The Ideal Student

I enjoy keeping in touch with other teachers, both in my personal relationships and through forums. One topic that often comes up among music teachers is “the ideal student.” I never contribute to these conversations in any expected way, mostly because I feel that all of my students are ideal students!

Of course, I know that the accepted definition of a good student is one who is punctual, learns quickly, practices diligently, is enthusiastic and ambitious and who attends lessons regularly and is prompt with payment. Those are great qualities in a student – they make my job easy and fun and I definitely appreciate them – but I don’t feel that a student has to exhibit any specific qualities from the start of the relationship in order for both of us to enjoy a satisfying experience. I have grown the most as a teacher and a person by working through situations that are challenging or uncomfortable. Can you imagine the thrill I feel when a student who has been through four, five or more teachers is able to break through to a level of playing they have sought for years? It is exhilarating to be able to facilitate that leap for someone who has persisted so diligently in their quest and I am deeply grateful that they didn’t give up on their goals before reaching my studio!

I start with the basic premise that if someone enrolls in lessons, they want to learn to play guitar and that no one intentionally limits his or her ability to do so. My job is to assist my students in reaching their goals and that means helping them to develop effective approaches to learning, successful practice habits, positive responses to the process, concentration, confidence, creativity, coordination, manual strength and dexterity, listening skills, pitch sense, rhythmic sense and more. In other words, I see a teacher as being far more than someone who organizes and disseminates information – I see her also as someone who, by listening and attending to the whole student, is able to assist, support and fully participate in the process of learning.

As for those “ideal qualities,” I find that by resisting the temptation to hold them as expectations or requirements, I am able to enjoy their emergence as a natural part of the process of learning how to learn. The rewards are rich: I have the opportunity to practice patience, commitment and creativity and the student learns to make music! That is a beautiful and gratifying experience that I wouldn’t trade for all the ready-made “ideal students” in the world.


This is the time that many people are enthusiastically launching into fulfilling their New Year’s resolutions. Although I don’t make specific resolutions with the New Year, I do feel the urge to clear out the old and make way for the new (as evidenced in the last post!). Regardless of how we name our goals or when we set them, we all welcome ways to achieve them as painlessly as possible.
Although others tend to view me as being very disciplined, I feel that most of what appears to be discipline in my life is merely habit that has been consciously chosen and placed. Of course, there is discipline involved in establishing the habits I choose, but once they are in place, they carry themselves. Think about it – it doesn’t take discipline to brush your teeth in the morning, because you have established that as a habit! There are countless things that you do in any given day without having to make yourself do them, because those things are habitual. So, when beginning a commitment, it seems that the trick is to move as quickly as possible from discipline to habit.
As I’ve observed many students struggling with discipline over the years, I’ve considered how the process works for me. In doing so, I realized that I employ a few tricks that set me up for success.


Sometimes in our zeal to accomplish a goal we try to force ourselves into starting something new before circumstances are supportive or we are emotionally or mentally prepared. It is possible (and preferable, to my mind) to set your intentions and then wait and watch for the starting time to show itself. This does not mean that you give in to resistance, but that you tune into your thoughts and feelings and “step into the river.” Trust yourself!


Before beginning a new commitment, it’s wise to make sure that your goal is a reasonable one rather than a fantasy. You might want to play guitar several hours a day, but is that really going to work in your current life? You are far more likely to achieve success if you initiate a small change and then let it grow naturally. By starting with a realistic and manageable commitment, you will likely find that with time things shift to allow for expansion.


I’ve found that it is much easier to do something every day than to do it only on specific days of the week. If, for instance, you decide to exercise on Monday, Wednesday, Friday, you may always have in the back of your head that if you “need to”, you can put off one of those sessions with the hope of using one of your unscheduled days to “catch up.” As we know, things have a way of unraveling from there. Also, it is likely to feel more like discipline and less like habit if there are constant choices to make. A habit should just be a habit, absent of excessive thinking and planning.


It helps to attach a new activity or task to something that is already in place. Guitar practice might attach to dinner (my favorite guitar time – it’s dessert!), first thing in the morning or immediately before or after school or work.

Do you have any tricks for keeping resolutions? If so, I hope you will share them!

Look What I Found!

I only have three closets in my house and they are all very small. Having such limited storage space is a good way to keep from collecting more than I need, but it requires periods of relentless clearing. While digging deeper than usual last night, I broke into a box of memorabilia that I hadn’t inspected in years and found this item that I loved as a kid – a “rhythm tote” from the 50’s. It belonged to my “big sister” (sorry, Laney – not quite sure how I ended up with it), which, of course, added to the cool factor.

What is it about bags, totes, albums and such that kids like so much? This album was especially cool, because it held records  – and check out that picture of the teenagers spinning 45’s.

Of course I had run across this in other cleaning frenzies, but this time I decided to see what records were in it. Much to my surprise, I found a 45 of  The Starlettes! Who knew? I had forgotten that such a thing existed. Here’s proof:

Side 1 – April Showers; Sentimental Journey
Side 2 – Down By The Riverside; A La Puerta; Now The Day Is OverOf course, I will need to find my adapter to be able to play it. (Yes, I have a turntable.) I have a feeling these are the same cuts that are on the CD and they probably sound a lot scratchier, but that’s part of the beauty of vinyl. Now if only there were a video somewhere of the performance on the Ames Brothers Show…

Guitar Gifts under $25 – Ideas, Advice and Opinions

It’s that time of year! Whether you have a guitar player on your gift list or you’re making a wish list of your own, you might want to check out some of my ideas and recommendations. I’m all for simple and inexpensive, so nothing on this list tops $25.00.
Tuner – Your guitar player will certainly want a reliable tuner. There are plenty of good ones on the market, but my under $25 choices are the Fender Sparkle Tone ($19.99) and the Korg clip-on tuner ($24.99). If you can spend a few more dollars, you might want to check out some of the other clip-on tuners available.
Music Stand – As important as it is to use a music stand when playing, a lot of people try to get by without one, due to the price of a quality stand. We now have some options for reasonably priced stands that are also strong and stable. Check out this sturdy stand that sells for $24.99.
Metronome – Everybody who plays a guitar needs a metronome, but unfortunately, many guitar players don’t own one. We can change that!
Metronomes drive a lot of people crazy and one of the reasons is the sound itself. If I had to play with one that produced a tone (beep), I would never turn it on! Buy a metronome with a click or wood block sound rather than a tone and everyone (teacher included) will be much happier. My current favorite is the Matrix mr500 – it has a good sound, an easy to use dial and an earphone option, all for $24.99.
If you are giving to someone who has never used a metronome, include a link to this instructive article (free, of course) on the site. There is also a downloadable video on metronome use available for $7.95.
Guitar straps are fun to give, because there are so many cool ones to choose from and they can be personalized. Remember, though, that using a strap can create tension and pain for many players, so unless your recipient is a performing musician who stands when playing onstage, consider a safer gift.
Instruction books and videos – something for every level, starting at $15.00. Also, consider a gift certificate for a lesson – any length lesson is available, so you can choose one to suit your budget.
T-Shirts – There is no shortage of guitar apparel to be found online. Check out my favorite T-shirt ($15.00).
For good stocking stuffers, think about guitar themed magnets, calendars, mugs, caps, key chains, earrings, necklaces, mousepads and more. Other good stocking stuffers are strings, cords and picks, but before you buy these gifts be sure you know the personal preference of your recipient. You can find plenty of sites that sell guitar accessories online – and don’t forget to look at some of the wonderful hand-made items on Etsy. Happy shopping!

Thoughts on Fun

In contemplating the fun/frustration cycle that I addressed in a previous post, I’m questioning what constitutes fun for most people and why people who shy away from work tend to do so. I’ve gathered observations over many years regarding the way different people define and respond to work, but that’s a subject for another day. Right now I’m thinking about fun!

Here is a list of some of the qualities that I consider to be characteristic of a fun experience:

We are in the moment; we are completely present
We possess an absence of self-awareness; we are uninhibited
We have a joyful and childlike sense of wonder
We are void of expectations
We feel unbound by rigid rules
We have a willingness to laugh and play; we allow our sense of humor to run free

If we are able to access these qualities during practice time, will we increasingly enjoy the challenges in our work? I think that habitually pursuing and engaging in playfulness, wonder and presence and disallowing inhibitions, expectations, rigidity and self-judgment makes our practice time not only more enjoyable, but also more productive. In addition, by cultivating these qualities we increase our creativity!

What are your thoughts? What does fun mean to you and how do you bring it into your life and musical practice?

Learning Guitar: Is it Fun or is it Work?

Learning guitar can be painful. Most of us go through periods of deep frustration and some people even feel angry or depressed when they are trying to work through seemingly impossible challenges. Although these periods may be inevitable, there are ways to make them less painful!

Make the Initial Investment

The hardest time for most guitar players is the beginning stage, because it is all investment and no return. Until you can play at least one song or riff to your own satisfaction, you are at risk for anxiety or frustration. The best prevention or remedy is to get on it and stay on it! Practice until you can play that one thing well enough to enjoy it – then enjoy it! Add more to your plate as soon as possible and don’t allow self-judgment during the process. Once you can play three songs, things get a lot easier and a lot more fun. At some point, you will become hungry for the next level and when you reach for it, the cycle of frustration/fun will probably begin again. After the first stage, though, when the cycle lands on misery, you will be able to draw upon the wisdom and strength that you acquired from your previous experiences. That means it gets easier each time!

Balance High Standards with Realism and Self-Praise

It’s good to look ahead to your goals and to have high standards, but don’t let that keep you from appreciating your accomplishments. Think about how this approach works in other areas of your life. If you are on a diet, for example, you don’t fall into despair when you step on the scale and found that you lost a pound in a week – you feel elated! You see proof that you are making progress and you continue with your plan. Some weeks you may lose nothing, but you keep up your plan and one day you realize your clothes are too big.

It’s the same way with guitar playing – stick with it and keep a regular practice routine. Don’t beat yourself up if you get off schedule, just get back on and have faith that you are moving steadily toward your goal.

Follow Good Practice Habits

You can find advice and suggestions about correct and efficient practice in articles on the site, as well as in my comprehensive video. There is also a chapter on efficient learning in “the red book, ” Learning How to Play Lead Guitar. By taking a little time to learn how to practice correctly, you will set yourself up for heightened  productivity and satisfaction.

Find Ways to Become Unstuck and Seek Help When You Need It

Everybody feels stuck at times. Expect it – and check out this article for solutions.

Your Goal is a Moving Target!

Realize that your goal will probably keep moving upward as you progress. Be willing to laugh at this! The fact that you will never be completely satisfied is actually a good sign, as it keeps things interesting and challenging. Lucky you!

It’s All Fun!

Remember, it takes time to get a return, but once the returns start coming, each new investment is more fun, because you’re getting a return from all of  your previous investments, even as you’re making a new one! Take the time to enjoy these returns every practice session. Play something that you can play well. Get into the feel of your music, have some fun and revel in your accomplishments. With time, you will discover that the cycle of work/fun has changed to a cycle of fun work/fun!

Texas Author Day 2012

It was a lot of fun to see so many interesting authors, plus old friends and new. Books, books, books and…guitars! The workshop was full, with participants ranging in age from 12 to 80 and playing levels from beginning to advanced. Everybody did great!

Thanks to all who came, to Robin Wood for putting the event together so beautifully and to Kevin Mitchell and Catie Hungerford for helping me throughout the afternoon. You guys rock!

Free Workshop and Book Signing

Please come to San Marcos, Texas on November 18 for Texas Author Day! It’s a great way to spend some time on a Sunday afternoon – find holiday gifts or just chat with one of the many authors (me, for instance!) from across Texas. There will be book signings and readings and I will conduct a free Play By Ear Workshop from 3:00 – 3:30. Bring a guitar, if you can, and bring your friends. Fun!
San Marcos Public Library
625 E. Hopkins Street
San Marcos, TX, 78666
Sunday, November 18,  2:00 – 5:00 pm

Tuning the Guitar: In Praise of the Human Ear

When I started playing guitar (and later, when I started teaching guitar), there were no electronic tuners. If you wanted to be a guitar player, you had to learn to tune your guitar by using your ear.

That was many years ago and I have noticed that the technological changes that have come about over those years have initiated changes not only in our lifestyle and habits, but also in our perception and even in our physiology. The average student who comes to me for lessons today is completely dependent on the use of a tuner, regardless of how many months or years they may have played guitar. Although this dependency may initially seem innocuous, there are distinct disadvantages to completely abandoning the old-fashioned method of relative tuning in favor of the easy and efficient methods that are now available to us.

It’s true that by using a tuner, a guitar player will increase the chance of achieving accurate tuning and will be able to get to the business of playing more quickly than if he or she tuned by ear. Unfortunately, an alarming number of people end up with grossly out of tune guitars after using a tuner and they not only don’t realize it, they insist that their tuner “said it was right.” This can occur for a number of reasons, but the most common one is pilot error: the player neglects to look carefully enough at the tuner to ascertain that they are tuning to the correct note. When this happens they will typically tighten or loosen the string until they reach the closest note that the tuner reads and stop there, even if it is the wrong note!

Another less obvious but profound disadvantage of neglecting to habitually employ the relative tuning method is that the student misses an opportunity to passively and painlessly be introduced to the relationship of the notes across the strings when the guitar is in standard tuning. The mere act of observing the finger placement and hearing the pitches produced provides subtle insight into note recognition and interval shapes.

Perhaps the most disturbing drawback of using a tuner exclusively is that the ear is neglected. The daily ritual of tuning by ear is a simple way to exercise and hone pitch sense. Playing music, first and foremost, is about listening, so doesn’t it make sense to begin each practice session by listening?

If you haven’t yet learned how to tune using the relative tuning method, you can do so by following these instructions. Use this method daily to check the tuning of your guitar and while you’re doing it, think about the names of the notes you are playing. In time, you will notice an increase in both fretboard comprehension and acuteness of pitch sense.