7 Tips To Get the Most Out Of Music Lessons (and how to tell if you need them)

Want to undestand when you might need lessons and how to get the most of them? Read on.

by Tarun

Creator, tuneUPGRADE

These days, there are so many different approaches to be able to learn a musical instrument. Between method books, YouTube, and apps, you might wonder - why take lessons? What would they offer over some of the other approaches?

In this post, I'll cover both how you can tell when it's time to take the plunge into lessons, as well as how to set yourself up for success to make the most of them. After all, lessons tend to be expensive relative to most other methods - and while private teaching can offer a lot of benefits if you aren't capitalizing on the lesson time and structure properly, you may not make the progress you expect (of course, lessons also don't negate the need for practice - if anything, you may want to allocate even more practice time!).

Note that generally, if you are a brand new beginner - lessons will be immensely helpful if you have no musical background. There's likely a temptation to learn with "falling bars" style YouTube videos and avoiding learning sheet music. That might be OK as a supplement but you shouldn't cheat yourself the chance to start reading basic sheet music right away, as that's the true language music is communicated in (and eventually, things like lead sheets and chord charts to form your own arrangements of pieces in non-classical genres!). A teacher will get you started on the right foot and catch any technique problems early on, setting you on a path to success.

So with that, let's get started, with the first reason as to why it might be right for you to take lessons:

1. Lessons are a powerful motivation tool

Are you having a hard time staying consistent with your practice? Lessons can serve as a great checkpoint to ensure you're at least practicing periodically. It's not a great feeling to show up at a lesson and say, "well, I didn't really find a lot of time to practice...", and rehash the same stuff you learned the previous week (not to mention, a waste of your time and money)! While I don't think signing up for lessons alone will enforce good practice habits, it does set up a periodic checkpoint to measure your progress and help decide when it's time to move forward with something.

All that being said, you want to get into a state of intrinsic motivation with your instrument - you don't want to feel shamed into practicing - you want to feel rewarded for practicing. This brings us to points #2 and #3 of how to tell when lessons will benefit you - and how to make sure you get the most of them.

Your Action: If you find yourself having trouble keeping up routine practice, or aren't sure what to practice next, consider grabbing a method book or different materials - but if that still doesn't cut it, forcing yourself to perform your progress in front of a teacher on a routine basis is a can be a way to motivate yourself - and confirm that you can perform something.

2. Go as far as you can at home first

If you are sight reading or playing something for the first time in a lesson, you are wasting time with a valuable resource - your teacher. Your intent should be to hit as much material as you can on your own first. The whole point of learning from a teacher is so that one day you can become more self-sufficient. If you're constantly waiting for a teacher to start you on things, you'll never get there.

Instead, maximize your lesson value by first practicing everything you can get your hands on at home. At the end of each lesson, always have an understanding of what is coming next, so if you feel you've mastered an exercise or song, you know what to start exploring before your next lesson.

This also factors into understanding if and when you need a lesson. If you are going as far as you can at home, and hit a brick wall, or have questions that you cannot seem to find the answers to on your own, or feel like your technique isn't correct, or something is taking too long to learn or not sounding as good - that's the trigger for you to understand that you might need some help from a teacher.

Your Action: Plow on ahead at home. Look ahead. Remember that you are in charge of learning, even if you have a teacher. You should rarely, if ever, be trying something for the first time in a live lesson that you could have tried on your own ahead of time. If you don't know what to do next - it's time to talk to teacher.

But - onto tip #3, which will help make sure when you start those lessons, you're getting the most out of them.

3. Come prepared with specific questions

The best teachers will have a good method or curriculum to follow, and each week, will give you assignments specifically based on that step-by-step method or curriculum, ideally weaving in additional materials that appeal to you as well.

However, even with all that, the last thing you want is to show up and just run through a list of "homework review" blindly. As you practice at home and go as far as you can, note down specific questions about what you're working on, and ensure you hit on those first during your lesson as you go through what you're working on. Remember that a lesson is your time to help ensure you are making progress in the way that meets your goals. If you aren't expressing what challenges or questions you have about the material in a clear and concise way, a teacher won't be able to help you with that.

Take Action: Have a place where you note down the specific questions you need help with as you run through your practice routine each day - don't wait until the day before your lesson to try to "remember" every troublesome spot or question.

4. Find a teacher that aligns with your goals

I tell this story a lot when I respond to posts on reddit - my biggest mistake when getting into piano playing in my 20s was wanting to learn rock and pop music, but taking lessons from a classically oriented teacher. I found a teacher that was conveniently close to me and didn't bother to "shop around" and ask about my goal - which was to understand how the heck all those piano players at piano bars could have such a massive, on-demand repertoire of popular songs playable at the drop of a hat. I assumed that they were learning all of that verbatim from sheet music and whenever a new song would drop, they'd painstaking learn it note-for-note. Boy, was I very, very wrong - and I kept being wrong, when I asked this teacher to show me how to play song X or song Y, and she would go out, buy a transcribed piece of sheet music, and teach it to me note-by-note instead of truly how these pianists operated - learning chord theory and putting together their own arrangements.

Only after did I find a rock-oriented teacher did I see the error in my ways - and unfortunately, with my classically-oriented teacher, I spent a year or two in a "blind leading the blind" situation.

Beginner material tends to always be fairly similar - learning the basics of how to read music, charts, tabs, etc., beginning major scales, getting comfortable with your hands on your instrument - these tend to be shared basics. But the moment you feel you have a grasp on those, make sure you are finding a teacher who can dig into what you want to learn - and shop around to ask about curriculum.

At the same time, a teacher blindly following a curriculum and disregarding your goals is no good. If you have a feeling that your teacher is unable to help you dig into pieces or songs you want to learn without good reason - it might be time to make a shift.

Take Action: If you aren't sure what you're looking for - hit up places like subreddits on reddit for your instrument and ask! Learning paths for styles like classical, rock, pop, jazz, and blues can all differ - so find a teacher who feels comfortable teaching that style - it's not all the same.

This comes along with point #5:

5. Help your teacher be great at teaching you

The difference between a good teacher and a bad teacher is that a good teacher will recognize when a new approach is called for quickly, and redirect you - whereas a bad teacher will keep trying to force a certain direction for you even if it's not working. However, even good teachers need you to provide feedback, consistently, to ensure you're going in the right direction. The best possible way to make sure you're getting the most out of your lessons are to reiterate your goals constantly, and when something feels like it's not clear, or taking too long, hit pause for a moment and reset with your teacher about what you're working on and where you are going.

I've had instances where:

  • I couldn't connect the dots with the materials a jazz piano teacher was giving me to work on with figuring out how to make my own cocktail piano solo arrangements of jazz standards. (And I get it now, years later, only after spending time digging in and trying to understood how it all worked - but perhaps if I asked ahead of time I would not have given up so easily!)

  • I'd spend 15 minutes of a 45 minute lesson on vocals drained on "warming up" before I even understood how to apply some basic vocal tips to stay on pitch and make my vocals a song passable rather than perfect. (My goal was to be passable to start - I didn't need to sing beautiful opera, I just wanted to sing over my piano and guitar playing without sounding completely off pitch!)

  • Teachers would overload me with theory applications in a song before I could wrap my head around even what was basically happening. (I love understanding theory, but it needs to be bitten off in small chunks!)

In all three cases, if I had been more vocal about feeling lost, or asking to take a step back, or helping my teacher redirect, I'm not sure what would have happened - but I surely know the outcome would have attempted to be better than where I landed - which was giving up each time. So...

Take Action: Always be vocal with your teacher about feeling "lost" in the curriculum, or if they are going too fast for you, or if you feel like you've gone a lesson or two and you're missing the forest through the trees. It's far better to be vocal first and foremost instead of just "trusting the method" and assume it'll all just click someday.

Even if you are vocal though, teachers aren't infallible. They typically rely on a consistent track or method for all their students, but you are an individual that might learn in different ways. So with that in mind, also remember tip #6.

6. Diversify Your Learning

The most beautiful thing about learning any skill or task today is that there is so much information available. Years ago, before the internet became what it is today, you'd be lucky to have more than a few available learning resources for an instrument at your fingertips. And if that learning resource left a gap in your mind about something - too bad!

These days, however, you can compliment your learning with all sorts of ad-hoc lessons. If your teacher is teaching you one way to play a rock song on guitar, hit up a YouTube video, or a tab, or chord chart on your own and see if there's an alternative way that works for you! Or if you have a bunch of questions drumming up about something - do your own research and come prepared! If the information seems suspect or you're not sure it's OK - that's completely fine, check with your teacher and see what they recommend.

I've found videos recommending alternate fingerings that have worked well for piano and guitar, or ways information has been presented that "connect the dots" in a new way for me. The more unique perspectives you can gather about a topic, piece, or song, the more likely the chance is that you'll find a way to play and learn in a way that makes sense to you, and carry you forward bit by bit. This has been especially prevalent in my jazz learnings, where different methods, books, YouTube videos, online suggestions, and a teacher have given me a diverse range of perspectives that let me pick up and try a lot of different things and see what works for me.

Take Action: Whenever a teacher does assign you something - google it! Find videos of people playing it, explaining it, showing alternatives, or speaking about the theory. A little digging can go a long way. Don't assume your teacher has to be the sole resource you rely on - and the more you learn to self-discover and learn, the less reliant on your teacher you'll be.

Which brings me to the last point:

7. Right-size your lesson length and cadence

There's no rule that says you need to take a 30 minute lesson, once a week. Your cadence and length can all depend on your needs. How often can you realistically practice? What skill level are you at right now, and how much help do you need? If you start showing up to a weekly lesson and your teacher's response is "keep doing what you're doing" - well, that might not have been worth the the time and cost.

All this being said - the less frequent and shorter the lesson time you sign up for - the more important it is for you to follow the tips above. Make sure you show up ultra-prepared if you have a short lesson once every other week or once a month - use that time wisely.

Of course, be respectful of your teacher's time. Many will have policies where you can't just cancel lessons willy-nilly, for good reason, they need to make a predictable living too! But it should not be too difficult to find a teacher who is willing to do longer lessons less frequently than shorter lessons much more often if that aligns better to what you need from them.

Take Action: As your lesson value ebbs and flows, if you tend to go for a long stretch where you feel you just need more at-home practice time with something that you just can't fit in, talk to your teacher about longer lessons less frequently.

This post is part of the The Beat, a blog by the free music practice tracker tuneUPGRADE. Sign up and start tracking your practice to become a better musician today - totally free!

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