One of the driving principles behind Start Teaching Guitar is that we can all learn from each other. This “Guitar Teacher Interview” series is a chance for us to hear from other guitar teachers around the world and hopefully get some ideas for our own teaching businesses.
This interview is with Miguel Bonachea, originally from Cuba, but now teaching and performing in South Florida in the USA. This is the first interview I’ve been able to publish by a teacher who focuses on classical guitar, and there are some great teaching insights here.
Guitar Teacher Interview
Tell us a little bit about yourself. Where do you live? What’s your background?
I’ve been teaching classical guitar for more than 20 years, first in Cuba, my homeland where I studied, and then in Colombia where I lived for more than 15 years. I have spent my entire career teaching in three main venues: Higher Institute of Art (Havana, Cuba), a conservatory named after “Antonio Maria Valencia” (Cali, Colombia), and University EAFIT (Medellin, Colombia). I’ve played as a soloist with symphonic orchestras and have performed recitals in Europe, South America, the Caribbean and the United States. I recently moved to the US, and I’m currently a freelancer, a teacher and a performer living in South Florida.
Tell us about your guitar teaching business. Are you doing it part-time or full-time? How many students are you currently teaching?
I’m currently starting a new life as a guitar teacher/businessman, since I’ve always been mainly an employed instructor of private and government institutions back in Colombia and Cuba. When I originally moved to Colombia, there I ran my own little school of music for three years and at the same time a taught at the Conservatory. It was really a very exiting experience as I would combine my expertise teaching guitar with some new skills I had to develop in marketing, managing and so on. All of that would become an important asset later when I held the position of Dean of Music at the Conservatory in Cali for roughly eight years.
My classes have been focused on classical guitar: technique, repertoire, chamber music, analysis, interpretation, etc. At the university I used to tutor around sixteen students, one hour each, on a weekly basis and additionally I did a weekly two hour seminar/workshop class which all the students attended together.
What’s been the biggest key to success in your teaching business so far?
I’ve realized that it’s very important to provide the opportunity for the students to gather in one or more activities, other than private-tutorial classes as the main stream for them to learn. I’ve put that into practice since the time I had my own little school of music and also when I taught both at the Conservatory and the University. The results were encouraging since the students used to stay highly motivated, whether they would go to an ensemble rehearsal, to a workshop, or a seminar.
I couldn’t say I’ve had only one key to success, since to deal with different individuals requires different strategies to keep each of them engaged with the subject matter. I think that you ought to be able to have, at the same time, a sort of clear “big picture plan” to guide your own work as a teacher, and also to be flexible enough to bend some of your preconceived thoughts now and then in order to fit the personality and particular interests of each student.
But according to my humble experience, having the students playing together on a regular basis (once a week, twice a month, etc.) is a very effective key to success, not only because that allows them to confront themselves with their peers and socialize, sharing a feeling of complicity, but as an effective way to enhance knowledge, boost skills and overcome shyness…among other things.
What’s been your most effective way of attracting new students?
I think there are many ways to attract new students. Maybe the most effective one is, like in any sales business, referrals. But undoubtedly the greatest motivation for a prospect to become your student is watching you perform…either formally or even not formally. There is no question about that the teacher is a model, and since one of the many ways to transmit knowledge is imitation, in the business of teaching a musical instrument it gets a huge relevance; therefore, when a student goes to your lessons it means that in some way he or she wants to be like you.
I’ve had students – some of them today accomplished performers in the international arena, who literally knocked on the door asking for lessons. Among them, some came in after a performance I had given, while others were referred by current or former students of mine.
What’s been your most effective way of keeping your existing students from quitting?
To mention the most effective way of keeping students from dropping out (if there is one), according to my experience, I have to hark back to the plausible reasons those of them who quit earlier had. So I can identify three main reasons that usually cause students to quit taking lessons: 1) He or she gets bored; 2)He or she feels ignored or offended; 3) He or she doesn’t have enough money to pay for the lessons.
Therefore, the most effective ways I’ve experienced to keep the students attending my classes are:
1) I do my best to assist with the purposes that originally led a student to choose my class. I not only focus my attention on what his or her goals are about playing the guitar, but also I pay attention to his or her general subjects of interest, as it allows me to relate his or her particular way of learning with intellectual and emotional motivations. Thus I can effectively select pieces, exercises, music examples, and even stories which can challenge him or her both technique-wise and intellectually.
2) I try to create a sincere rapport with the student as I understand his or her feelings, know his or her personal background, show him or her that I have a great regard and respect for his or her beliefs…and let each of them know that there is no other student more important than he or she while in the class. I also keep myself away from making any comparisons with other students, neither for the best nor the worst.
3) If a student is highly motivated and I realize that he or she is really, truly having problems with money, I try to reach an agreement with the student for a temporary discount.
What helps to keep you motivated to continue when things don’t seem to be going as well as you would like?
Well, that’s the place where I’m at currently, since I’m starting the business in a new country where no one knows me, and where I’m also learning the language!
So, my main stream of self motivation is knowing that I’m pursuing something that I really love and which I’m prepared to do as well as the next guy. I try to identify my strengths and weaknesses, enhancing the strengths and trying to fill the gaps related to the weaknesses. I prepare myself on a daily basis practicing, learning new pieces, and reading all the stuff I can get related to teaching and learning…sharing with colleges and trying to make myself to be known.
What advice would you have for someone who would like to get started teaching guitar lessons for the first time?
I’d say that someone who is planning to get into the teaching guitar business must feel, as a prerequisite, confident of him or herself accomplishing the task. To get some students doesn’t seem to be very difficult at all, but growing as a reliable teacher could be very hard if you are not prepared enough. I think it is important to have a plan to teach. Knowing how to address the first lessons with a beginner is very important, as well as to be prepared to answer some of the questions new students or student’s parents usually ask about methods, books, type of pieces, etc. When you are able to show that you have a plan, like a kind of big picture about what your work will be, before your first class or lesson, you create the necessary first (unique) good impression that you are a pro who knows what is the path to get that person playing the guitar the way he or she wants.
Can you share one tip that has worked for you to help your students get better results on the guitar?
Sincerely, if I had just one tip to help the students get better results, I would be millionaire!
People don’t like to be told they have to practice. That’s the season the world is in, because there are such huge sales of books to learn guitar effortlessly, just like there are many beverages for people to lose weight without exercising. I think that the challenge you have as a guitar teacher is to help to help the student to learn to enjoy practicing. It could sound kind of old fashioned but it isn’t.
Are there tips? Yes, of course! There are many tips, each one of them for a different purpose at very different levels. A few days ago I read in a novel about conquering Mount Everest something that I related immediately with learning guitar. They, the mountaineers, used to say: “Go high, sleep low”. For them it means: “reach a higher place every day, but get back and sleep at the place you got to yesterday”. I’d say that when practicing guitar it’s very useful to do something similar: challenge yourself with a new skill, a new piece or even a new concept and then go back and practice what you have learn before and you have already become familiar with.
Well, that’s it for today’s Guitar Teacher Interview. If you’d like to be considered for a future interview, enter your name and email address below to join the Start Teaching Guitar community. I send out occasional interview requests to this mailing list.
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