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The Guitarist's Guide to Being a Tutor: Part 1

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If you’ve been playing for some time, it might occur to you that you could branch out into tutoring. As well as being a socially rewarding activity, it can prove to be a decent source of additional income.

Before getting into how to become a tutor, you must first consider whether you should become a tutor.

Suitability

Teaching a skill can be seen as a logical extension of learning. If you achieve the ability to perform a task, it benefits you and you alone. Teach your skill to others, however, and this benefit spreads much further.

Musicians, especially those that dedicate many hours to honing their craft, therefore have a lot to give to those just starting out.

If you’re an accomplished guitarist, it does not necessarily mean you’ll be an excellent tutor. In short, there are a number of required skills in addition to your prowess on the instrument.

Patience

You’ll need this in abundance. You have to understand that however obvious a concept or procedure is to you, what you’re describing to another person may seem completely foreign or non-sensical to them.

For example, when my tutor was explaining A-shaped barre chords to me, he demonstrated the shape my third finger would need to achieve. My exact response was, “I’m sorry, my finger isn’t designed to do that”.

Rather than tell me to stop complaining and do as I was told, he went onto explain why his method, as difficult as it might appear initially, was what I should pursue, and he was correct. In my own time as a tutor, I’ve had similar conversations on a number of occasions, so I can draw on the experience both as a student and a tutor.

This leads onto my next point.

Empathy

You need to have, or cultivate, the ability to see any situation from the student’s viewpoint. This’ll help you understand why they’re struggling, whether physically, or perhaps with the concept you’re introducing.

As you progress through your career, you’ll be able to cite examples to students of how you hit the same problem they’re experiencing now. Believe me, you’ll see some very familiar moments that’ll resonate with your own journey.

Encouragement

Students can become disheartened because ’you make it look so easy’. Tell them it’s not always been this way, it’s just you’re further down the road in terms of experience, and you’ve learned that what seems impossible today won’t necessarily be so tomorrow.

Justification

A student of mine once expressed an interest in becoming a tutor. I asked them to pretend I was an absolute beginner, and asked what would they teach me first?

Picking up their guitar, the student said, “Well, I’d probably start you off with a G chord…”.

Stopping them, I asked, “Okay, so why are your fingers in that shape, what’s a ‘G’, and what’s a ‘chord’?”.

After a few moments, the student realised they couldn’t adequately answer my questions.

The lesson here is this—in order to be an effective tutor, you have to able to justify everything you say.

This is why not every guitarist is suited to tutoring. I’ve met a number of unquestionably talented players over the years who’d make the most appalling tutors, simply because they genuinely can’t explain how or why what they’re demonstrating works.

Analogy

In terms of creating understanding, one size does not fit all. 

By that, I mean you cannot have one stock answer or solution to a student’s question or problem. If what you’re saying isn’t making sense to them, you’ll have to find another way to put it.

For example, students often pursue the easiest method without realising how it’ll limit their ability to achieve that which follows. In this way, guitar playing’s like chess, in that the move you make now is often less important than how it sets up subsequent moves. 

When putting your point across, explain that you understand their thinking, and thus why it makes sense to them. Follow this by demonstrating why your method, however tricky it may first appear, will ultimately prove to be more beneficial. 

Most importantly, do it in a way that makes sense to them. Finding the ‘in’ to their comprehension is vital, so be flexible and think quickly.

Level

Following on from the previous point, every person is different, especially when it comes to their age, their general level of intelligence, and how they learn. You can not benchmark the achievements of one student against another based on factors as spurious as age—I’ve met gifted children and hopeless adults alike.

Treat each individual as such, be attentive to the speed at which they learn and adapt accordingly. Be prepared not only to rephrase what you’re saying, but revise your goals of what can be achieved in a lesson. 

Honesty

There’ll be times when you’re asked about a particular piece, or perhaps a question of theory, and you genuinely won’t know the answer.

Don't try to bluff your way through it just for the sake of pride. If you make an answer up, you’re damaging your student’s knowledge. Furthermore, if they find out, their trust in you will understandably be shaken.

If you don’t know something, admit it. But go onto say that you’ll find out in time for their next lesson. The student’ll appreciate your honesty, as well as the fact you’ve just demonstrated you’re human and you get to rectify a gap in your knowledge.

Conclusion

Tutoring can be an amazing experience, and you may ultimately change someone’s life as a consequence. It doesn’t suit everyone, however,  so consider if you can achieve the following:

  • Patience
  • Empathy
  • Encouragement
  • Justify every point you make
  • Create methods of understanding
  • Adapt to the needs of each student
  • Be honest when you don’t know something

In the next tutorial I will look at what you’ll need to get started as a working guitar tutor.

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