The Importance of Being Earnest (or What It Takes To Be A Good Teacher)

Dom Minasi By
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Question: Why write an article about being good music teacher?

Answer: Because there are too many bad teachers out there!

For some unknown reason people who have been playing their instruments for a few years think they can teach, especially when they don't know some of the basics themselves.

Through the years, I have had to teach the basics to guitar players who were playing sometimes up to six years. I have had students tell me that their former teachers would show them how to play and practice riffs by showing them the fingerings without telling them the names of the notes. Some students who, after playing four years, didn't know the difference between the low E and the high E, or which was the first string or the sixth string on the guitar. You'd be surprised how many don't know their key signatures, much less how to play a simple C scale or read a simple piece of music like "Yankee Doodle Dandy." Go to any college and ask any teacher how badly some of the incoming students were taught. I decided, since I now write for All About Jazz, I can talk about this problem because, believe it or not, it is universal.

If you go into teaching to teach beginners, intermediate, advanced or professionals—if you are doing it for the money, please quit now! Teaching is a calling. Something inside you must have a need to teach, share, help and enlighten others. I firmly believe we are here on this planet to help or give and there is nothing more rewarding than seeing a light go off in a student's eyes when you know he/she gets it.

There used to be a saying "those who can, do and those who can't teach." That may have been true fifty years ago, but it's not true now especially in this economy. Professional musicians need to wear many hats in order to survive. Another saying is "there are great teachers and great players, and if you are lucky, the person you study with is both." This is absolutely true especially if you study jazz. Through the years I have met teachers who really can't play and great players who shouldn't be teaching. So what is it you need to be a good teacher?

These are only my opinions, but I've been teaching since 1962 and think I can qualify as someone who knows.

As I said earlier, you need to want to help and you must have a genuine concern about the type of student you let loose on the world of music. Before you start off as a teacher, whether you're teaching jazz or not, ask yourself if you qualify as a teacher? Meaning, do you have the capability to relate to students and do you have the overall knowledge to do so in a methodical way? Just because you can play your instrument, and may want to teach, doesn't mean you can teach. You also have to decide at what level of student you can teach. Can you really teach an advanced or a professional? Don't kid yourself; if you take on advanced or professional students and you don't have it together, they'll know and, before you know it, the word will be out that you "can't teach." Keep this in mind. If you can't teach a beginner, you can't teach!

When a beginner student shows up for that first lesson, and after pleasantries and introductions are made, what do you do next? Have them blow, play, pick or bow a note? No! This student doesn't know one end of his chosen instrument from another. Because my expertise is in instrumental music some of these suggestions, but not all, could apply for vocal students too. Show and name the parts of the instrument and what those parts are used for. Next show them how to properly hold the instrument. Then teach them basic music principles such as clefs, bar lines etc. I know some kids come in and say they want to play rock 'n' roll or blues and expect to walk out sounding like Jimi Hendrix in the first lesson. It's up to you, the expert, to calm them down and explain it takes time, practice and patience to be a good player. If you succumb to what they want in that first meeting, you are doing a disservice to them and to yourself, and have given up control to a novice.

Usually a new teacher teaches the way they learned. When I started, I had no idea of what to do. Even though I had been playing twelve years, I really didn't have a "method." I resorted back to a book I had learned from and quickly realized there were things lacking. Some things were either too easy, or too hard, or not enough. Eventually I came up with my own way and most of the time I would write out the lessons. Nowadays because of computers, I have my lessons on PDFs and I don't have to waste time writing or copying.

As a teacher, it's not enough to know the information; you have to be able to teach it in a way that is understandable to another person. You can't' assume, because you know and understand it, your student will comprehend it too. I have always found that the simpler you make it the easier it is to understand. No matter how complicated or hard it can be there is always a way to break it down and simplify.

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