourself and your students a great disservice. Sure, you should still keep a couple of slots open for private lessons. And you will undoubtedly have some students who work best in that format. But unless you’re making a switch to groups, you’ll always be stuck with a fixed amount of income and working maximum hours to fill your schedule in order to make it while forever giving your students a limited education that doesn’t touch on the musical skills required when playing with others.

Making the switch to group lessons when teaching guitar will be the best decision you ever make, for you, your family, and your students.


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Michael Gumley

Michael Gumley is founder at Melbourne Guitar Academy, creator of Guitar Dojo Online and Guitar Ninjas, and TopMusic’s Head of Guitar. He rocked his start at guitar playing at age 15 and was instantly hooked. Michael brings his passion for music and love of all things guitar to every lesson, and seeks to help students capture that same excitement and wonder on their own journeys.

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