Improving Instrumental Teaching

Colin Sapp

Teaching music is a skill, and like music, it takes years to master. Whether you teach lessons out of your living room, in a music store, or in a school classroom, a music teacher at any level has to first gain competency on some facet of their instrument, and then they have to know how to communicate what they know. Extraordinary music teachers have fully mastered both their instrumental craft and the craft of teaching.

Like learning music, learning how to teach never ends. Therefore, you should always be looking for ways to refine how you teach music. In this article, I outline several effective teaching strategies, how to improve your communication to your audience, ways to increase your self-awareness, how to break bad habits, and some truly horrific anecdotes. I’ve also included a short list of resources to check out for your professional development. Let’s get started!

7 Music Teaching Tips

The #1 rule of teaching music:

Meet the student where they’re at

Understanding what your students know and need to know is the most essential principle of teaching. In order to do this, you have to come up with some quick ways of assessing where they’re at. If it’s the first time you’ve worked with them, ask them questions about their background and their playing goals. Have them play a piece of music that they’ve been working on. Have them play some scales, arpeggios, chords, etc. Have them improvise over something they’re comfortable with. You’ll be able to get a good idea of where they’re at after hearing them speak and play for a couple of minutes and then you can start teaching. If it’s a returning student, check in with them at the beginning of each lesson and ask them what they’ve practiced since the last lesson and what they were able to accomplish. Ask them what they were successful with and what they struggled with. Then have them demonstrate those successes and challenges for you so you can see exactly what they’re talking about. After you know where your student is in their learning trajectory, you can formulate a plan of action for the lesson and beyond.

#2: Play more than you speak

Some people think talking is teaching. This is certainly not true in arts education. You can’t learn how to paint by only listening to someone talk about painting. You need to see the image, see how the instructor paints, and then put your brush on the canvas to try it yourself. Music is the same way: we learn by doing it.

Demonstrate on your instrument how to do something, then have the students play back what they absorbed. Play slowly and repeat the examples for your students and let them copy you. Go back and forth until they get it right, explaining only as needed and keeping the speaking concise. Avoid long rambling, philosophical monologues. You’re not teaching an online course at the University of Phoenix – hopefully… Music instruction means playing music. This type of teaching engages students’ eyes, ears, hands, and mind in a musical way.

#3: Have materials to present to students

Don’t show up empty-handed and unprepared to teach. Would you play a concert where you didn’t prepare any material? I’m pretty sure no one would pay to see that! Design material that students can refer to on their own after the lesson. If you don’t have a large catalog of material to draw from or don’t know where to start, make a list of things that students ask about and things you think they should know. Then build your catalog of teaching material by addressing those topics. As you continue to teach, keep developing your material. Eventually, you’ll have enough material to cover virtually everything students ask of you.

When presenting your material, structure the delivery in a way that has a logical flow from one idea to the next. Ideally, the next idea should tie in to or reinforce the previous idea. The order in which things are taught make a big difference, so put some careful thought into how best to organize the lesson for the most effective learning outcomes.

#4: Be flexible and adaptable

Planning is an important component of good teaching. But sometimes music teaching requires us to “wing it” and make up lessons on the spot. This is a skill unto itself. Part of meeting the student where they’re at is to expect the unexpected. The best teachers can think on their feet, have a deep bag of material to draw from, and are able to use topics that students bring up and connect those ideas to concepts they’ve covered or plan to cover in the future. Great improvisers can make up fun and effective games and exercises in the moment to help reinforce what they’re trying to teach. Teaching effectively on the fly relies on your teaching chops, your creativity, and the breadth of material you have on standby. If you continue to strengthen your pedagogy, open-heartedly embrace your students’ relevant suggestions, and expand your material, you’ll be able to handle practically any curveball.

#5: Use good music!

Teach songs that you love and teach your students songs they love. Avoid teaching generic or outdated songs like “Home On The Range” that are often found in method books, (unless you want to get rid of that student. Kidding!) No one wants to listen to crappy music, let alone play it. So teach the good stuff!

Furthermore, when teaching songs, teach the students how to play along with the original recordings. (See #6 on how to adapt the songs.) It’s so much more gratifying to play music in a musical context rather than with a metronome or nothing at all. This will also help steady the student’s rhythm and increase the speed of their thinking, movement, and reading.

#6: Teach students how to practice with technology

Use technology in your lessons to meet the student at their ability level and teach your students how to effectively use technology in their personal practicing. For instance, have students build digital playlists of songs they want to learn so they can listen to them over and over and practice along. Use software to slow down audio, loop audio, change keys, provide backing tracks, help with ear training, etc. Show students inspiring ways to practice with a metronome app, GarageBand AI drummer, or other rhythm-based play-alongs for tempo-dependent exercises. Students can use the Notes app on their phone to keep a log of the BPM they’ve practiced with. This is an easy way to track their progress and quantify how far they’ve come. Have them make a Word or Excel file of what to practice every week as well as what they practiced each day and for how long. This will help organize their practice sessions and keep track of their learning.

#7: Be organized and consistent

Lay out a transparent and goal-oriented plan for your student and stick to it. Take notes of what you’ve covered in your lessons so you can connect the previous step with the next step. Students appreciate structure and being able to see where you’re taking them. And it almost goes without saying, but if you’re regularly late, disorganized, or asking to reschedule classes, GET IT TOGETHER MAN! You need to model how to be a responsible, professional musician because your behavior influences those under your guidance. When you aren’t ready for their lesson, how can you expect your student to be ready for their lesson? Even if they don’t call you out on the double-standard, they will most certainly recognize it, and you just might lose your student.

Effective Communication

Your teaching skills are directly related to how well you communicate. Below is a hilarious YouTube video where a father asks his daughter and son to write down instructions to teach him how to make a peanut butter and jelly sandwich. Watch how quickly it unravels!

This illustrates just how challenging it is to effectively communicate an idea to someone you’re trying to teach. You don’t know exactly how they’re going to interpret what you’re trying to covey to them. As a practice tool, write out some lessons step-by-step. Reading it back out loud will give you some objectivity on your lesson content and structure. Then you can clarify the convoluted aspects and remove unnecessary content. Another tool to help improve your communication is The 3 Ns.

 The 3 Ns of teaching:

 Need to know

 Nice to know


When teaching:

  Prioritize need to know information. “Need to know” is what you consider to be the absolute “must-have” material to share.

  If there’s time, you can include nice to know material. This category contains information not imminently critical for the student’s learning, but has some benefit.

Avoid noise (e.g. tangential or seemingly endless monologues with no clear point, verbose descriptions instead of clear demonstrations, playing too much and not letting your student play enough, etc.)

Your ability to discern in the moment what is essential, what isn’t, and what is a complete waste of time will help you become a more efficient and effective teacher. You can also filter your thinking through The 3 Ns when you are creating lesson plans to make your lessons more impactful.

Another way to gain insight on how to refine your pedagogical approach is to record yourself teaching. Watch videos of yourself and look for areas to improve. How much of what you said was need to know, nice to know, and noise? Did you present the material in the clearest way you could have? Did the order of what you presented provide the most logical connection from one piece to the next? How did the pace at which you taught impact the students’ understanding? Where did the students struggle to understand what you were trying to convey? Be honest with yourself, just like when you are tracking a guitar part in a recording studio. If you notice a flaw, fix it. Regularly watch yourself teach to increase your self-awareness and refine your approach.

Ask your students for feedback on your teaching, too. When they realize that teaching and learning is a collaborative effort, they may value your lessons even more.

And of course, watch great teachers. We copied incredible musicians as we were learning our instrument, so we can copy awesome teachers. Ask teachers you admire if you can observe a class of theirs and ask questions afterwards. Take them out for lunch and pick their brain on how they handle tricky situations. When you have great role models, you can clearly see how high the bar is set and what to shoot for in your own teaching.

Breaking The Cycle

People typically teach how they were taught. This is a difficult cycle to break out of. Here are five categories of all-too-common terrible guitar teachers that I have witnessed with my own eyes and ears. Use these as case studies of what not to do.

1) The Show Off

The guitar teacher spends the majority of the lesson playing fast and talking about how easy it is for them.

Teaching guitar is not about you, it’s about your student and their musical growth. Guitar teachers who spend the majority of the lesson time ripping fast licks so they can impress the student make it painfully obvious that they wish they were on stage performing rather than in a classroom teaching. To those folks: stay on stage and don’t set foot in a classroom. Classrooms aren’t a platform for your ego. They’re a vessel to promote student learning. All you’re teaching them is how big of a d-bag you are.

2) The Rambler

The guitar teacher spends the majority of the lesson in a philosophical monologue.

Teaching does not mean lecturing, especially in music education. Show them how to do something and then let them try it out. Instrumental learning is hands-on, so don’t spend the class time talking when they can be doing.

3) The “I Just Do It” type

The guitar teacher plays something great and the student asks, “What did you just play? Show me that,” and the teacher says, “I don’t know what I just played. I just do it.”

A big part of your job as a teacher is to be insightful and break down the musical concepts you’re demonstrating into manageable pieces for the student. If you just play and don’t have anything to instruct them on how to do what you do, you need to do some self-reflection. Ask yourself this question: “What did I struggle with when I was learning guitar and how did I overcome it?” From there, you can start putting together informative pieces that you can use to help your students do what you do.

4) The Withholder

The guitar teacher plays something amazing and when the student asks about it, the teacher deflects, re-directs, or plays dumb.

There are musicians who are unwilling to share their playing secrets in lessons. They stonewall the student to keep their break-through ideas to themselves. Maybe these folks believe that because they had to figure these things out on their own, you have to figure it out on your own. Or maybe they are scared of their student becoming better than them and “stealing” their gigs. Who knows? But if you’re not willing to share your music secrets and epiphanies to help another musician when they’re paying you for your knowledge, you’re ripping them off. Plain and simple.

5) The “Let’s work on what I’m practicing…” Guy

The guitar teacher uses material in their personal practice routine under the guise of it being helpful for the student.

Let’s get one thing straight. The classroom isn’t your practice room. So don’t use it as such. Using astronomically high-level music in the classroom for your personal gain is unethical, lazy, and it violates the first tenet of music teaching: meeting the student where they’re at. Sure, we encounter the rare student who has highly developed skills every now and then, so it makes sense to give them some deep, heavy stuff. But in almost every case I’ve witnessed this ruse, the student is absolutely not ready for that kind of material and/or it’s not presented in an accessible way (i.e. slow, step-by-step, tying in prior content, etc.) This “drinking from the firehose” type of “teaching” is a waste of the student’s time and money. Again, teaching music is not about you. It’s about your student.

To break the cycle, try to be the teacher that you wish you had when you were younger.

Study Teaching

If you want to improve your teaching, you need to study the art of teaching. You’ve studied your instrument thoroughly. But have you studied teaching as thoroughly? If you haven’t read books about effective teaching and learning, educate yourself. And if you have, here are some more that I highly recommend reading. Also, understanding how humans learn and retain information can help guide your teaching methodology. Below are links to books that were transformative for me as an educator.

The Skillful Teacher – Jon Saphier, Mary Ann Haley-Speca, Robert Gower

Powerful Teaching – Pooja K. Agarwal and Patrice M. Bain

How The Brain Learns – David A. Sousa

Teaching Music with Passion – Peter Loel Boonshaft

Final Thoughts

Remember those stretches of joy that you had when you were first learning the guitar? Try to tap into that excitement when you’re teaching. Excitement is contagious. Sharing the things you learned along the way and watching students experience the “a-ha!” flashes you had is among the most rewarding moments we can have as teachers. Foster those moments and encourage the students to push through the difficult areas to experience that gratification as often as possible.

The more I learn about music, the more I realize that music exists primarily in the gray area. Absolutes are virtually non-existent in music so I try to teach both rules and exceptions. Dogmatic teaching in music is something I personally try to avoid. Music is a creative art after all! Nurture individuality and uniqueness in your students when the opportunity presents itself.

Lastly, encourage positive thinking in your students. Negative self-talk does damage. When you witness a student getting frustrated in a lesson, cheer them on and teach them how to be their own cheerleader. Success is a product of optimism, so spread that stuff around!

Colin Sapp was given the Distinguished Faculty Award in 2020 at Berklee College of Music where he has been an Assistant Professor since 2012. For more guitar content, follow him on Instagram @colinsappofficial and subscribe to his YouTube channel Inside Out Guitar with Colin Sapp.