• Bryce Leader

Are You An Ordinary Or Extraordinary Guitar Teacher? 10 Tips For Keeping Young Students Engaged

It can be quite difficult to keep young guitar students engaged during lessons and to keep them moving forward. If you’re finding yourself getting frustrated, know that you’re not alone. I have found that this is a common issue amongst guitar teachers, myself included! As an experienced guitar teacher of over forty years, I want to share 10 quick and easy tips to help you get the most out of your student lessons and be the extraordinary guitar teacher that you are.   


1. Show them! 


‘For children to learn effectively, they must see their lessons as being relevant, interesting and pleasurable…’ This is a statement that most schoolteachers and educators would recognise and is just as relevant to guitar teachers. In my experience, the best way teachers can help students play guitar and read music by making use of the natural and preferred ways children learn - to watch! Given that half of the human brain is set aside for visual processing, learning to play by imitation and read music by association is important. The more they can see you play and can copy you the better!


2. Don’t combine left and right hand movements too early


We all know that younger children have poor fine motor skills and limited cognitive ability due to their age, but this does not mean they can’t learn to play guitar or read music effectively. Children as young as 3 play violin and piano but most guitar teachers won’t start teaching a child until they are at least 8 years of age. I have found that I need to use a teaching method that is designed especially for the young beginner. Young children learn differently to older children and adults and the method must cater for their particular challenges. 


I always start simply and allow my students to focus on one hand at a time to develop dexterity. As both hands work in different ways and perform different functions on the guitar, children can get frustrated when asked to use both together too early. I use exciting tunes and exercises that allow this to happen. Their young brain is still developing but highly capable.


3. Tap into a child’s competitive nature


Make use of a child’s desire to impress their friends. Any chance I get to have them to play together encourages healthy competition. End of year concerts are great for this. I find it so interesting to watch students gather their focus and practice as they are waiting to perform. They show their friends how well they can play as they search for their place in the guitar lesson dominance hierarchy. It can be quite competitive, productive and fun in the green room! 

To make challenges and drills exciting, I find that tapping into a child’s sense of competition is very helpful. I find a two-bar phrase in the book we are using, get the child to identify the notes in the phrase then have them play to a metronome. I will record their fastest speed on a chart on the wall so they can compare their speed with that of their peers. I call it a ‘fight to the death’ and they love it. It is a great way to get them focused and motivated when they discover they are getting faster than their friends. 


4. Reinforce and build on what a child already knows

I enjoy using flashcards and think they are a great way to do this with snippets of learnt tunes. One way I use flashcards is to have a few notes and lyrics from a song. The lyrics act as a memory trigger and help the student process and decode the pitch and rhythm of the phrase.


5. Be visible outside the teaching studio

While waiting for students to turn up to their lesson, I practice my guitar but not in my room. I go outside and sit on the bench and play. As kids pass, they are drawn to the music. They are inquisitive and want to talk to me about it. They tell me about someone they know who plays the guitar. Often, they go home telling Mum and Dad that they want to learn guitar too – new student! 




6. Don’t worry - be happy! Or if all else fails change activity. 

I am always happy to see my students. It doesn’t matter if I’ve had a fight with my partner or I’m seething because someone cut me off in traffic, I leave my emotions at the door. Children are still learning how to process their emotions and are likely to think that I am angry with them and that does not make for a good lesson. If I find I am getting frustrated because they aren’t moving forward or engaging, I step back, reassess and change activity. This gives me time to breathe and helps keep my student engaged with the lesson. 


7. Always use positive words and comments


It can be difficult not to sound critical when a child is not playing correctly. I always have to ask myself how I could frame my comment differently. Rather than me saying, “you need to play that again because it was riddled with mistakes,” I try saying “I see you’re not quite comfortable with that section yet, would you like to try it again?” Framing my feedback in this way allows my student realise themselves that they need a little more practice. 


8. Take a personal interest in them


It sounds obvious but it certainly makes a massive difference. I always ask about my student’s hobbies or their pets. When they have a bond with me and feel important, they are more likely to want to work hard. I find they are less likely to cease lessons for trivial reasons and more likely to open a dialogue as to what their expectations from lessons are. Give them all of your attention and stay off social media.


9. Give positive reinforcement when deserved

I find that children thrive by feeling successful and are more likely to be enthusiastic if they are having a win.  I don’t give stickers or lollies upon goal achievements but I do like to share the ‘Secret Musicians Handshake’. This is a fancy handshake that you swear must be kept secret and only musicians who have reached a certain ability know about it. They, therefore, are privileged to be one of the few. I find this method works a treat and it costs me nothing! 


10. Parents are your best friend


In my years of teaching this is my best tip - keep parents informed. Often, they are not present in the lesson and if the kids don’t practice at home, they never get to hear their child play and may wonder why on earth they are paying all this money for lessons. I drop them a brief email occasionally and tell them how well their child is doing. Better still, I film the student playing a piece they have been working on and send them the video. I often get a thank you and a note about how thoughtful the gesture was. The other advantage of this is that the week prior, I can tell my students that I will be filming them and will send it to their parents. I find it works as a great incentive for the child to practice to achieve their goal of impressing mum and dad.


All of these little tricks of the trade are easy tools you can implement into your lessons. They don’t require any planning or innovation and will help you to be the extraordinary guitar teacher you are. 


For free resources that you can use with your young students click the link below:  https://www.copyplayandlearn.com/teachers-resources

Author: Bryce Leader


Bryce is a teacher trained conservatorium graduate who has been teaching guitar since 1978.

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