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In this episode, I’m going to be talking about guitar pedagogy…what it is, what it can do for your teaching business and why you should care. Pedagogy is one of those areas that most guitar teachers aren’t really familiar with and don’t think about much, but understanding it is a big key to being successful as a guitar teacher.
I’ll start with explaining what guitar pedagogy is, I’ll give you some specific examples of good practices you can use in your own lessons, and for STG All-Access members only, I’ll wrap up with 5 key pedagogy principles you can use to create better outcomes for your guitar students!
To call in with a question, a comment or to leave feedback for the show, call the Listener Feedback Hotline at (719) 428-5480 and leave a message! I just might include your recorded message in a future episode.
Items Mentioned In This Episode:
Book – “Fretboard Theory” by Desi Serna
Book – “Classical Guitar Pedagogy: A Handbook For Teachers” by Anthony Glise
Link – RockSchool
Alright, in today’s episode, I’m going to cover something that a lot of guitar teachers don’t really think about too much, and it’s a word that is hard for a lot of people to pronounce and even fewer people know what it really means. And that’s pedagogy. So, I’m going to talk about guitar pedagogy in this episode, and I think it’s something that’s going to be really interesting for you simply because you’ve probably never heard of it before, but you practice it almost every time you teach a lesson. So, I think it’s going to be a really good discussion as we get into it here, but before we get too much further, I just have to put a disclaimer out there.
Guitar Pedagogy Defined
The word pedagogy. It entails a vast educational encyclopedic knowledge of the topic that you’re teaching. And I just want to put it out there so that you know. I don’t have a music degree. I’m actually a music school dropout. And what we’re going to talk about today is just what I’ve learned about pedagogy from my experience as a guitar teacher from taking a lot of lessons myself and from doing a lot of reading and a lot of thinking, quite honestly, on the subject. So, I’m not coming at this from an academic perspective. Just so you know, there’s a lot more to guitar pedagogy, to this whole subject. A ton more than I’m going to be presenting here.
The goal of this episode is just to give you an overview of the basics and a good working definition of what pedagogy is all about and how understanding it can benefit you as a guitar teacher. It’s not to give you this exhaustive encyclopedia, which, quite frankly, does not exist yet. And just to say that there are several different schools of thought around a lot of the ideas that I’m going to share with you in this episode. Just because you might disagree with one or two of them, that doesn’t mean that the other perspectives or schools of thought about that idea are useless or wrong, or something that you can’t learn from. As I get into a discussion of what pedagogy is all about, you’re going to see that there are a lot of different ways to look at things that you teach and ways to teach as a guitar teacher, and the smart guitar teacher is someone who’s going to look at all of the different options and understand their strengths and weaknesses and use that to their advantage whenever you’re teaching your students.
So, just so you know, I’m not going to come at this as a music professor or whatever. I’m just coming at this as another guitar teacher just like you, just sharing a little bit of knowledge that I have on the subject, but hopefully it’ll be of a good benefit to you.
So, let’s talk about what pedagogy is. Let’s take that crazy, weird, Latin-sounding word and unpack it a little bit and define it. So, here’s what pedagogy means. Well, like I mentioned, it’s a foreign concept to a lot of guitar teachers. Especially if you don’t have an academic background or didn’t graduate from a music school, you may have never even heard that word before. Most teachers out there don’t know what the word means. Nobody gets taught much about it. Even in music school or University, it’s not something that’s covered in a major way. And outside of classical music, there really aren’t very many books or resources available about pedagogy for the guitar, but I’ll just explain a little bit more about what it is.
It’s a lot like music theory from a guitar playing perspective. We use music theory all the time as guitar players. A lot of times we don’t even really understand how we’re using it or why, or the reasoning behind what we’re doing on the guitar, but the music theory principles are at work all the same. And it’s the same thing with pedagogy. As a guitar teacher, you use guitar pedagogy principles every time you teach a lesson. You probably just don’t realize that you’re doing it. So, the real question is: are the principles that you use when you teach good principles or are they bad principles? Are you practicing good pedagogy or bad pedagogy?
So, that’s really what the discussion is all about. So, now that I’ve kind of set a little bit of background, here’s a dictionary definition of pedagogy. It’s the science and art of education. Quite simply, it’s studying and understanding the science of how to teach something. And that includes the best practices for teaching, the principles of teaching, and the skills of being a good and effective teacher. All those things are all rolled up in that one goofy-sounding word, pedagogy. And pedagogy is not strictly related to teaching guitar. There is a system of pedagogy around anything that you want to teach, whether it’s education in a school – reading, writing, and arithmetic, and college-level education. Any particular thing that you want to teach from woodworking to macramé to sewing to guitar, there’s a system of pedagogy that revolves around that, that includes best practices, skills, and effective ways to teach that.
Good Pedagogy Is About Teaching Based On Standards
You hear me talk a lot on the podcast about the three-legged stool. I mention that quite a bit. Well, pedagogy is the second leg of this three-legged stool that I talk about all the time. The first leg is musicianship, which is being a good guitar player. The second leg is pedagogy, which is being a good teacher. And the third leg is entrepreneurship, which is being a good business owner. So, those are the kind of three main areas you have to focus on as a guitar teacher if you want to be successful. If you leave one or more of those areas out and neglect them, it’s like trying to sit down on a stool that only has one or two legs. If it has two legs, maybe you can do the balancing act for a while. Maybe you’re a good player and good business owner, but you haven’t really focused on your pedagogy as a teacher.
Well, then you’re going to kind of be off balance. And if all you are is a good player and you’re trying to teach and you don’t know anything about pedagogy and you don’t know anything about how to be a business owner, then you’re going to have a tough time standing on only one leg of the stool. So, all three legs need to be there, and they all need to be the same length for you to get the most benefit and be successful as a teacher.
So, that’s basically what pedagogy is. And what I want to do is I want to spend the rest of this time kind of getting into more of the details about it, and then some sound pedagogy practices that you can use when you teach guitar. And this is going to be high-level stuff. There’s no way I could cover. I mean it would take an encyclopedia to cover everything that you need to know to be a successful guitar teacher from a teaching perspective, but these are just some things that I’ve kind of adopted in my own teaching and that I think would be beneficial for a lot of you. So, let’s talk about this in a little more detail.
Practicing good pedagogy basically means that you’re teaching guitar based on a set of standards. If you come from an educational background, maybe you’ve been a teacher before, then you understand what standards-based education is all about. So, just picture this in your mind if you can. Picture that you’re an elementary school teacher, and then you show up and you don’t have any kind of lesson plan. You don’t have any kind of focus. You just show up and decide to teach whatever strikes your fancy that day. So, you show up to the classroom and you’ve got these 30 smiling ten-year-olds sitting there in your classroom. And then, all of a sudden, you look around and you see a globe on the wall, on a shelf in the back of the room. It’s like: “Okay, we’re going to talk about geography,” and then you spin the globe and then you pick a country, and then you say, “Okay, we’re going to talk about the country of Albania today. And let me see. What do I know about Albania? Well, not a whole lot, but here’s what I think about Albania. ” And basically that’s what I call the spitball approach.
Now, imagine doing the same thing in a guitar lesson. You don’t have any set of standards or any kind of predefined path that you’re taking your students down. They just show up in your teaching studio and you’re like: “Hey, alright, so what do you want to talk about today?” And they’re like: “Well, I heard this song on the radio, coming in today, that I thought was pretty cool. ” “Oh, okay. What’s the name of it?” “Well, I don’t know. ” “Well, alright. Well, let’s look it up online and see if we can find it. Is this it?” “No. ” “Is this it?” “No. ” “Okay, here it is. Wow, okay, that’s a pretty cool song. Let me see if I can figure it out and then I’ll teach it to you,” and then, before long, the lesson is over and maybe you’ve showed them just a little bit of the song or something like that. But then they come back the next week and it’s like: “Oh, do you know your bar chords yet? Wow, okay. Well, here, let me show you two or three things about that. And oh yeah, by the way, here’s this scale that you need to know that goes along with that song too. ” And before long, you know, you’re just kind of just dumping all these different concepts randomly on your students.
That’s what I call spitballing. Okay, it’s just like randomly shooting musical concepts out at your students in your guitar lessons. And I’ve had teachers that have done that to me before. I’ve gotten spitballed. Now, I know none of you do this, right? You listen to this podcast and you know that you have a responsibility to your guitar students and that you prepare for your lessons ahead of time, and that you’re very careful about the way you present things and stuff. I know that you’re not a spitball guitar teacher, or at least I hope not, but you probably know what I’m talking about. You’ve probably had experiences with this. I know I have. I had this one teacher, man, when I was studying a long time ago, and I would go and he would charge 20 dollars an hour to sit there. And I thought that was inexpensive until I realized that it took him an hour to convey any one particular thing. It was just this constant stream of different kinds of information and playing. And wow, man, it was about as unstructured as you could get, and it wasn’t based on any kinds of standards at all.
Spitballing is not the way to go. Okay, pedagogy means that you’re teaching guitar based on a set of standards. You’re not taking that spitball approach, but that you have a structured way that you’re communicating information to your students that’s based on standards. You have a systematic approach to teaching the guitar, one that’s based on accepted practice and thought. So, that’s a lot different. If you compare those two approaches, you have your good guitar player that’s just trying to make a few extra bucks teaching lessons and just throws out whatever spitball technique or concept comes to mind, and then you have this person that understands what it really means to be a guitar player. Understands how to effectively impart those skills to other people. That’s the difference between good pedagogy and bad pedagogy, as a teacher.
Four Components of Good Guitar Pedagogy
If you have good pedagogy, you have solid teaching practices that help your students have better outcomes with the guitar. Okay, it’s kind of like outcomes standards-based education, so it’s all about what kind of guitar students you’re creating and you having enough knowledge and professionalism to understand what that means and be able to deliver it to your students. Okay, so it’s all about standards. And let’s kind of break it down a little bit. A good system of pedagogy for the guitar includes the following components.
I mentioned outcomes a second ago, but good pedagogy means you have a list of outcomes that guitar students should have as a result of their lessons. So, you’re kind of looking at this whole thing from the end insight, so you know what you want your students to learn. So, this is all about what kind of musician you want to create when the lessons are done. Okay, the outcomes you want to achieve for your students. And I guess I can kind of sum up what you’re shooting for typically with this one phrase, and it’s well-rounded. A guitar student that gets done studying with you after like three or four or five years, or whatever, your goal should be that they become well-rounded guitar players.
That means that they’re able to play multiple genres of music if that’s something that they’re interested in, but they can kind of fit into different musical situations. It means that they have the confidence to be a successful performer on the guitar and that they’ve probably had a lot of experience performing by the time that they’re done studying with you. Well-rounded means things like they can not only play other people’s music, but that they can write and compose their own music. And I’m sure you have a lot of other ideas that you can add to this list, but that’s the outcome you typically want for your students. Not just for them to get through the lesson and pay you and come back next week, but you want to create well-rounded musicians that can articulate the things that they know and play on the guitar, and can hopefully turn around and teach other people too.
So that’s the kind of students that you want to create. That’s the kind of outcomes that you want to have as a result of their lessons with you. And a good system of pedagogy has that defined. You have that written out, or at least clear enough in your mind that you know what you’re trying to accomplish here.
The next piece of the puzzle is a set of benchmarks that demonstrate whether or not a guitar student has mastered a certain level of playing. Okay, so benchmarks are all about having points of reference along the way, a way to measure a student’s progress as they learn the guitar. Okay, that could be a lot of different things. It could be being able to play certain things on the guitar at a certain level of speed and accuracy without messing up. You know, a certain metronome level, a setting, or a BPM. It could involve understanding certain concepts of music theory and how to use them in a real musical setting. Those could be benchmarks.
It could be when they reach a certain level with their repertoire of songs that they can play. You know, maybe they know and can play ten songs or 50 songs or 100 songs on the guitar. That could be a benchmark. You know, it’s something that you can measure. It could be the fact that they have participated in live performances and done really well. That could be a benchmark. It could be that they’re writing songs and how many songs they’ve written and the quality of those songs. Those could be benchmarks. Okay, so basically it’s a way for you, as the teacher, to look at them and say, “Okay, you have reached a certain level. You’re doing well in a certain area. You’re ready to move on to the next thing. ”
A good system of pedagogy is going to have those benchmarks identifies so that you, as the teacher, know where your students are, and hopefully they do too. It’s not just this ocean of musical knowledge that they’re swimming in whenever they come to your guitar lessons, but they kind of know the path that they’re following, and then they know when they’ve reached a certain milestone along that path. So, that’s what benchmarks are, and they’re an important part of this.
The next thing, I mentioned before, was standards, but let’s talk about standards a little bit because a good system of guitar pedagogy includes a set of accepted standards that determine how a guitar teacher presents musical concepts and techniques on the guitar. So, standards are all about best practices. So, I have a background in IT, before I got into teaching guitar and all that, so best practices are something that’s big in the IT world because you don’t want to have to reinvent the wheel. You don’t want to have to stumble around in the dark and hit your head against the wall whenever a lot of other people are doing the same things that you are and, if you can document the things that work best, then everybody can share that information and you can be a lot more effective with a lot less pain in your IT business or in the computer side of your company, or whatever it is that you’re doing.
Best practices are something that apply directly to teaching the guitar as well. So, when you have a set of best practices, that means you know the most effective ways to teach things and that you’re actually doing them. You’re teaching things in the most effective way. So, one of the things I would love to see is a set of best practices around teaching guitar. Some kind of collection of all of this information that we could all refer to if we have questions about how to do something. There are bits and pieces out there on the web and stuff, but, well, let me give you some examples of some best practices. These are just a few things off the top of my head.
But let’s say, as a guitar teacher, wouldn’t it be cool, since you’re dealing with hands, right? The human hand whenever you’re playing the guitar. You have to hands. One holds a pick typically. The other one frets notes on the fingerboard. Wouldn’t it be cool and optimal, as a guitar teacher, if you understood enough about the anatomy of the human hand that you could teach hand positioning to your students that would prevent them from hurting themselves when they play the guitar? I’m just saying. Wouldn’t that be cool? If there was a standard, right? I mean everybody’s hands work the same way. Everybody basically learns the same techniques to play the guitar. No matter what style of music, no matter who your teacher is, it’s basically the same information using the same hands with the same anatomy. And there’s a right way to fret notes and pick notes that will keep you from getting repetitive strain injury, tendonitis, and all that stuff, and there’s a wrong way to do those things that will cause you, if you do it too much, to hurt yourself.
Wouldn’t it be great if there was a set of standard best practices around that, that all guitar teachers shared and we used that information to make sure that we teach our students how to pick and fret notes the correct way so that they don’t hurt themselves? Okay, that’s one example. Another one would be understanding which muscles in the hands are responsible for key movements on the guitar, because we all use the same two hands to play the guitar and we all have the same groups of muscles in those hands. This kind of ties into the anatomy thing I just talked about. Well, wouldn’t it be cool if you knew exactly which muscles those were that made for good and exceptional guitar playing, and you had a set of exercises that maximized the development of those specific muscles?It’s the same information no matter who you’re teaching. What if someone figured that out and we shared that information with each other so that we could all help our students develop those muscles faster and make faster progress on the guitar?
Just a thought. You know, I’m just saying. Things like bar chords, right? That’s kind the bane of most guitar teachers because it’s so hard to get that clamping strength between your thumb and your first finger on your left hand when you’re playing bar chords on the guitar whenever you’re just learning how to do it. So, wouldn’t it be cool if you could identify exactly which muscles were involved and then exercise those so that you build up that strength, and then you go back to the guitar and all of a sudden: “Wow, I can play this”? Or same thing with hammer-ons and pull-offs, or same thing with bending strings. They use specific sets of muscles to do those things, and teaching according to a best practice would be understanding what those muscles are and then how they work, and then how to exercise them to develop the tone in those muscle correctly and efficiently to make it easier. Okay, that’s another example.
Here’s another one. Understanding how calluses develop and helping your students develop them in the right places to avoid unnecessary pain while they’re learning the guitar. Wouldn’t that be cool? We’re all human beings. We have two hands. We use the tips of our fingers and the sides of our fingers to play the guitar. And we all have skin on our hands. And that skin develops calluses for each and every one of us in the same way. So, why not have a best practice around that, that everyone shares so that we can help our students develop those calluses in the right way and minimize the pain that they feel?
Here’s another example. This is different, but understanding what affects a student’s motivation and making sure they stay as motivated on the guitar as possible. Human nature is the same for pretty much every person, and what motivates one person typically motivates another person as well, at least at a high and general level. So, why not have a set of best practices around student motivation that we could all share and benefit from when we’re teaching guitar lessons? So, those are just four examples, but I hope you’re kind of tracking with me here. Could you imagine how cool it would be to have a whole set of best practices that we put together based on all of our experiences teaching the guitar and if that was all documented in one place where we could all have access to that information and then use it and benefit from it?
4) Teaching WHY As Well As HOW
That’s what I’m talking about. That’s what a good system of pedagogy would include. And then, finally, there’s a last piece that I want to talk about. A last component of pedagogy, and that’s an approach that helps students understand why to play something instead of just how to play it. Okay, so we talked about outcomes that we need to identify, benchmarks that track progress along the way, best practices and standards of how to actually teach the stuff, but you’re not done as a teacher until you actually teach someone why. They have to actually understand why. So, instead of teaching them what to think, instead you’re teaching them how to think for themselves.
There’s a big difference between those two things. Teaching somebody what to think is basically just imitation, or teaching somebody what to play on the guitar is basically just imitation. They’re just kind of parroting you. They’re playing the same notes that you’re playing, but they don’t really understand why that works in a musical context. Okay, that’s the difference between imitation and what we like to call art. Art is when you understand why you’re playing something and you can apply that in other musical situations as well. There’s a big difference between being able to copy a guitar lick note for note and understanding why that guitar player played it that way in the first place.
If you know why, you can use that knowledge to solve musical problems for yourself. You can create new and more interesting music, and be a much better composer too, instead of just copying what other people are doing. You know, copying and imitation is a part of the learning process, but if you don’t understand why – the logic behind it, the theory behind it, the reasoning behind it – then you can’t really take that piece of music that you copied and actually incorporate it into your style of playing and do something good with it.
Any guitar player can show another person how to play something. All you’ve got to do is just play it slow and explain what each of your fingers is doing. Okay, anybody could do that. That doesn’t make a guitar teacher. You don’t have to be a guitar teacher to show somebody how to play something. I could do that. My son could do that. You know, someone that knows how to play one thing on the guitar can show it to someone else. Okay, that’s not what makes a good teacher. It takes an knowledgeable and experienced teacher to help someone understand why instead of just how.
Understanding why involves a little bit of music theory and a lot of insight and thought on your part. You can’t explain why something needs to be done on the guitar if you don’t understand why for yourself first, so you have to kind of reach a certain level of competence and art on the instrument before you can even go there and help people start to think in this way. So, that’s why learning as much as you can about pedagogy also makes you a better guitar player, not just a better guitar teacher, because it helps you understand why you’re doing the things that you do on the guitar. And once you understand that, then you’re in a much better position to communicate that, but you’re also a much better guitar player yourself.
Playing Guitar “Correctly”
So those are the four basic components in a good system of guitar pedagogy. And let me talk for a second about different schools of thought about what it means to play the guitar correctly. Okay, there are a lot of different opinions about this stuff. You know, I talked about how cool it would be to have this encyclopedia of best practices on how to teach things on the guitar. Well, the real problem with putting that together is that it’s hard to find people that agree on what the best practice is.
You kind of have to break it down into different schools of thought. And like I mentioned at the beginning of this episode, there’s more than one way to skin a cat. There’s more than one right way to do certain things on the guitar. Okay, the key is to understand the pros and cons of each school of thought so that you can make an educated decision about what you think is the best way to do it. That’s what it’s all about. So, let me give you some examples of different schools of thought with regard to teaching the guitar.
Things like picking. Fretting. Hand position. Tone. Instrument position. Just about everything else are all taught a little bit differently by most guitar teachers. So, for example, with picking, you have economy picking versus alternate picking versus hybrid picking. Which one is the best? Should one be excluded? Should one be taught exclusively instead of all the others, or should you use more than one? You know, every single one of us, as guitar teachers, is probably going to have a different opinion about that.
Another area with different schools of thought is: should you use a thick pick? Should you use a thin pick? Should you use a pick that’s thick on one side and thin on the other side? Should it be big? Should it be little? What shape should it be? You know, we have all these different opinions about picks. We tend to typically teach students to use the same kinds of pick that we use, but that’s an area that’s contentious. There are different schools of thought. Another one is: how do you hold your pick? Do you angle it against the strings or do you keep it perfectly perpendicular to the strings? Different opinions. Different schools of thought.
Here’s a good one. Do you force left-handed students to learn the guitar right-handed or do you encourage them to use a left-handed guitar or a right-handed guitar strung left-handed? How do you approach that? There are different opinions about that too. Here’s another one: the positioning of your guitar. Do you wear it slung high or slung low? Do you keep it straight or do you angle it with the headstock kind of facing up? There’s just different opinions, different schools of thought, different ways that we teach that stuff.
None of them are necessary right or wrong. Like if you sling your guitar too low, obviously you’re going to have problems with carpal tunnel syndrome and stuff like that, but a lot of these things, there’s not a right or wrong way to do it. People could be equally successful with hybrid picking and economy picking or alternate picking, depending on what their goals are on the guitar. So, that’s my point. A lot of this stuff, there’s not a right or wrong answer. It’s just what you think works best for your situation and for your students. So, what pedagogy does is it simply organizes all of the valid schools of thought around these different things into a system of best practices that a teacher can use and understand. That’s what it’s all about.
Guitar Pedagogy Resources
And honestly, I know that some of you guys are probably already thinking right now: “Wow, yeah man, we need something like that. We need this organized system of guitar-teaching knowledge that we can draw from so that we can be more successful and help create better guitar players. ” Yeah, I agree with you. I’m right there. The problem is we’re still waiting for someone to put together a good documented system of pedagogy for rock and pop guitar. I did a lot of research and there’s no book that I’m aware of that I can point you to that combines the sum total of all human knowledge about teaching the guitar into one place.
There’s this good book related to classical guitar by Anthony Glise. It’s called Classical Guitar Pedagogy. I’ll put a link to that in the show notes for this episode. That’s a great book. I actually own it and stuff. It’s good, but very little of it applies to rock guitar. So, it’s a step in the right direction for that style of music, but classical guitar is the oldest way to play and it’s most well-documented and mature system of playing the guitar. So, unless you’re a classical teacher, there’s not going to be a lot of good information out there for you, because I’m not aware of anything like that for rock guitar at this point.
There are some good pieces of the puzzle out there that organize things into levels with benchmarks from a curriculum perspective. You know, I’m thinking in particular of the RockSchool curriculum that’s available in the United Kingdom, which I’ll link to that in the show notes as well, but none of those things really deal with pedagogy. How to teach those things. How to present those things in the most effective way. Okay, so it’s only just a piece of the puzzle. It’s not the whole thing. It would be a really big task to put this together and it really does need to be done. I’m just hoping that maybe someone will hear this and accept the challenge. You know, maybe it’s something that we could partner with together and get it done, because I think it would be a big benefit to teachers all over the world.
That’s basically it. I hope you have a better understanding of what guitar pedagogy is and why it’s so important after this podcast episode. And I just want to encourage you. Don’t get discouraged if you don’t have all this stuff figured out yet. Listening to a lot of the things I was saying about really understanding inside and out what it means to be a guitar player and all the different aspects of it, and the right ways and wrong ways to do things. That might be really overwhelming and it might make you feel inferior and inadequate, but I don’t want to communicate this information in that way. That’s not my intention. And let me tell you the truth. You are not inferior. You are not inadequate. You’re just like all the rest of us, and we all have a little bit more to learn. That’s it.
Don’t get discouraged if you don’t have it all figured out yet. Just try to learn a little bit more every day. And honestly, mastering guitar pedagogy like this really is a lifetime pursuit. It’s something that you’ll be learning for the rest of your life, as long as you teach guitar, but every little bit that you learn will make you a better teacher and a better player. So, my advice to you is to try to learn something new about teaching the guitar every single day.
Now, for STG All-Access members only, I’m going to give you five specific guidelines you can use to practice good pedagogy with your guitar students.
Thank You For Listening!
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