Teaching Philosophy

Steve Waugh with his guitar.

Steve Waugh outside his home studio.

I believe in helping people learn how to play guitar rather than teaching people how to play.

I’ll explain that a bit more later on. But first, let me share my thoughts on sound, our natural musical ability, and creativity.

Sound

People study music and learn to play instruments because of sound. They know the sounds they wish to make. That sound is in their heads. One of my primary tasks as a teacher is to instruct students to listen for sounds that they like.

The whole purpose of studying the guitar, for a lot of students, is to make those sounds come alive.

My job is also to invent ways of helping students realize that sound. I am not here to mold my students to a particular form. As a teacher, I work to bring out each student’s unique abilities, using the music that stimulates their interests and sparks their creativity.

Music is both a natural and an acquired ability.

We are all born with the ability to make music. Our hearts keep a steady beat and lots of other body parts supply rhythm to that beat.

Most people are born with the ability to sing. The voice is the first melody instrument. All other instruments, including guitar, come from that source.

To acquire the skills to play an instrument, music students need to learn:

  • How to read music—the specialized symbols of music notation
  • The history, music, and techniques of their instrument
  • Musical styles related to their interests
  • The ideas that go into composing music

In my studio, I introduce students to all these elements in a relaxed atmosphere that combines instruction with lots of time to play their instruments.

People are naturally creative.

Sometimes, guitar students worry that formal instruction will stifle their creativity. I see my role as helping students access their natural creativity—and then give it expression by teaching them the techniques required to play the guitar. I also help them develop the discipline they need to learn those techniques without inhibiting their creativity. For each student, I tailor my instruction to strike the ideal balance of technical studies and freedom of expression.

Play is the key word in my studio.

Remember what I said earlier about teaching people how to play?

Kids know how to do it. They don’t always play the way they should, but play is key to their learning experience and their development as musicians and people. The adults who pay for the lessons don’t always get the concept of play. I sometimes hear the question, “You mean we’re paying you to let our kid do whatever he feels like?” Well, not quite, but that’s the general idea. It’s very important, not only for kids, but for adults, too, to move their hands freely around the instrument and listen to the various sounds.

Play is the beginning of feeling comfortable with your instrument.

Practice

Musicians need to practice. They train their bodies to be able to perform, just like athletes do.

A football player will train six days for the chance to play for three hours on Sunday afternoon. A musician will spend countless hours practicing scales so that a two-second passage in a piece of music comes out sounding effortless in a performance.

So, I spend a lot of time in lessons, teaching students how to practice.

Play and practice: an ideal partnership

As my guitar students develop their musical ideas, they need to practice to express those ideas. As students progress, practice becomes a necessity to playing; practice and play become partners. When a student realizes that she cannot play her favorite Beatles, Bach, or Metallica song unless she masters technique, she gets motivated to practice until she’s “nailed it.” I’ve seen it happen many times. As a teacher, I am always open to my students’ ideas and allow that motivation to happen naturally.

For practice skills, I teach students how to use a metronome to increase flexibility, speed, and confidence. I also teach students how to pay attention to their playing and analyze parts of the music that go well and parts that don’t go so well.

What went right (vs. what went wrong)

What went right is very important in my studio.

After making countless movements to play a piece of music, performers usually focus on the few that went wrong. I know I do. Students, too, are usually quick to identify the problem areas, and less apt to recognize what they’ve done well. Being able to spot both is essential for a student’s development.

After listening to a student perform a piece, I will ask, “What did you like about the piece?” Often, the student is either not aware or too shy to acknowledge that there was something enjoyable about the music he or she just played.

When working with students I point out the movements and sounds that went well. I share about why the movements and sounds went well, and why I liked them. This concept of “what went right” is very important when it comes to analyzing the music realistically so that students can separate problem areas from effortless, musical areas.

Continual improvement

But then comes the hammer, “What would you like to improve about the performance?” Often, students refer to real or perceived mistakes they made. That’s when I turn the student’s attention to specifics:

  • What mistakes?
  • How were those mistakes made?
  • And how can we fix them?

After we agree on a certain area that needs improvement, I can show the student just how the mistake happened and how to avoid making it in the future.

Developing life-long skills

In the end, I see my job as helping my students develop skills and freedom they need to play any guitar piece that inspires and motivates them to nurture their innate musical ability. My goal is to give my students skills they can use to play the guitar throughout their lives.

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