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Hooking the New Student

One thing I used to think made me a good guitar teacher, when it actually might have worked to my detriment, is my aversion to Instant Mentor Validation Syndrome. IMVS is a (rather awkward) term I coined in an article I wrote some time back; and I defined it as the tendency, common among guitar instructors, to teach small sections of riffs to beginning students — like those in “Smoke On the Water,” “Come As You Are,” or “Enter Sandman” — to create in the instructor a sense that he has accomplished real progress, when no actual musical understanding or technical fundamentals have been instilled.

Another guitar teacher with whom I shared a workspace explained to me that he only teaches new students out of method books, because “If they have the patience to get through that material, they’re ready to learn the fun stuff.” This might have had some impact on my own decision to adhere to a curriculum that focused on musicianship, not rote memorization of riffs.

I felt it important to understand music while learning it. Any songs I taught were hand-picked to suit a student’s ability to play them straight through, and I treated songs as études: “Brain Stew” by Green Day was an introduction to 5th chords, “Come Together” by the Beatles is an exercise in blues rhythm and whole-step string bends. I saw no value in teaching only a fragment of a song, solely for a student to find temporary joy in having learned one classic riff.

Wait, back up: What was that about “joy?” Is that truly something to be avoided in a guitar lesson? In hindsight, I fear I may have come off as a bit of a crank with that attitude. What bad could come of a student enjoying his time in my studio? How dare a young guitarist learn something for fun!

I have turned my opinion on the matter completely around. For the guitar instructor, student retention is crucial. There is already a high turnover rate among guitar students, so why should we scare them off with our grave seriousness?

I realized not long ago that I may never meet a student that is as serious about the instrument as I am. If I ever took lessons in, say, racquetball, would I be doing so with the intent to go pro? Most likely not, and likewise I should not expect my students to be committed to bringing their guitar skills to world-class level.

I would suggest to any others who think as I once did: Hook your students early with “I didn’t know how easily I could do that!” moments. Their enthusiasm may carry them further along than you would have had to drag them.

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