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STG 038: Teaching Music Theory -vs- Teaching Songs

The Start Teaching Guitar PodcastIn this episode, I’ll be talking about two very different approaches to teaching guitar: leading off with music theory or going with songs, instead. There’s quite a bit of contention about this and lots of guitar teachers who fall on one side of the fence or the other…today I’ll tell you about the pros and cons of each, and give you MY thoughts on which way is best.

I’ll also get into how to be BALANCED as a guitar teacher so you don’t have to choose between making a good living and being a good teacher. Finally, I’ll finish up with some good advice and some action steps for improving as a guitar teacher and covering all the bases, so that you really can have it all!

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:

Movie – “The Matrix”
Book – “Rework” by Jason Fried and David Hansson
Book – “Book Yourself Solid” by Michael Port
Book – “The E-Myth Revisited” by Michael Gerber

Podcast Transcript

Now, this episode was inspired by a long-running discussion on an online forum for guitar teachers. I’m not going to give you the link to it or tell you exactly where it is because I don’t want to make it any worse. I don’t want all of you guys to run over and start chiming in everything too. We can talk about it in the show notes for this episode if you want to, but it started out with a question by one guitar teacher.

And he was asking for advice about getting his students to embrace music theory before they started learning songs. So, I thought it was really interesting and, apparently, this particular teacher has a theory first approach to teaching guitar. So, he won’t start someone off teaching them songs and trying to give them some instant gratification. Instead, he prefers to actually teacher the music theory concepts first – you know, how songs are created and how music works and everything – and then, later, letting the students do the songs on their own, apparently.

And the point of this whole forum thread was that some of his students were pushing back on it because they wanted to learn songs first, like most people do, and they weren’t as interested in music theory. And this guy’s attitude, on the forum, was pretty much my way or the highway. I think the reason he was posting wasn’t for people to tell him what they thought about his approach to teaching. Instead, he wanted their advice on how to get them to like theory and stop resisting his methods. I think he was basically looking for people to support his viewpoint, is what he was looking for, but dozens of other teachers ended up chiming in and giving advice to this guy, myself included, and most of them really encouraged him to consider what his students were trying to tell him.

Usually when your students are pushing back, it’s because you’re doing something wrong. It’s not because, you know, they’re not in-tuned to what they need as a guitar students or, you know, it’s not because the students are doing anything wrong. A lot of times, when they’re pushing back, what they’re saying is: “You’re not meeting my expectations,” or, “We’re not working on my goals. We’re not doing the things that I’m paying you to do.” So, a lot of people chimed in and started talking about things like customer service and, you know, giving people what they really need in their lessons as opposed to what they really want, and different sides of the argument and stuff.

But that was almost a year ago, and even now that guy is posting responses to this forum thread and it seems like he still doesn’t get it. You know, he’s still not getting what everybody was trying to explain to him from people that were a lot more experience. Now, I don’t want to make an enemy out of this guy. You know, that’s another reason I’m not going to tell you exactly where this discussion took place. I don’t want him to feel like I’m coming against him if he ever listens to this episode. I doubt that he ever will, but if he does, you know, I just really want him to know that I want you to succeed as a guitar teacher, man. I’m for you and, you know, I’m not your enemy here. I’m using your discussion as an example so that we can hopefully all learn something from it.

But this guy, this teacher, admits that he’s young. He’s like in his early 20s, and that he only has a few students that have been with him for a long time. He apparently either only has a handful of students or he’s got a pretty high turnover rate and pretty low student retention, and he’s apparently fine with that. He says that he really doesn’t care how long his students stay with him and how much money he makes. He only cares about teaching things the way that he wants to teach it and doing what he thinks is right. You know, so he’s very idealistic. He seems really sincere and I hope that as he matures that this particular teacher starts to see things from a more balanced perspective.

But in the end, this is a good illustration of the limited understanding that some of us tend to have regarding teaching the guitar, so I thought it would be a great kind of object lesson to talk about in this lesson of the podcast. There’s actually another name for teachers that have that approach. You know, the my way or the highway approach. People that favor theory over songs, and you know, won’t teach people songs and won’t teach their students what they really want to learn. That name is part-timer. Part-timer. It’s really hard to teach guitar full-time unless you’re really focused on customer service and meeting the expectations of your students.

If you want to kind of stand on the top of a hill and say, “We’re going to do it this way because this is what I think is best, and if you don’t like it, you can go study somewhere else,” then that’s what a lot of students are going to do. You’re not going to have probably enough students to have a full roster and make it as a full-time guitar teacher. The right approach is not this all or nothing attitude. That’s a common misconception in our thinking; is that it has to be all or nothing. It has to be one way or no way at all, but the truth it, in most cases, it’s usually a blend of things that bring you success, and that’s what’s true here as well.

It’s all important. Songs are important, music theory is important, and meeting your students’ expectations is also important too. And no, I could hear maybe one or two people thinking this right now, because that’s what this person thought. This blended approach doesn’t water down your results as a teacher. Instead it gives everybody what they need and everybody what they want. So, I’m sure some of you are probably going to disagree with me a little bit on some of this. Just because you’re listening to this podcast, you’re probably already a little more business-oriented and less of a musical purist, but just in case some of you might not agree completely, that’s all right. I’m just telling you ahead of time, but give me a few minutes here and you might get some benefits from a different point of view talking about this particular thing.

Why Music Theory Is Important

So, let’s talk about each component here, so let’s talk about why music theory is important in the first place.

Theory is really, really cool. I mean it’s one of those things that once you can unlock the principles of music theory and understand the things that you’re playing on the guitar and understand the songs that you really like and the pieces of playing that actually move you emotionally; once you understand why that happens, it’s a really cool thing. It’s an epiphany that applies to everything else you do with music and it unlocks your understanding in amazing ways.

But one reason it’s so important is that theory helps you understand what’s going on inside of songs. The songs that your students love to listen to right now and love to play are going to mean even more to them when they can kind of fathom and wrap their brain around the chord progression, the harmony in that song, and the theory going on behind it. It just makes it that much more enjoyable for them and gives them the ability to have more passion when they play it. So, music theory is great for understanding what’s going on behind the songs you listen to and play.

It’s also great for being able to write your own songs, because once you understand what’s going on inside the songs you like, once you understand and see what’s under the hood, then the songs that you write get much better as well and they sound a lot more interesting. It kind of opens up all these new doors for you as a songwriter when you understand how theory works. Theory goes hand-in-hand with composition, so that’s another cool reason why it’s important. Also, music theory gives you the ability to compose solos and melodies over various chords that sound a lot better. Understanding theory and harmony gives you the tools that you need to be a great lead guitar player, a great soloist on the guitar.

There’s a big difference between playing the same pentatonic pattern over all the chords in a blues progression or something like that. There’s a big different between that and understanding which scales and which modes go with certain chords in a song. And sometimes the tail wags the dog, right, because you want to play this certain melodic line, and then that inspires chords that can go behind that, so it changes the chord progression of your songs just so that the soloing is more interesting. And the opposite is also true as well. It just opens up all of these options if you understand what’s going on.

So, theory and harmony are great for taking your soloing and even your melody writing to a whole new level. You know, for example, the most of the major scale are just cool-sounding finger patterns until you understand how they relate to that scale and then what chords sound best behind each of those modes. Once you can unlock that with your brain, then you have all these options for playing cool and interesting solos. So, that’s a huge benefit to learning music theory right there. It’s really cool.

Another one is being able to speak and understand the language of music. This is all about musical literacy. It’s kind of embarrassing if you’re sitting around, trying to fit in with a bunch of jazz musicians, for example, and you don’t speak their language, or you pull out a piece of paper with tab written on it, you know, with just chord symbols written on top of things and stuff like that. I mean one of the hallmarks of jazz players is their musical literacy. Not so much so with rock players, although that’s starting to change in recent years. But if you can speak and understand the language of music, if you can understand what other people are talking about when they’re talking about chord changes, when they’re talking about theory concepts, when they’re describing something that they hear in their head in a way so that you could play it, and then you can respond in the same way, then that’s where musical literacy is awesome and it’s a great door-opener in things like that.

But it lets you communicate better with other musicians, so that’s a good benefit of learning music theory. And then another one is why you do the thing that you’ve learned, because all of us, we’ve learned stuff on our own and from other guitar teachers. Our whole journey into being a teacher is marked with all these different concepts that we’ve learned, all these milestones, and the same is true for your students. They’re all learning things too. And a lot of them don’t know why things sound like they do. They don’t know why they need to use a certain chord at a certain time. They don’t understand things like intervals and inversions and triads, and different things like that.

And once they understand kind of the math and the science behind it, the music theory, then it makes a lot more sense and everything has more context. So, those are some of the reasons why you definitely don’t want to skimp on theory. You want to be the kind of teacher that weaves these theory concepts and this framework into your lessons for your students. You definitely don’t want to leave it out. But let’s shift gears a little bit and talk about the other side of the coin, and let’s talk about why teaching songs is important too. So, here’s why songs are so important.

Why Songs Are Important

They’re important because they give you the motivation to stick with the guitar, especially as a beginner. You know, most beginners start playing the guitar in the first place because they want to learn songs. Period. That’s why. They could care less about how certain chord progressions work or chord scale formulas, or any of that stuff. They don’t really care. All they want to be able to do is play songs that they really like, that they enjoy. It’s about enjoyment for most students. It’s not about going to school or getting stressed out or worrying about stuff that they can’t seem to understand.

So, if you teach songs to your beginning students, they’re going to be a lot more motivated to stick with the guitar. They’re going to get that payoff. And if they don’t make progress in this goal that they have for playing songs, then your students are going to tend to get discouraged and they’re going to tend to quit. So, if you want them to stay motivated and you want them to stick with the guitar, and you want them to stick with you as a teacher, then by all means get them playing songs as quickly as possible.

The next benefit of learning songs is they get that gratification and reward for their hard work. Okay, so for people to work hard at something – this is just human nature in general -, they need some kind of payoff. They need some kind of reward for all the hard work. You know, I talked, in an episode or two ago, about how you can motivate people with either the carrot or the stick. So, teaching people songs with a way of motivating them with the carrot instead of beating them with a stick. Okay, it gives them a payoff for all their hard work. It gives them something that they can show other people. So, learning a song that they love is really a great reward for a student’s hard work, so you definitely want to be doing that.

And the next benefit of teaching songs is then your students have evidence of being a real guitar player. They have that peer validation, because if you can’t play songs, then you’re not really a guitar player. That’s what most people think, and you’re not even really a musician. You know, you can play a scale, but if you can’t make music on the guitar, if you can’t play something that’s recognizable to other people as sounding good and cool and right, then they don’t even really consider you to be a musician, much less a guitar player. So, having a repertoire of songs that you can play, as a student, really shows everybody that you know that you actually can play, that you’ve got some skill, and it’s something that they can respect. So, that’s another reason songs are so good.

Another one is figuring out songs is a great ear training exercise too. I mean you can sit there, and it is important to do fundamental ear training, where you’re singing intervals and different notes on the guitar, and singing scales and things like that to develop you ear, but figuring out songs is the way that musicians have learned music for probably the last hundred years or longer. You know, it wasn’t by looking at a printed page with notation on it necessarily, aside from classical music and things like that, but for all of the legendary blues artists, you know, from the Great Depression on, and all of the British invasion and the blues guitar players, you know, like your Jimmy Page’s and your Eric Clapton’s, and your Jeff Beck’s and all of those guys. The way that they learned was they would just sit there with records and listen and play along, and try to imitate what was going on, on the records, and that developed a really good ear for those people.

So, a wise guitar teacher will help a student figure out songs on their own and not just give them the answers. So, it’s easy enough to sit there and say, “Oh yeah, let me write out a chart for you. Okay, here’s a chord chart. Here’s exactly what to do.” I mean you want to do that in the beginning so that you could get your students playing songs as quickly as possible, but after a while, when they kind of reach more of an intermediate level, then you want to do more of guiding them as they learn how to pick out the various chords in a song, in a certain key, by ear. And then you can use the songs that they love as a vehicle to help them to learn this, to teach it to them.

So, I’m actually working with a student on this particular thing right now, where I’ll sit there and play a song and try to get them to pick out. You know, start off easy. Start with the one chord. It’s like, okay, you know, after we’ve gone over some fundamentals about the Roman numerals and the different chords in the chord scale for a certain key, I’ll say, “Okay, we’re in the key of G,” for example, and then I’ll start playing chords in a progression and try to have them pick out, by ear, which chord I’m playing. The one. The four. The five. The six. The two. The three. And that’s been really effective. You know, it’s a cool way to do ear training that’s not boring and that actually gives them real world skills, because then they can go and listen to song.

And you know if you’ve done this too, that after a while, even when you’re listening to the radio or listening to your iPod, you can pick out the one chord. You can pick out the five chord because it’s usually a transition back to the one chord at the end of a section. You could pick out the four chord because you know it’s major and you know it’s not the one and you know it’s not the five. You could pick out the six chord because, you know. I mean I’m going on and on here, but you get the idea. Figuring out songs by ear is a great way to train your ear. And then, once you train your ear that way, then you can play by ear. All you need to know is what key you’re playing in. You can easily figure that out. You know, just doodle up the fretboard until you’re in the right key, and then it’s like: “Okay, so I know all of these chords now for this key, so I can play.”

So, it’s awesome. So, songs are a great way to do that. It’s a lot harder to do that if you’re not teaching songs. And then the last reason why songs are so important is it helps you build a repertoire of music that you can draw from. Okay, so this gives a student a frame of reference for music as a whole. So, then, when you get into music theory, they have all of these songs that they already know that you can use as examples. So, any given song that a student knows and likes can be a springboard, a place to jump off into any number of music theory concepts and deeper areas of understanding. But if you try to push the theory on them first, then, in my experience, nine times out of ten they’re not going to like that and they’re probably not going to stick with it.

So, kind of covered two sides of this topic here. You know, the first is why music theory is important. I’m not saying that it’s not. It’s very important. And then why songs are important. They’re both equally important, but there’s one more piece of this puzzle that we need to talk about, and that is why giving your students what they think they want is important. We’ve got to talk about that because whenever you’re arguing with somebody about ‘no, I only teach theory’ or ‘no, I only teach songs’ or ‘theory comes first’ or ‘no, no, no, we need to teach songs first’, you’re missing the whole point.

Why Giving Your Students What They Think They Want Is Important

The whole point is your student has to come first. It’s about them. If you want to succeed as a guitar teacher, it can’t be about you. It has to be about your students and what they want. You know, they might not even know what they want. They might not even be able to conceive of this whole discussion right here. You know, all they know is they started taking guitar for a reason. They’re paying you to teach them because they want to be able to do certain things. Okay, what they want is important. And there’s one huge reason why it’s important, and there’s two words. Student retention.

Student retention. If you want to be a successful guitar teacher, you have to present your lessons in a way that will keep your students from quitting. That’s the only way. If you lose students, then you lose money. And if you lose too many students, you’re going to end up getting a bad reputation in your marketplace. So, regarding student retention, there is three things. The first one is managing expectations. So, the guy who started this forum post, who was asking the question, I kind of got the impression that he wanted to be like a benevolent dictator or whatever. So, you’re not a benevolent dictator here, as a guitar teacher. You’re being paid to get your students what they want.

It’s a partnership. It’s not a dictatorship. I’m going to say that again. This is a partnership. It’s not a dictatorship. You’re not Adolf Hitler here, telling your students what they have to learn and what they can’t learn. Okay, it’s a partnership. You are not a dictator. You are a guide. You are a mentor. You’re a coach. If you can’t give them what they want, then the right thing to do is to refer them to another teacher who can. And it’s different. Each student is going to come into your teaching studio expecting different things. If they expect to learn music theory, then teach them music theory. If that’s what they want, if those are their goals, if that’s what’s driving them as a student – I want you to teach me all the music theory that you can. I want to understand every single bit about why music works the way it does and how the guitar works. I want you to lay it all on me – then by all means do it.

But if they’re like most people and they come in and they say, “Yeah, I want to be able to play this Maroon 5 song on the guitar,” or, “I want to be able to play this Van Halen song on the guitar,” then teach them those songs. You can always work the theory concepts in later in a more subtle way. Once they learn the song, then you can start explaining the theory behind it. Your job, as a teacher, is to find out what a student wants and give it to them while, all the while, weaving in the things that they really need. Okay, you’re the professional. You’re the expert. They don’t know what they need. You know that, but they do know what they want. So, somehow you have to create a marriage between the two and give it to them in a way that they’ll accept it and understand it.

This is the art of being a guitar teacher. This is the mastery behind teaching guitar lessons. It’s all about understanding the psychology behind the student-teacher relationship. It’s not just about understanding the theory. So, you’ve got to manage those expectations. And then the next piece of student retention is customer service. In the end, you’re a businessperson. You’re providing a service in exchange for money. That’s what you’re doing as a guitar teacher at the end of the day. And people pay money in exchange for value. If they don’t feel like they’re getting the value they paid for, then what happens? They stop paying.

People only pay money for something that they think is of value to them. So, again, you work with each student based on their goals and their expectations, providing the value they expect while still guiding them down the path to true musicianship, because that’s an argument a lot of people make. When you focus too much on your student’s goal and what they want, they say, “Oh, but the students are just learning how to play. They don’t know the things that they need to learn. They don’t know what they don’t know, so why should they be the one dictating the lesson plan and the curriculum and all of that stuff?” But if you think that way, you’re missing the whole point, because, as a businessperson, the customer always comes first.

If you put yourself ahead of your customers, they’re going to go find somebody else to teach them. And you’re the one that’s smart. You’re the expert, so you know how to make people think they’re getting what they want while you’re really giving them what they need. That’s how politics works a lot of times. And as much as I despise politics, in Washington, D.C., here in America, the only way to get anything done is to make people think that they’re getting what they want, and being a guitar teacher is a lot like that. You present the things that your students need in the context of giving them something that they want. That’s good customer service as a guitar teacher.

And then business viability is the last piece of student retention, because if you can’t make a living as a teacher, you’re not going to be able to help very many people anyway. So, if you get up on your high horse – you know, up on your soap box – saying, “No, I only care about teaching people music theory, and if they don’t want to learn the music theory first, then I don’t want to teach them,” well, as much as you want to help people, there’s not going to be many people coming to your teaching studio for you to help. Okay, if you can’t make a living, you’re going to have to work part-time, you’re going to have to do something else, and you’re not going to have the time to devote to this anyway effectively.

So, you need to be viable as a business. You need to make enough money to support yourself. So, saying you won’t teach someone unless they adapt to everything you want them to do is a guaranteed way to stay poor and stay broke. Okay, remember: this is not about you. The lessons are not about you. You can stroke your ego, or you can have a successful teaching business, but I’m telling you, my friend, you can’t have both. You can’t. If you try, if you try to have both, you’re going to find out quickly that you can’t. You can have your ego stroked or you can have a successful teaching business, but you can’t have both.

So, those are kind of the three components of this argument here. Now let’s talk about what music theory and what this whole argument really is all about. Music theory versus song.

Music theory is really just a set of rules about how popular music works. I’m sure most of you have seen that movie, The Matrix. I’ll put a link the show notes to it if you want to know more about it. It’s a great movie that came out back in 1999. One of my favorite movies of all time. I’m not going to get into explaining what The Matrix is. You just have to watch it, but there was a line in the movie that one of the characters and he said that once you know the rules, some of them can be bent and some of them can even be broken. So, music theory is just like The Matrix. Once you know the rules of music, you can bend some of them and some of them you can even break.

There are obviously tons of musicians out there with no formal training in music theory and they do really well. You know, sometimes your instincts and natural talent can take you a long way as a musician. You know, people that come to mind are The Beatles, right, who never had any classical training. Paul McCartney, John Lennon, Metallica, if you’re more into the heavy stuff, Jimi Hendrix. Most of the blues guitar players that are really prominent. You know, your Stevie Ray Vaughan’s and people like that. None of them really had any formal music training and couldn’t really probably articulate music theory concepts, but they were amazing musicians.

Okay, but there are just as many amazing musicians who really know what they’re doing and the level of music that they create is a testament to the value of music theory. You know, I’m thinking about people like Pat Metheny and Joe Satriani and Steve Vai, and all these other guitar players that just know theory inside and out, and it’s evident by the complexity and the quality of the music that they create. So, you know, there’s no right or wrong way to do this. It’s really about understanding the rules. And once you understand the rules, then some of them you can bend and some of them you can break, but you have a much greater command of your musicianship if you know what the rules are in the first place.

So, that’s music theory. Now, songs are really just an expression of our souls, as human beings. You know, you can almost look at this as the different between the right side of your brain and the left side of your brain. People talk about that a lot, how the left side of your brain is all about the analytical, the math, the science, the understanding why, and the right side of your brain is more about feelings and concepts and emotions, and things like that, and relationships. So, if music theory is your left-brain, then songs are your right-brain. The creative expression that is the culmination of music theory, because songs connect us emotionally to all these theory concepts that you can study about in a book or whatever.

And if music theory is a collection of the rules that govern good music, then songs are the music in practice. You can’t really separate the two, and honestly, as a guitar teacher, you shouldn’t even attempt it. This is a good way to look at it. If music theory is the foundation, then songs are the house. You can’t live comfortable on a bare foundation. And if you try to build a house without a foundation, it’s probably going to fall apart. So, both are equally important. It’s not either or. It’s not music theory versus songs. It’s both.

Which Approach Is Correct?

And the real question here is: which approach is right? As a teacher, which approach is the best? Is it imposing theory on your students, what some people would call “real lessons”, assuming that if you don’t teach theory, you’re not really a guitar teacher? Is it that or is it letting the student’s goals dictate the focus and direction of the lessons? Which approach is the best? And honestly, it’s narrow-minded to think that you have to choose between the two. It’s not an either or situation. It’s not all or nothing. You can do both.

So, let me talk about this in kind of a different light. This whole question of: “Should I focus on music theory? Should I focus on songs? One or the other.” The whole thing is a false dichotomy. A false dichotomy, if you’ve never heard of that before, is a technique used in debates and debating. It tries to force your opponent into an extreme position by making the assumption that these are the only two things to choose from. That there are only two positions, and if he’s not for one, he has to be for the other one. And that’s what a false dichotomy is. It’s used in debates all the time.

And people who make this argument are assuming that you have to choose between having a successful business versus being a musical purist. This is false. This is a false dichotomy. They also try to paint these exaggerated pictures of different guitar teachers to try to prove their point, and again, this is false. And when someone is doing this, what they’re really doing is they’re trying to stroke their ego. You can tell that there’s some pride, some arrogance, some conceit, something involved here, where they just have to be right and they have to feel superior to other people. But you know, I’m going down a rabbit trail.

So, let me talk a second about these two false characterizations here that are kind of tied to this whole question. So, there’s two different groups of people. And you know, you have your people who teach music theory. They’re kind of like musical purists or music snobs, you know, some people might call them because they dominate everything they talk and teach so much on music theory. That’s the first group, right? The theory people or the “music purists”, and then, on the other side, you have the song people, who a lot of times people call the business crowd. And each side kind of demonizes the other side, so let me take each of these and kind of talk about them for a second.

So, let me take the business crowd. Those are the words this one particular person who started the forum thread used, kind of in a derogatory way. So, the argument against the business around is that watered down lessons are what get taught and that people just care about the business side of their teaching. They don’t create real guitar players. They water the lessons down just so that the teacher can keep making more money. And the assumption is that a teacher that’s a part of the business crowd is just spoon-feeding their students just to keep them around for a long time so that they can suck as much money out of them as possible. And also that these kinds of guitar students are somehow inferior to students who are force-fed music theory from the very beginning and who are into theory.

So, that’s kind of an overtone that I pick up in this argument. That because I teach my students theory and you teach your students songs, my students are better musicians and better guitar players than yours are. And also that it’s somehow more noble, as a teacher, to stand by your principles and not make enough money to live. Doggonit. So, that’s kind of what gets imposed upon people, you know, in the business crowd.

So, let me tell you the truth. All of that is just a bunch of bull. The truth is that well-rounded guitar teachers create great guitarists, and they make a good living at the same time. That’s the truth. Just because you focus on your business, that does not mean that the quality of your lessons is inferior and that the quality of your students that you produce are inferior. That’s not true. If you are a well-rounded guitar teacher, you’re going to create great guitar students and you’re going to make a good living too.

The Three Legged Stool

Remember I’ve talked a lot about the three-legged stool of being a guitar teacher. Three legs on the same stool. Leg number one: be a good player. Leg number two: be a good teacher. Leg number three: be a good business owner. If you focus on all three legs of the stool, then you’re going to be well rounded and successful, and so will your students. But the guy who started this forum thread that I based this episode around is completely ignoring the business leg, or cutting it way shorter than the other two, and worse, he’s trying to trash-talk the teachers who are doing it right. So, just because someone tried to demonize the business crowd, don’t buy into that. That’s a false characterization.

But let me flip the coin over on the other side that there’s a false characterization of the musical snob too. So, the argument against this person is that someone who is so focused on musical theory and classical training and doing everything by the book and not focusing on songs and on what the students actually want to learn – the argument is that that person has an overly high estimation of himself or herself and the desire to create a cult following around their teaching business. Right, the assumption here is that this kind of teacher has ego problems and is not living in reality. You know, there might be a little bit of truth to that, but you know, also there’s some kind of ulterior motive going on here. I mean maybe it’s the desire to be respected and revered, maybe even the desire to control, and also that if you don’t approach teaching completely as a business, you’re foolish and missing the whole point.

So, this is also a false characterization to a large degree. And the truth is that it’s really easy. It is so dang easy to get caught up in the business side of being a teacher, in marketing and in money-making, those aspects of being a guitar teacher that you end up neglecting the quality of your lessons. That’s a very real danger, if you focus too much on the business side. You know, if that one business leg gets a lot longer than the other two. And this is probably the error in thinking that I’m more vulnerable too personally because I have a business mind, right? I focus more on business and marketing and systems and things like that, so you know, I tend to get more caught up in that, you know, to the detriment of being a good teacher sometimes and being a good player.

You know, so it really depends on which leg of the stool you focus on the most. The others are going to suffer if you focus too much on one and not the other. So, that three-legged stool concept, if you can visualize that in your mind here, that helps too, because if the business leg is longer than the teaching leg, things are going to be out of balance. So, this whole discussion – should I teach music theory first or should I teach songs first – is a good reminder to pay attention to all three aspects of your teaching business. All three legs of the stool.

So, the right ways to do this is not to get caught up in this false dichotomy and make these false characterization of people that have a different viewpoint than you do. The right way is to blend both of these perspectives together so that you can focus on all three legs of the stool. You can work on each of these areas – your playing, your teaching, and your business skills. You can work on all of those areas and make sure that they get equal attention. And if you do that, then your students are going to get the best results possible and you are going to experience happiness and fulfillment in your teaching business. You won’t feel like you’re making enemies out of people. You won’t feel like you’re driving people away. You won’t feel bad about yourself because you’re losing students as much, and you’re going to have enough paying students who stay with you so that you can make a good living as a guitar teacher. So, that’s the result of focusing on the three legs of the stool, giving all of them equal attention.

So, now I’m going to shift into one last major kind of section here of the discussion, and I’m going to tell you about how to blend all three of these things to be a more effective teacher. So, I’m going to take each leg of the stool and give you some action steps on how to improve yourself as a player, how to improve yourself as a teacher, and how to improve yourself as a business owner. And this part of the podcast is going to be reserved for STG All-Access members only.

Thank You For Listening!

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Feel free to use the comments section below to let me know what you think about this episode, to suggest a topic for a future episode or just to join in on the conversation with other guitar teachers.

STG 038: Teaching Music Theory -vs- Teaching Songs was last modified: June 10th, 2014 by Donnie Schexnayder

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