Are Private Music Lessons Obsolete

November 15, 2013

By Mike Johnson Guitar Instructor

It used to be if you wanted to learn how to play an instrument you had two choices - 1. Take weekly lessons on the instrument - 2. Teach yourself how to play by ear or through instruction books.

Now we have more methods. There are instructional DVD’s, often supplied with an instrument or instruction book, or available separately in music stores. Now with youtube, there are many free video lessons available on the web, where an instructor talks to the camera in a pre-recorded video and shows you how to play a certain song. While this is one useful way to learn, it is far from ideal. The instructor doesn't know your skill level, so he/she just assumes you can follow along and play what he/she can. You can't ask questions; you can only repeat sections that went by too fast for you. If you are doing something wrong, however, you may not necessarily know what it is. For example, your tone could be anywhere from average to nerve grating and you may not necessarily know. Free is not always better.

Weekly private lessons with a qualified instructor are still the easiest and most complete way to learn a musical instrument. Your teacher can give you immediate feedback on easier ways to play a passage, how to get better tone, and explain the best technique to advance quickly. When you start with good technique from square one, later you can play anything you like. When you start with bad technique, eventually you discover you can’t play the difficult things the pros can, and you end up re-learning your technique so you can continue to advance.

And you can learn to read music. A lot of young students think, “What do I need that for? I can read tablature.” Well, tab is great for learning pop songs, but it won’t be enough in the big league. When I was a young boy taking lessons, of course I wanted to be a rock star, but did I know then that music would become so important to me that I’d end up studying it in college, and later teaching music to others? Did I know I’d have to read music to play in a jazz band or do recording studio work or that I’d need it to document my compositions? No, I did not, but I am sure glad my private guitar teachers taught me how to read music and introduced me to music theory. If they hadn’t done that, my life might have taken an entirely different (and probably less interesting) course.

Another thing your teacher can introduce you to is new music. Music from other cultures and time periods that you never knew existed, or never thought that you would like. They can tell you about virtuoso performers on your instrument that will open your mind to new techniques and sounds that you didn’t know were possible. You’ll discover composers and songwriters whose music seems like it was written just for your enjoyment.

Throughout my musical development, the greatest periods of growth were either those where I took lessons, or those where I performed with musicians whose talents or technique were superior to mine. It is so difficult to motivate yourself to practice and push the boundaries. We humans are typically lazy creatures. In my lessons, it was often the desire to perfect a tune I really liked, but sometimes just the wish not to look like a buffoon to my instructor, that motivated me to get some practice in for the next lesson. And when you do that every week for a few years, you really advance. Those weeks and years will pass you by regardless, but when you spend them learning music, and you look back one, five or ten years later – you will be astonished at what you’ve achieved – and here’s one more fun part of that – everyone will envy you!

From a video you can learn a song – and that’s a great thing – but from a teacher you can learn concepts – technique, preparation, how to stay in rhythm, good practice habits, music theory, discipline, how to harmonize, how to improvise, how to write a song. And with our school systems cutting out music programs more and more – do I think that private music lessons are obsolete – no, not by a long shot.