Ways to Avoid Overwhelming Your Guitar Students

Updated on December 27, 2017

Ways to Avoid Overwhelming Your Guitar Students

I remember my very first guitar lesson all those years ago. I came out of the 30-minute session feeling demoralized and ready to quit before I even really got started.

The Eagle’s “Take it easy” was playing in the background as I walked into the studio. I remember seeing posters of Joe Walsh and Peter Frampton plastered throughout—I thought I was in Heaven!

Heaven quickly turned to hell as I pulled out my humble guitar (from its even humbler case). I could hear snickering and a “What the—you’re gonna play on that thing?”

1. Don't Bite the Hand That Feeds You!

Don’t hurt your students' feelings! After all, they are paying you! You don’t know how hard it might have been for an aspiring guitarist to save enough money to buy a guitar that fits their budget, not to mention scrape enough cash together to take your lessons! As a young guitar student, I felt the effects of this first-hand; as a teacher now, years later, I know better.

Even though this sounds like a no-brainer “no-no”, there are teachers who forget this simple form of etiquette and common decency.

2. No Problems, Only Solutions!

  • Identify possible issues, roadblocks, and problems
  • Advise students (and parents)
  • Guide – (tactfully)
  • Be a part of the solution

We all know what a good guitar feels like, and what it is to suffer with a not-so-good one. Some students just can’t afford to buy an acoustic guitar that we, as professionals, might consider “decent”. Part of teaching guitar, or any other instrument, is to give truthful advice and guidance—in a tactful way. So long as they have a guitar that plays well and doesn't cause too many problems then that's fine. This article provides some tips on what to look out for when buying a guitar for the first time.

Identify your students’ weaknesses along with their needs, and find ways to become part of the solution to their improvability.

Some cheap imports actually have a great feel, but just lack a proper set-up (and a new set of tuning pegs/machines) to be deemed playable. Be careful how you approach this. Let them know that it’ll be easier to play after some minor adjustments and that ALL guitars need a change of strings (at least), and proper setup when they are new (regardless of make and model). If it’s a cheaper import with die-cast tuners, they should still get some useful time out of it before the gears start slipping; so new machines are not something they’ll need to worry about initially.

If you’re good at doing setups, why not just do it for your student? You can even make it one of their lessons! They’ll appreciate the class, and it will be useful in the long run on any guitar they buy in the future. By doing this, you’ll have boosted their confidence a couple of notches, and run less risk of overwhelming them in the future because you’ve started to build trust.

3. Some Tips on Handling Young Guitarists

  • Patience is a virtue
  • Size ‘em up!
  • Keep parents informed and involved

There’s no question that teaching children require more patience than let’s say…one of your peers who is of like mind and age. Do a self-assessment: if you can’t deal with kids or don’t want to—then don’t! But if you are truly capable of teaching all ages there are a few things to keep in mind. Junior guitarists need smaller guitars. It can be extremely overwhelming to not be able to get your hands and fingers into the correct position around the neck and on the fretboard. Make sure the guitar is of the proper size for smaller-sized kids. Address this issue with their parents. Hold off their classes until they get the right sized guitar; their parents will appreciate your honesty and will trust your decisions in the future.

Another note on the youngsters and fitting guitars: make sure they are not left-handed trying to play right-handed guitars or vice versa!

If you see that a student really has no coordination with his left hand on the neck, maybe he or she needs a left-hand configured guitar. Sometimes this is overlooked, but again, you, as a guitar teacher, know this can be a BIG problem even though the student may not even know what orientation they need.

It’s all about identifying issues and providing solutions to keep your students relaxed without stress, happy, and learning from you.

4. A Picture Is Worth a Thousand Words!

  • Chord Charts
  • Pictures
  • Videos

Some newbies to the guitar have real issues trying to make the correlation between the guitar fretboard, musical notes in sheet music, and tablature. During their 30-minute lesson they have you to help them along, but what happens when they get home and try to form those chords?

Pictures and charts are extremely useful to help associate notes on the guitar with their note names. It can be overwhelming to try to remember everything from a lesson, so be sure to use reference material in the lesson that students can take away with them and practice just the same at home.

5. Let's Jam Tonight! (Hold the Theory... sometimes!

  • Adapt to their needs
  • Jam and let jam!

Let’s face it, when it comes down to the nitty-gritty, everybody wants to play their favorite songs on the guitar, and if they can do that without learning a bunch of theory, well that’s ok too. (I can hear all of the traditionalist guitar-theory junkies groaning right about now). As a guitar teacher, you have to be able to adapt to all types of students that have a variety of needs and goals.

A lot of players just want to learn cover songs for their bands, or they just need another person to jam along with. Don’t feel like it’s too menial a task to just teach them specific songs, chords to songs, or just solos—it’s about keeping them interested and coming back because they are learning something that they want…from you.

Not everyone wants to learn the same things, nor do they need to. Some people just feel too overwhelmed. However, if you prefer to only teach a certain way, or a certain methodology, that’s fine too. As long as potential students know what to expect.

Regardless of their age, if they’re not interested in something then don’t push it. There’s a reason why they chose you as a teacher. Ask them!

Some mature learners have already gone through many teachers and classes, including theory and reading music; so, maybe they just want a more relaxing type of session. Talk with them, find out their history. There’s a reason why they chose you as a teacher, so why not ask them?

Don’t overwhelm them with theory and scales and memorization all at once. If you see that a student gets bored quickly, teach him or her through one of their favorite songs. If applicable, you can even slowly introduce some theory and why the specific chords in the song flow together etc.

How to Use a Capo

6. Capo Time! How a Capo Can Add to the Joy of Learning

Some people, believe it or not, are overwhelmed by barre chords…and some just don’t like them. Some people like them, but they can’t get their fingers into the correct position, or have arthritic or muscular issues to impede the correct barre chord execution. Others just love open chord forms and changing keys to suit their vocal range. They don’t want to lose the open chord feel and sound that is sometimes lost when utilizing a barre chord.

How a capo can be helpful:

  • Learn songs quicker with just a handful of open chords and a capo
  • Confidence booster
  • Change keys to accommodate your vocal range
  • Create different voicings with just a quick repositioning of the capo
  • Accommodate handicapped or disabled people with chord formations (partial capo)

A Partial Capo is a great alternative for people with disabilities or wanting to experiment with different tunings. They allow you to play chords without even fingering them.

A family friend returned from Desert Storm missing 2 fingers; he thought his guitar picking days were over. He got a partial capo—he had never heard of such a thing—and in no time, he was back to playing and making music.

The Capo-

With a handful of open chords and a capo, guitarists can change keys and voicings with just a quick repositioning of the capo.

The Partial Capo –

Great for people with disabilities or wanting to experiment with different tunings.

They allow you to play chords without even fingering chords.

7. Don’t Force Your Own Personal Style and Methodology

As mentioned earlier, different pupils have different needs and desires.

Look at chefs. They specialize in a certain type of cuisine, but they prepare a variety of dishes for a variety of different people. You can specialize in a certain style of music, but offer different methods and solutions of learning to your students, when needed.

Give them options to create a positive experience for themselves that boost their confidence.

8. Utilizing Online Lessons

Up until this point we’ve assumed that all classes are one-on-one, as most are; however, more and more teachers are starting smaller groups in their studios, as well as online—yes, I said “online”. This is a great option for a number of obvious reasons such as travel time, but also some people feel more comfortable learning from inside their home environment: their safe zone.

Group classes can be stressful for students since everyone starts comparing each other’s ability to one another. However, if you teach a group lesson online, let’s say to a group of 2 or more, they will only see you—unlike Skype, they will not see each other—and that will be of enormous help when trying to avoid intimidating or overwhelming newbies or self-conscious people who have issues with low self-esteem.

Online classrooms can also be utilized for teaching guitar.

If you are computer savvy and want to broaden your cliental, or offer an option for people who just don’t feel comfortable traveling to your studio, this is a great option. The classrooms allow you to see, hear, and load music onto the whiteboard for group classes, as well as one-on-one.

A couple of sites worth considering are Electa Live and Wiz IQ. You can register with them for free accounts and use the online classrooms with limitations. I’ve tried both, in conjunction with Skype at times or without, it’s a matter of taste.

After all is said and done, the teaching method you’re most accustomed to is what you’ll be using. If you want to expand and obtain more students—if teaching is your bread and butter—then you’ll have to cater more to your pupils and be more adaptable to what they are trying to achieve on their own personal level.

If you are a purist, or are set in your ways (you know, the “my way, or no way” type), then only accept students that fall into the category of what you feel is in your criteria. Either way, the point is not so much the method, as is the way you implement it. You can follow your protocol, theory-based-traditionalist format, as long as you treat each student as an individual—adapting to their needs within the framework of your curriculum.

Naturally, when people are nervous, they feel overwhelmed and panic can spread like wild fire through their mind and body. Use a calm voice and address each person in a group by their name, in a relaxed tone. As I mentioned earlier at the beginning of this article, it might seem like “no-brainer” stuff; however, we can easily forget. So, if we can master the easy stuff and hone our “people skills”, it will make the session more enjoyable for everyone—as well as keep your students happy. After all, a relaxed student is a happy student; a happy student is a student who will continue taking lessons from you (and maybe even brag a little bit to his or her friends about you).

In the end, by taking a little more time to create a less overwhelming atmosphere, by showing empathy and utilizing your skills, and by becoming part of the solution to problems you’ve identified, you’ll keep your students happy and learning—increasing your income and improving your reputation at the same time.

© 2017 Niall Johnson


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