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I have a pretty succesful teaching business in my hometown.  It's home-based, and has gone well, seeing large numbers within the last 2 years. I find myself however, continually caught in trying to find the proper balance between giving a student a song they want to learn and incorporating some theory

into it.  Many students are happy to simply be able to duplicate a song on a guitar, but I don't feel that this is enough of a lesson in itself.  Issues like Time Signature, Key, Lead  positionsthe hows and whys...I find that some students turn a deaf ear to these ideas when I attempt to infuse them into whatever song they are learning, and as a teacher, I feel obligated to give them a little more than a Tablature Sheet showing them how to replicate a song. Most students will bore quickly with straight out notation theory and memory work, but there must be a balance somewhere. Any thoughts?

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well Jay I like to do the same thing as you though sometimes I think I push that stuff too early.

When I was learning, I memorized a body of stuff.... once you have that down, then I think you're ready to start looking at the "whys" involved.... specifically for the purpose of getting them ready to figure out stuff on their own.


So, what I mean is, at some point they should be curious about how it all works and perhaps that's when you introduce stuff???? 


You can of course, and I think will have to, be introducing stuff along the way. Like time signatures.... teach a waltz and they'll have to learn that.

I like to take a look at the song they want to learn and pull out a few important music concepts. I teach those concepts, and then I teach the student how to play the song. For example, if the song uses "E" shape barre chords, I teach the chromatic scale, the notes on the "E" string, the chord shape, and then the song. Their assignment always includes exercises that drill the concept so that they learn songs faster in the future.


Susan Palmer

Author of The Guitar Lesson Companion

YouTube Lessons

It seems like you don't have a set curriculum. You can't let your students dictate what or how you teach something.  There is nothing wrong with teaching them songs that they want as long as they also get the theory mixed in.  If you don't teach it, then your not doing your job.

I'm with Andy here -- you will need to develop a curriculum.  My students' lessons consist of technique, theory, music.  The music is the practical application of the technique and theory they are working on.  From day one, we start with theory. So the theory is taught little by little one lesson at a time and reviewed constantly, then practically applied in the music. So let's say that a student is working on a song that incorporates 16th note strumming.  They need to have the 16th note strumming technique exercises, they need to understand the time signature, the breakdown of the 16th notes, and they need to understand the key signature of the song as well as the chord family within that key signature. By the time a student gets to the level of the 16th-note strumming skill they have had about a year or more of instruction and have a lot of theory behind them already. 


I involve students in the lesson planning process by asking  students what songs they want to learn.  If these fit into the curriculum we do it.  If not, I try to find something similar to the style of songs they like and we go from there.  If there is a technique they need to learn and there is no song that fills the bill, I give them a standard that I have in my files and tell them to think of it as a door-opener or as Susan Palmer says "a gateway" song.  These are the songs that lead them into a new level of playing. Usually when they look at it from that perspective, they are willing to work on a song they did not necessarily like.  Of course, the best of all possible worlds is when they are in love with the song they are working on -- so I always strive for that goal.


Hope this helps,



Thanks Guys!  Your input helps alot.  for the majority of students, chords and scales are part of learning in every song they do...what chords and why the melody belongs in a certain scale, etc..I just find myself at a loss whe someone is too focused on replicating new songs and not enough about the theooretical applications.  Great help, everyone!
I like the approach Donna and Susan use, as well.  As a recent example, I had a student to day learning a piece that is in 7/8.  He's heard the song, so there some familiarity with it.  So in today's lesson I put the music down in front of him, and then I proceeded to explain to him how to count the measures correctly.  I "dangle" the music in front of them as "the carrot," and then I explain the theory concepts and teach the necessary techniques, before I teach the song itself.
Like that approach for sure! 

When you have a student that is really intent to learn a song, then take that energy and focus it by finding a technique in the song that you can teach.  Let them know that there is always something to learn.


As a side note on this;

I find that I can teach theory to young kids with no problems at all.  The issues begin at the teen years.  Teens and adults tend to over complicate it and talk themselves out of learning it.  In my lessons, Theory is the easy part and practice is the fun part.

I agree.  I have no issues with showing scales and theoretical points like time and key signature to younger people;  I find that teens put more value into doing an actual song, never mind the mechanics, and as you said, they look at theory like perhaps a compex and unneccessary animal.  I always tell students that alot of the reason

I am able to dissect songs and solos etc. is because I know about key signatures, various scales and chords.  I tell them that alot of the internet tablature they see is so backwards (melodies that span 10 frets or more, when same melody can be found in a closed scale position spanning 4 frets) because the person who wrote it (I'm referring to user submitted tabs) isn't fmiliar with scale types, different chord types, etc. and therefore, there is great merrit to theoretical points.

Theory and practice are the two wheels of the cart...if you don't have one of them, you will only spin and not get to where you want to go.


 I teach theory from day one...and just keep on telling them the numbers....they get it over time..with adults I just tell them to let it soak in...not worry about it and just wait for the "flashbulb" moment....normally they come to me and say..."Hey...the other day I FINALLY understood the  I IV V concept!  WOW..Thanks!"


 Its always easy enough to find songs that appeal to each player, yet work towards the skills you are trying to teach.  I try to sometimes play the same song over a year or so from the first day they play the Hit the Road Jack...I start them with the Bass line on day one...and after a year we are playing it all Jazzy!

  I have learned hundreds of tunes I wouldn't otherwise have bothered with...which only makes me better at my craft.




This is quite a dilemma. When I teach piano, I incorporate theory throughout. This is standard in classical piano instruction - the way I was taught. When teaching guitar, my style is different - much less formal and structured. In every lesson, though, I have my student play a major and relative minor scale, name the chords in the chord families of each scale and explain how we determine the main chords, and do some transposing. He's a good player, so this only takes about 10 minutes. After that, we get to the songs - he's into Christmas Carols now (go figure) so we talk alot about how the chords relate to the nots in the melody. When any of my students don't practice or get bored, chanelling my piano teacher, I remind them that they are responsible for their progress. I also remind them that one day, they're going to be playing on their own, so they have to learn how to understand music for their own satisfaction.

Personally, I can't imagine teaching without a basic, but flexible, lesson plan or curriculum (although I don't like to use that word, it's so academic. LOL!) Students will always pick a favorite song (usually beyond their ability) if you ask them what they want to learn. It would be a rare student indeed who asks to learn theory. That is to be expected. No one wants to learn an instrument to understand music theory. They want to be able to play songs. That is their goal. That is the fun part. That is what musicians do!


I think a teacher's goal should be to introduce theory in order to make them better musicians. Not just to teach theory. Theory along with technique can be incorporated into the teaching of songs (chord or notation based). That is the best of both worlds. Music theory taught by itself is, frankly, boring, which is why kids resist. It makes more sense though, when you apply it to an instrument or a song, in my opinion. 


I use a "topical" or "modular" approach to teaching which gives me a lot of flexibility. I occasionally ask a student if there is a song they want to learn, but I teach them in a way that they can learn songs on their own (which I encourage.) I tell them I am teaching them the "tools" they need to play any song. 


For the beginner, each lesson includes music notation (including theory), technique (picking or strumming exercises), and open chords. Soon after I introduce TAB (so they can play fun riffs like Chicago's "25 or 6 to 4" - a good rhythm exercise also). When they can handle chord changes, I introduce songs using chord and lyric sheets, along with what I call a "performance" sheet, where I notate the proper rhythm, including chord diagrams, for the song, plus any into riffs, fills, etc. using TAB and standard notation. As time and student skill progress I add barre chords, double stops, arpeggios, fingerstyle, lead guitar, chord melody, jazz chords, alternate tuning, lead guitar, etc., etc. But we always work on at least one song. 


Since there are no songbooks for guitar that follow a gradual increase in skill or technique. I have assembled a couple hundred songs (in many styles) that follow a gradual increase in difficulty and introduce new techniques (or chord types). I have them organized into groups: music notation songs (for sight reading); chord based (acoustic or electric); "riff based" (riffs and power chords, etc. mainly for electric); arpeggio songs, fingerstyle songs, alternate tuning songs, and "advanced" songs that have multiple guitar parts so the student gets to see how guitars parts work together in a band setting and play different "parts". 


Using a "modular" approach I have flexibility to advance quickly with topics they are doing well with while continuing to work on topics they are slower with (using lots of encouragement). Each lesson has a mix of topics, which I think makes lessons more interesting, but always at least one song. Music needs to be fun or, what's the point? 


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