Where’s the best place to learn an instrument?

You go to YouTube, right? Wrong. Free is not always good. Here’s an overview with tips for choosing the right place for your lessons, from someone who’s been on both ends of the teaching and learning experience.

Videos

learn-guitar-by-video

Advantages

  • There’s a wide variety of styles for any level of player, from beginning to advanced.
  • You can stop and rewind at any time. Try that with a live teacher.
  • Some sites are very good, with experienced teachers and high quality videos.
  • Some are free or low cost.

Disadvantages

  • Anyone can upload instructional videos. I’m seen it all, from fuzzy phone videos from someone who can barely change guitar chords, to people showing you the wrong way to play a song.
  • It’s a big video world and it can be hard to find someone who actually knows what they’re doing, especially if you’re a beginner.
  • There’s no live teacher to correct your mistakes. It may seem like you’re playing it correctly but how would you know for sure?

Recommendations

Look for videos from established teachers, companies and websites. I really like Homespun Tapes because they have professional musicians who have experience teaching. Their videos are top notch and come with tab and/or notation. I also like JamPlay*. Their platform is easy to use; get free lessons or sign up for their subscription service. They offer a wide variety of styles for guitar and bass. And I would be remiss if I didn’t mention my own instructional videos. I don’t have many but you can learn essential guitar strums here, and beginning ukulele here, for free.

Private lessons in a home studio

guitar teacher

Advantages

  • A teacher can see and hear you better than on video or Skype.
  • You can stop and ask questions.
  • It’s easier to see what to do if there’s a teacher next to you.
  • If you know you’re seeing your instructor every week, you’ll have more incentive to practice.
  • Because you’re dealing directly with the teacher, lesson times and policies can sometimes be flexible.
  • Most teachers will let you record a lesson.
  • You can often find a teacher in your neighborhood or convenient to work.
  • Some teachers will come to your home.
  • Private lessons are great for anyone with limitations; instruction can be geared to the student’s strengths.

Disadvantages

  • Like video, anyone can hang out a shingle. They may be good players but can they teach? I talked with someone once who took banjo lessons and never had the chance to play his instrument; he simply watched the teacher play. If that’s a good way to learn then I’m going to watch a skydiver and jump out of a plane.
  • You’re going to someone’s home; some teachers don’t create a good space for teaching. A few years ago I met with a guy who was teaching in the middle of his busy lutherie practice. Surrounded by piles of unfinished guitars and dusty equipment is not a good place for a lesson.
  • Occasionally teachers are unreliable. I hate to say this about my fellow teachers, but some aren’t tied too well to the ground. They forget lessons, aren’t prepared with music, and are lousy bookkeepers.
  • The teacher may specialize in a limited number of styles. If you’re a classical guitarist, you don’t want to go to someone whose only experience is in metal. Some teachers will stretch the truth a little because they want your business. (Hint: there are no power chords in Bach.)
  • Can be expensive because you’re getting one-on-one time with a teacher.

Recommendations

Here’s my blog post about finding a guitar teacher but really, it’s good for finding any kind of teacher. In general, you don’t want to sign up for a series of lessons until you’ve had one lesson, or at least a meeting, with your teacher. With one lesson you’ll figure out whether this is the teacher for you. If someone tries to talk you into paying up front for a whole bunch of lessons, run.

Do you live in Ottawa, ON? I’d love to talk with you about guitar, mandolin, ukulele or songwriting lessons in my home studio. Contact me here. More about my lessons here.

Instruction at music schools

music-school

Advantages

  • Most vet their teachers and you’ll find a high caliber of instructor.
  • Bigger schools offer a variety instruments and lesson levels.
  • Facilities are often spacious and well-suited for music lessons.
  • Some offer instrument rentals.

Disadvantages

  • Most want you to sign up for a series of lessons before you’ve met the teacher.
  • While most vet their teachers, some do not. I’ve worked for several that never even asked me to play for them. I’m not sure they investigated the references on my resume, either.
  • Some have inflexible and unreasonable cancellation policies. One school for which I worked required seven days’ notice for any cancellations. (For students in my home studio, I only ask for 24 hour’s notice.)
  • They can be noisy. I’ve taught relatively quiet classes next door to a band with drums. There was a lot of bleed through the walls and there wasn’t anything I could do about it.
  • They may bug students with frequent promotion to take more classes.

Recommendations

Talk with your friends – did they enjoy lessons there? Ask the front desk person questions and read what you sign. Look for perks like instrumental rental or student recitals.

Classes at community centers and other spaces

jack-black

Jack Black and the character he played in School of Rock. He’d be a fun teacher.

Advantages

  • Usually inexpensive.
  • Can be great for beginners because they often cover the basics.
  • You have the support of fellow students.
  • Easy registration. Most are well-established and offer lots of classes so they have a streamlined process for registering.
  • Great location. They’re usually in places with lots of parking and/or access to buses.

Disadvantages

  • You may not get a highly experienced teacher. Because the pay is sometimes low, they don’t always draw the highest caliber of teacher but heck, I teach at these kinds of places and I have a lot of experience — it’s a good supplement for someone like me. Don’t assume the teacher won’t be good but be cautious.
  • If you miss a class there’s probably not a way to make it up.
  • A teacher may have students of many different levels. If you’re a rank beginner and everyone plays at a higher level, you may get lost in the dust. There are similar issues if you’re at the other end of the spectrum.
  • Most don’t offer classes for advanced players.

Recommendations

Again, ask friends and neighbors where they take lessons and if they like them. Check Yelp. Carefully read the class description and ask questions before you register. See if the center has a flexible cancellation policy. At some, if you don’t like the first class or two, you can stop going and they’ll credit you for other classes. Have you decided that the guitar is not for you? Sign up for flower arranging instead.

Skype or Facetime lessons

Advantages

  • It’s easier to find a specialist. Want to play dulcimer but you live in a town where no one even knows what that is? Google “dulcimer online lessons” and you’ll find someone. Guaranteed.
  • Lessons in the comfort of your home.
  • It can be a good supplement to face to face lessons. I have a private student who lives across town. Rather than battle traffic weekly, she sometimes does her lessons via Skype.
  • A good teacher will supplement her/his lessons with video, MP3s and printed music. That’s almost as good as having a teacher in the room with you.
  • Some well-known players teach via Skype.

Disadvantages

  • You are at the whim of the Internet and your devices. I teach via Skype and while it’s generally reliable, there have been a couple of times where we spent precious minutes trying to figure out why one of us sounded like a badly dubbed foreign film.
  • A teacher can’t see all sides of you, making it especially difficult to catch errors in hand position or posture.
  • Both of you can’t play at the same time.
  • Skype can overload easily. If your dog is barking or a noisy truck rumbles by, sound can cut out.

Recommendations

I teach via Skype. Contact me here for details. For other instruments and styles try Google. Arrange to have one lesson and see how it feels. More in general about learning music via Skype is here.

Books

hal-leonard-guitar-book-1Advantages

  • They’re usually more accurate than online sources and some teachers. In order to sell, they have to be. Also, because they license the songs they feature, they get notation and tab directly from the publisher and/or musician.
  • It’s easy to get books that specialize. Want to learn old-time banjo? There are a million books out there that can teach you and you won’t waste time with instruction for bluegrass or Dixieland.

Disadvantages

  • Just because something is published, it doesn’t mean it’s good. Instruction may move too fast or two slow for you.
  • Learning to read tab and/or notation can sometimes be challenging for students who learn better by ear or by watching a teacher.

Learning from friends and family

Advantages

  • Inexpensive or free.
  • You might only need to walk into the next room to get a lesson.
  • It doesn’t have to be a set lesson time. Did you love that great rock riff your cousin just played? Ask her to show it to you right then.
  • You can see someone play what you want to learn.

Disadvantages

  • They may be great players but have no idea how to break things down and teach them to you.
  • They may be limited in what they can play.
  • Personal stuff can get in the way.

Recommendations

Try it and if you don’t like it, kindly and graciously tell them it’s not working out. If you like it, learn all you can. It’s especially cool if they specialize.

Teach yourself

elizabeth cotten

Elizabeth Cotten. She taught herself how to play.

Advantages

  • Free or low cost (depending on whether you purchase books or videos).
  • Great players like Elizabeth Cotten and Jimi Hendrix taught themselves so maybe you can too.
  • There’s a lot of freedom. Cotten and Hendrix both have unique playing styles probably because there was no one peering over their shoulder, telling them exactly how to play.
  • You don’t have to be anywhere at a certain time. Feeling the muse at 2 am? Pick up your guitar and go for it.
  • Go at your own speed and when you have time.

Disadvantages

  • You don’t know if your technique is correct.
  • While you can listen to a song and guess how to play it, there’s no one to show you how it goes.
  • It’s hard to stay motivated.

Recommendations

YouTube is your friend, especially if you play already and want to learn a particular song. If you can find a live video of the original artist, especially if there’s a close-up of their hands, that’s golden. Check out my instructional blog posts, with everything from beginning mandolin to four chords every beginning guitar player should know. There’s also a lot of free tab online. Be careful – for most of those sites, anyone can upload tab and it might be wrong. My favorite sites are Heartwood Guitar (he’s a guitar teacher so his tabs are correct) and Chordie (not as accurate but thousands of songs with a nice layout). Many ukulele jam groups post songs and chords online. I like the one for Bytown Ukulele because they’re easy to read and I rarely find a mistake. More about tab sites here.

Now go forth and learn!

****************

I teach via Skype, in my home studio in Ottawa (Ontario, Canada), at festivals, and more. Contact me here to find out more.

*Full disclosure – I don’t teach via JamPlay but they’ve hired me to write some blog posts.

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About jamiebobamie

Musician - teacher - writer - gets bored easily. I write an almost-weekly blog that includes true stories gathered from 20-plus years of touring, how-to articles for musicians and profiles of performers. Also, I love dark chocolate, I can play "Brown Eyed Girl" behind my head, and I twirl the baton badly.
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