Teaching children guitar is not the same as teaching adults or even older teens.

This essay shows some of the typical mistakes guitar teachers make with students. Forewarned is forearmed.

Parents know that children’s interests and thinking ability grows with age. Unfortunately, not many teachers act as if they know this – especially guitar teachers. One reason for this is because the dominant guitar image in our media culture is the electric guitar. The electric guitar is associated with musical styles like Blues, Rock & Roll, jazz that rely on various levels of theoretical knowledge. These are typically musical expressions of older teens and grown adults. So guitar teachers who can play some hot licks in a band or finger-pick chords and sing, may think that ability translates to being an effective educator for young people. It doesn’t.

Many teachers have dreams of performing but may not have a commitment to being educators and only do it as a sideline between gigs.

Many teachers have wonderful emotional intelligence and can interact personally with kids without really understanding children. Young people may think their teachers are “cool.” That’s a good start but mistakes can be made if that is all a teacher brings to the table. These mistakes can actually discourage kids and turn them away from their real potential and a life-long skill and love of music.

Here are some mistakes teachers make who do not have the needed knowledge of how kids grow in their motor skills, thinking, social interaction, preferences and meaning-development:

  • Asking a young child what s/he wants to learn. Music ed research (and my 4 decades experience) clearly shows that most children below the age of 12 have fluid musical preferences without clear goals. They are, what we call in the music education field, “open-eared.” That kids play is more important to them than what they play. Furthermore, kids’ preferences solidify around what they can accomplish – they learn to like what they can do.
  • Encouraging a child to choose an instrument by appearance – not caring about the size/weight/feel of the instrument or how it contributes to skill growth. Flashy instruments may motivate a student in the short term, but inappropriate (usually adult-size) instruments put hurdles in the way of long-term motivation development.
  • Not caring to spend enough time on basic ergonomics with children (unlike pianists, we have to hold our instrument and play it at the same time). Children’s hands can be damaged and ability hindered by ineffective playing habits.
  • Not understanding how technical skill grow and not establishing a physical foundation for that skill. Children need constant “shaping” of hands and growing bodies to avoid hitting ability dead-ends later. So teachers need to be able to diagnose technique and remediate bad habits that all kids develop – and do it in an acceptable way.
  • Teaching “rifs” – fragments of long pieces rather than complete forms of short pieces. This often surprises parents who remark, “We asked him to play something for us but he doesn’t know anything all the way through!” Understanding of form is taught with complete pieces – not rifs.
  • Not knowing what is meaningful to the child at a certain age. Ex: Teaching music theory too soon when the kids are not interested. There is a time for everything and teachers must know the time.
  • Teaching chords first rather than melodies. Children are melody oriented at first and develop chord awareness later.
  • Not having a curriculum direction that generates the student’s trust that they are going anywhere. Making it up as you go, does not create that trust.
  • Pushing performances before the student is ready. Performance is a big deal. Children’s proclivity towards performance grows individually. That individuality should be honored. That way, performance poise will emerge naturally.
  • Not adapting material and language to the stages of growth – there are distinct stages of growth in kids that teachers must be flexible enough to accommodate and interact with.
  • Presenting young students limited styles of music. Children should hear all sorts of rhythms, melodies, harmonies, etc., in their building a vocabulary of musical knowledge.
  • Not exposing children to music literacy. This requires a well-though out system that seat-of-the-pants guitar teachers often cannot teach – because many are illiterate themselves! 

So what happens when a child is taught by a teacher who isn’t aware of these things? Sometimes a motivated, self-initiating student will continue despite these limitations. More often than not, though, the result is a frustrated learner that develops only so far and stops. The student will quit after a few months or lessons and not stick with it and never give their talent a chance to develop. If the student does manage to continue beyond a few semesters of study the result is often a 17 year old playing with the skill of a 10 year old.

Even the classical guitar literature for students – which has about the highest skill requirements – has historically been geared towards adults. That is why much of that pedagogy from the 18th century  is ineffective with children below the age of 12. However, those students who have matriculated through that tradition in a child-centered manner develop skills that they can adapt to just about any style should their preferences go in different directions which is common in this culture. The result is quicker satisfaction (and more motivation) at being able to master new style domains. (Not many people know that in the movie, “School of Rock” the competency of the young guitarists and bass players was a result of them having studied classical guitar for a number of years. They were quickly able to learn the pop playing style specifically for the movie.)

So if you’re a very-late teen or an adult who wants to learn guitar, seek the most skilled adult teacher with whom you can communicate. If you want to introduce your child to a life-long skill, choose an educator who has studied child-development in a real way and understands how to communicate effective material and uses it with your child. Choose a specialist.

You can be sure that the Childbloom Guitar Program certified Instructors are specialists.

Kevin Taylor is the Founder of The Childbloom Guitar Program.