Teach Guitar  Logo
 Teaching Skills Music Skills Business Skills Aspiring Teachers New Teachers Experienced Teachers
Teaching Skills Teaching Skills > How to Teach > Basics of Teaching Guitar Music Theory > Don't waste time explaining
Summary: Hard to Remember Theory - Students need to be brought into direct contact with the subject, merely explaining it to them is a waste of time.

Don't waste time explaining

[Last article] [BTGMT Index] [Next article]

We learn by being made to engage. By doing, observing, experimenting. By mentally processing what information we have, so that further information is generated, rules deduced, patterns stumbled across and systems developed.

Simply having a concept explained to us may, at best, lead to our being vaguely aware of its existence, but does not lead to a full and useful conceptual understanding of a subject.

Say you want your student to grasp how certain scales work when used as a basis for improvising over major key chord progressions.

Imagine yourself telling them:

"You could use any one, or a mixture of, the blues scale, the country scale, the major or minor pentatonic scales, the major or dominant modes (Ionian, Lydian, Mixolydian). But if you're using anything with a minor third in it you'll probably need to bend it up a semitone to make it major. Some notes will work better than others over some chords , but generally its best to..."

... They're not going to grasp anything from this sort of explanation unless its the door handle as they run screaming from the room !

My Golden Rule Number 6 says:

Take whatever time is necessary to lead the student to make their own discoveries

You make sure they can play a couple of octaves of the major pentatonic scale from memory. Then you start playing a major key chord sequence and say:

"Try out a few phrases and listen to how well they work over different parts of this sequence"

They play along with you for a bit (doing) and you make sure they are trying out a few different ideas (experimenting) and then you stop and ask:

"So anything you noticed about that?"

"Well" they say. "I couldn't help noticing that the scale is a bit awkward to use over the second chord you were using" (observing)

"Okay", you say. "That was the F major chord and we're in the key of C major, so lets explore why that scale is a bit sticky over that chord"

"Now" you instruct them, "Tell me which notes you were using in that scale..Here" you say, handing them a blank sheet of paper on a clipboard,"Write them down on there"

Steam comes out of your student's ears as they painstakingly figure out the names of each of the notes they have been playing in the C major pentatonic scale (mentally processing). They pass you back the clipboard with the notes: C D E G A scrawled across it.

"Okay that's good" you say, careful to convey pride in your voice. "Now I was playing the chords C, Em, F, and G - so, in relation to the scale you were using why can F be seen as the odd one out....?"

This is what I call 'leading' the student to make his own discoveries. I am hoping he will spot that F is the only chord whose root note does not appear in the scale. You have lead your horse to the water but it may take a few more carefully chosen questions to get them to drink! Be patient and resist the temptation to explain rather than lead.

After writing out the chords themselves and comparing them to the scale notes they suddenly explain:

"Oh I get it! The F note isn't in the C pentatonic scale"

Now you lead them to work from the specific to the general:

"Okay, remember when we did those scale formulas the other week? How did we compare the major pentatonic to the major scale?"
"It leaves out the 4th and 7th notes" they brightly reply! "Ah!" they quickly add (we hope) "...and F is the 4th in the key of C."

"So how could we overcome the problem?" You prompt.

"Well we could just add in the 4th note temporarily over the 4th chord, but leave it out over the others" The student suggests.

"Lets try that!" You say.

It may seem a long way round. It may take a great deal more time. But because you are getting the student to think for themselves, whatever discoveries they do make, they will keep forever.

The key to this is division of labour. You, as tutor should simply instruct. That means give instructions - not explanations. The instructions you give should encourage the student to do the rest of the work:

  • Play
  • Listen
  • Observe
  • Experiment
  • Think
  • Calculate
  • Write down
  • Answer questions
  • Draw conclusions
  • Associate the specific to the general and vice versa
  • Confirm conclusions by further experiment

People generally have the ability to do all these things, but they all take energy, effort and discipline. As a tutor you encourage the application of energy and effort and impose a sensible discipline on your students to get them to apply themselves to these tasks.

But if you sit there simply explaining to the student, they will not engage. This means they will not learn and before too long you will lose them as clients.

[Last article] [BTGMT Index] [Next article]

Related Pages
 From the Bottom Up
 The Importance of the Major Scale
 Don't believe a word your student says
 Correct Sequence
 Use it or Lose it
 The Importance of Repeated Use
 Defining Musical Terms
 Motivate before Mystifying
 Examine, Revise, Consolidate
Products from TeachGuitar.com

Are YOU ever short of teaching ideas? ...Exactly what should you teach and how?


an ebook by Nick Minnion
 Read More
 Order Information



TeachGuitar Forums

 -Guitarist's Dictionary
 -Resource Exchange Library
 -Guitar Teacher's Forum


 -About Us
- Contact Us
 -Nick Minnion