Being a gifted guitarist doesn’t automatically make you a gifted teacher. So how do you know if you are teacher material? If you’ve ever considered teaching guitar, there are important questions you must ask yourself, like “How much should I charge” or “Should I set up as my own business?”
Teaching is an art in itself, as is mastering an instrument and running a successful business. So we talked to a handful of accomplished guitar teachers and business owners to learn the ins and outs—and the business—of teaching guitar.
YOU CAN PLAY, BUT CAN YOU TEACH?
Dr. Jorge Pastrana, classical guitarist and guitar professor at Southwestern College in Chula Vista, California, recommends achieving the highest levels of musicianship before embarking on a teaching career. “I strongly believe that in order to teach effectively, one must become a well-rounded musician first,” he says. “Possessing good skills or talent in order to play guitar is a very important aspect, but even greater is to pursue great musicianship skills.”
Add patience and the ability to clearly relay information, and you’ll be on the right track.
“It’s important for a teacher to be able to clearly articulate and explain concepts to students,” Pastrana says. “A teacher must be patient in order to share knowledge and expertise with people of different levels and proficiency.”
A good way to find out if you have the traits of a good teacher is to do a test run with a friend. After a few weeks of consistent lessons, you will learn a lot about yourself when it comes to patience and temperament.
WHAT TO TEACH AND FOR HOW LONG
While you must adapt to each student’s needs, several fundamentals should be part of your classical guitar curriculum to ensure a well-rounded course.
Classical guitarist Colin McAllister, who teaches at the University of Colorado, takes a flexible approach as he imparts classical guitar essentials to students with varying skills and goals. “I have all kinds of different students at different levels who have different goals,” he says. “I teach every student a little bit differently, but there is a certain set of etudes and technique exercise books that everybody is going get at some point.”
Classical guitarist Dr. Kim Perlak, assistant guitar chair at Boston’s Berklee College of Music, notes that versatility is invaluable when teaching students with wide-ranging interests. “Classical players are looking for immersion in the authenticities of style,” she says. “Songwriters, jazz, fingerstyle, blues, rock, and funk players are often looking for aspects of technique, phrasing, tone, and compositional approach that they can apply to their own style. All students are trying to balance stylistic authenticity with their personal authenticity, and I do my best to guide them.”
As for class length, most teachers agree that standard lesson time should be half an hour to an hour—the former when teaching children age 12 or younger. “For kids, 30-minute lessons work well because their attention span isn’t longer than that,” McAllister says.
‘On one hand, you have to look at teaching as an art, but on the other hand, it’s a business. You want to run a great studio and you want to make a good living, so you have to balance those out.’
HOW MUCH TO CHARGE
Determining the value of what you do encompasses knowing what other instructors in your area charge, how many students you’ll teach, and other considerations.
“You have to realistically gauge how much people are charging in your area, and you need to decide where your ability is within that,” McAllister says. “You need to decide how many students you want, because if you charge more, you’ll probably have fewer students. If you want more students, you may need to lower your price to make it more accessible.”
Steve Langemo, a guitar instructor and studio owner in Colorado Springs, Colorado, has established a successful business by offering a wide range of discounts and free trial-runs that let prospective students see the studio, meet an instructor, and take a sample lesson before committing. Effective incentives include discounts for family, military, and monthly pre-payment.
“On one hand, you have to look at teaching as an art, but on the other hand, it’s a business,” Langemo says. “When I’m teaching, all I care about is my students’ progress, but you also have to think about it as business owner. You want to run a great studio and you want to make a good living, so you have to balance those out.”
“I’ve taught weekly lessons to the same students for the past seven years,” Langemo adds. “If people are on vacation or are sick, I don’t charge them. It’s simple economics. I’d rather stay flexible than constantly look for new students.”
Guitar teacher Eric Branner, who runs Blackforrest Music School in Seattle, Washington, and is CEO and co-founder of Fons, a web- and mobile-based application for private instructors, advises, “Establish a clear written agreement with students regarding lesson payment and cancellation policies. Many teachers have a 24-hour cancelation policy, and will often reschedule at no extra cost if it works within the teacher’s schedule.”
MARKETING YOUR STUDIO
You can do many things to stand out in a competitive field, but Branner says that one element tops everything: word-of-mouth. “When people want to learn how to play guitar, they usually ask someone they already know. When we started out, we had a handful of students, and most of the students we have now have a connection to our very first students. So if it’s a long-term goal for you to be a professional music teacher, word-of-mouth is going to be your best friend.” Other things Branner recommends include creating a good website, hosting open-mic events, performing locally, and generally being involved in the community.
London-based guitarist Marco Cirillo has an effective online approach involving advertising on Gumtree, a free UK classified ad site that is much like the popular Craigslist in the United States. “I also know about search engine optimization and have been using it to rank higher in Google,” he adds. “I might consider advertising on Facebook, too.”
LAUNCHING YOUR BUSINESS
For tax and legal reasons, you’ll want to organize and register your educational efforts as a legitimate business.
Jocelyn Celaya, also known as Radical Classical, is a San Diego-based classical guitarist and mentor for small business owners through SCORE, a nonprofit organization that provides free business mentoring services to entrepreneurs in the United States. She says, “The first basic step to take when starting a small business is to choose a name. If the name of your business is unique, then you should file for a fictitious business name at your county office. When you are finished with that process, apply for a business license at your city office and you’ll become a sole-proprietorship company. People can find a lot of resources through SCORE’s website [score.org].”
Further, it’s important to consult an accountant or attorney to get professional financial and legal assessments—all to make sure you’re properly following all the necessary steps and requirements.
THE BOTTOM LINE
As you teach, it’s important to remind yourself that you’re educating and influencing the classical guitarists of tomorrow. “Hand in hand with playing, teaching is the way we leave a legacy and push our art of guitar-playing forward,” Dr. Perlak notes. “Teaching requires the same deep commitment as playing.”
For any instructor, those can be words of wisdom to live and work by. The rewards can be wonderfully fulfilling—especially since your next student may be the next Isbin or Segovia.