STG 068: 7 Things I Wish I Knew When I Started Teaching Guitar


complete guitar player

You know what they say: “hindsight is 20/20”. You never have all the answers or all the information you need when you’re first getting started as a guitar teacher, and some of the most valuable lessons of all don’t come until you’ve been at it for a while.

In this episode, I’ll talk about 7 things I wish I would have known when I first got started with teaching guitar lessons…things that could have saved me some time, money and heartache as a beginning teacher if I had only understood them at the time. This will be a great chance to learn from someone ELSE’S mistakes and hopefully be able to avoid making a few of them yourself!

What do you think it means to be a complete guitar player? To call in with a question, a comment or to leave feedback for the show, call the Listener Feedback Hotline at (719) 428-5480 and leave a message! I just might include your recorded message in a future episode.

Podcast Transcript

Okay, this episode is going to be a little bit different. I’m going to talk about kind of some of the lessons that I’ve learned back from the early days when I started first teaching guitar, and I’m going to try to kind of share those with you all so that you can maybe learn something from them too. If not, it’ll at least be interesting, kind of digging back into my memory banks and, you know, kind of covering some of the principles that have kind of evolved into what I teach in Start Teaching Guitar today. So, this should be an interesting episode today.

But when I first started seriously teaching guitar lessons for money, you know, I was pretty naive and very inexperienced. You know, I had some business and teaching experience under my belt, but really I had to learn a lot of stuff the hard way. I mean I’m kind of a hard-headed guy in the first place, so I had to kinda figure out a lot of this stuff on my own and just hit my head against the wall, again and again, until I finally realized: “Wow, okay. I probably shouldn’t do things that way. Maybe I should kind of change my approach here a little bit.” But I made a lot of mistakes and I had a lot of unrealistic expectations when I first got started as a guitar teacher. That was probably the thing that bit me on the butt he hardest. It was just that I expected things that weren’t reality. I was just expecting, you know. I don’t know what I was expecting. I’ll get into some of those unrealistic expectations here in a second.

But I learned a lot from that stuff. You know? Thinking back now, I really probably wouldn’t trade those experiences for anything simply because they made me a better person, and they taught me a lot of the things that I know and practice today. So, learning from your mistakes is actually one of the best ways to learn anything. It’s one of the most effective ways to master something; is to just jump in and make mistakes, and then learn from them, and then jump back in and do things better each time. You know, your mistakes and your failures can really give you valuable feedback that you can use to turn around and do things better the next time around. So, that’s kind of how I’ve gotten to where I am today with everything that I do in my life. Everything. All of my relationships. All my business stuff. Teaching. Everything. I just grow from one mistake to the next. You know, it’s a painful way to do it, but it’s also one of the most effective ways because you never forget the lessons that you learn when you learn them from mistakes.

So, in a sense, we all have to make our own mistakes, because otherwise you won’t learn. But it can also be helpful sometimes to hear what someone else learned from their mistakes, and that’s what I’m going to do in this episode today. So, honestly, there’s no way that you can only listen to this podcast and be a successful guitar teacher. You know, just listening to it and getting information from my podcast is not enough if you want to be successful. You actually have to jump into the fray, right? You have to take action. You have to take risks. You have to cut your own path through the jungle. You’re going to have your own set of vines and weeds and obstacles that you’re going to have to chop through, and that whole process of going through that is what makes you the kind of person that can be a successful guitar teacher.

See, there’s no shortcut around that part of it. You have to try this stuff for yourself if you want to succeed. You know, but maybe some of my lessons learned can help inspire and educate you a little bit, so that’s kind of why I’m going to do this episode. So, this episode is going to be for two different groups of people. So, maybe you’re still contemplating becoming a guitar teacher. You’re still gathering information about it. You’re still kind of weighing the pros and cons. You know, if that’s you, then I’m going to give you some good information that you can throw into the mix. Some more information. Some more stuff to think about and consider. The second group of people is maybe you’ve been doing this for a while already and you’re already making some money as a guitar teacher. And if that’s the case, then I’m going to give you some ideas about maybe a few ways to do things better. Maybe some things you might have overlooked. If nothing else, I’m going to at least give you a couple of things to chuckle at with me and laugh about hopefully.

So, I’m going to bare my soul a little bit and maybe even embarrass myself, but here we go. Regardless, here are seven things that I wish someone would’ve taught me when I first started teaching guitar lessons, and most of these things are things that I incorrectly assumed. And you know, there’s an old saying about the own assume. You know what they say about assuming. It makes a you-know-what out of you and me, right? So, assumptions can be dangerous things sometimes. So, let me talk about some of them here. Let’s get into these seven things.

1) Playing And Teaching Are Not The Same Things

So, number one. First thing I wish somebody would’ve taught me when I first start teaching guitar lessons is the fact that playing and teaching are not the same things. You know, when I got started, I just assumed that because I had been playing guitar – right, assumed. There’s that that dangerous word again. I assumed that because I had been playing guitar for a long time that I could easily teach people. Wrong. I was completely wrong about that. That was a false assumption. You know, I had a lot of knowledge about music and about the guitar, but it was all my knowledge. I didn’t realize that effectively communicating that knowledge would require a whole new set of knowledge that I did not have at the time.

Just because you can play – I learned this the hard way – doesn’t mean that you can automatically teach. We’re talking about two different – completely different – sets of skills here. Playing requires one set of skills. Teaching requires a different set of skills. Now, it’s not that those teaching skills are hard to acquire. You know, it’s not something that’s all that difficult and complicated to learn how to do, but it’s very foolish to think that, just because you’re a good guitar player, it’s going to automatically make you a good guitar teacher. You know, that’s just like saying: “Oh, okay, because I know how to drive a car, well, then that means that I can also be a really good car mechanic.” Well, not necessarily. Just because you can start a car and drive off down the road doesn’t mean you know how to take an engine apart and put it back together and have it work when you’re finished. Two completely different sets of skills related to the same area. So, same thing with this.

So, what happened with me was I found out, as soon as I started teaching, it’s like: “Dang, this is harder than I thought.” You know? These people don’t think like me. You know, it’s not as easy as just showing them a couple things on the guitar. You know, if I really want to be successful with this, I need to figure out how to really be a teacher. So, what I did was I had to reindex everything I knew about playing the guitar, and I had to organize it for presentation to complete beginners. You know, because I would try to show people things that were way over their heads. They weren’t ready for it yet. And of course they would get frustrated and stop taking lessons, and I was like: “Well, what’s wrong?” The problem was I did not know how to teach. You know, it took a while to figure that out.

So, the way I approached it was I kind of took everything I knew about the guitar and broke it into little pieces, and organized everything into a Word document, and then made sure that the things that were a little too complicated for one lesson, I broke them into even smaller pieces. And broke everything down into baby steps and put it together in the right order, and then kind of figured out the best way to present that information to complete beginners. And that was harder than that I thought it would be. It took a lot of time. It took a lot of thinking. You know, I would take a concept, like bar chords, for example, and I would teach people that wanted to learn how to play songs that had bar chords in it, and it was kind of like: “Well, okay. Here’s how you play bar chords,” and I would show them how to play the chords so that they can play the song. But then I’d realize: “Wow, okay, I need to backtrack a little bit here.” There are some more things you have to know before you’re ready to do that.”

So, I had to teach them the open position chords first that the bar chord was based on, and then I had to teach them some strategies on learning the different notes on that string so that they could take that movable chord shape and actually play other songs with it. You know, empower them to play more than just this one song. Then I had to teach them hand exercises to build up the strength to actually make the bar, and things like that. And you know, the whole situation where you’ve got to deal with calluses, because when you start playing bar chords, you’ve got to build calluses in weird places on your fingers. And all of that – you know, every time I would kind of run into that brick wall and be like: “Oh, okay, I skipped something,” I would go back to my Word document that I was keeping track of all of this in and I would add that piece.

And then, over time, I had this complete thing. You know, this series of progression of musical concepts that worked for the students that I was teaching at the time. So, that’s kind of the way that I approached it. It took a lot of time and thinking. It took a lot of trial and error to get it right, but it pointed out a lot of gaps I had in my own musical understanding too, because I had never really thought it through well enough to be able to communicate all the different aspects of it. So, it forced me to reevaluate everything I knew about the guitar and it made me a better musician in the process too. You know, so that didn’t come naturally. I had to figure that out. And then I also had to work on my communication skills and I had to figure out how to get through to different kinds of people who have different personalities than mine and different learning styles than mine, because I figured out once I kind of had this logical progression of concepts that I would take a build my lesson plans off of, then I realize that sometimes that didn’t work with certain people. You know? And I realized, after a while, it’s because not everybody learns the same.

Some of us are visual learners. If you sit there and try to explain something to someone with words, then their eyes are going to glaze over and they’re not going to comprehend what you’re trying to teach them very well. They need to actually have diagrams and charts, and videos and illustrations, and you’ve got to show them. You can’t just tell them about it. Other people – they’re audible learners. And all the pictures that you draw – they’re not going to pay attention to that. The more you can explain it with words, the better they’re going to understand it. And then some people are hands-on learners. You can’t just show them a diagram. You can’t explain it with words. You’ve just got to like show them where to put their fingers and you’ve got to just get them involved into doing it right away, and that’s the way that they learn best.

So, people have different learning styles and you’ve got to be aware of that. It took me a long time to figure that out, because I’m kind of an audible learner, I guess, and I wasn’t drawing a lot of pictures. I wasn’t using a lot of diagrams, and then I had a lot of students that weren’t getting the things I was trying to teach them because they didn’t learn the same way that I did. Okay, you can’t make the assumption – there’s that word again: assume – that everyone is going to learn and respond exactly like you. That was my mistake. I assumed everyone would learn like me. Wrong again. So, you know.

And then another thing: I quickly re-learned the true meaning of the world patience, because whenever you start teaching, you might think you’re a patient person, but your patience has to develop to a whole new level to deal with certain types of students because you’re going to be dealing with people of all ages and of all different levels of attention span. And it really requires you to be a patient person. If you’re not patient with people, if you don’t like being around people, then you’re probably going to be miserable as a guitar teacher. You know? So, those are some of the things I learned.

I had to work on my people skills too. You know? All of my study of the guitar over the years didn’t help with my communication skills. It didn’t help with my people skills either. You know, playing in a band and running a teaching studio are two totally different things. I had to learn customer service skills. I had to learn how to be nice to people when I was in a grumpy mood or even when they weren’t nice to me. You know? So, those are all skills you need to be a successful teacher, and there’s a lot of other ones too. I mean I’m just mentioning a few off the top of my head, but just because you’re a guitar player, it doesn’t mean that you can automatically do this kind of stuff. It takes a little bit of practice, a little bit of study, and a little bit of experience to become a good teacher.

And honestly, in my experience, teaching guitar has been one of the more rewarding things that I’ve ever done, but it was not completely intuitive at first. It took some study and experimentation for me to get it right. So, I just want you to realize that you might have a few bumps and bruises along the way when you start teaching guitar. And those of you that have been doing it for a while, you’re probably nodding your head right now. “Yeah, dude, you’re right.” You know, you have some new skills to develop and some new things to learn, but it’s totally worth it. The end result will be making money doing something that you love and making a big difference in other people’s lives. So, these skills that you learn, these communication skills, these teaching skills, these people skills, and patience, and all those things – they’re going to payback big dividends in every other area of your life too, so it really does make you a better person whenever you become a teacher.

2) Asking The Right Questions Makes All The Difference

Okay, that’s the first lesson that I wish someone would have taught me; is that playing and teaching are not the same things. Okay, so the second one. This is another thing that I wish someone would’ve shown me; is that asking the right questions makes all the difference, because another thing I did wrong when I first started teaching is that I didn’t ask very many questions of my students at all. You know, it wasn’t that I was this arrogant, egotistical dude, who thought I knew everything. I just kind of assumed. Right, there’s that dangerous word again. I assumed that the lessons that I taught would just unfold naturally. I assumed that students would give me feedback along the way. You know?

And what really happened was that my students weren’t telling me what they really needed. Okay, they weren’t getting what they really needed from me and they weren’t telling me that they weren’t getting what they really needed from me. They weren’t communicating with me. And whenever that doesn’t happen, then all kinds of trouble can start bubbling up and things can kind of go bad pretty fast if you’re not getting good feedback. So, what I learned was that teaching successful guitar lessons is all about making midcourse corrections. Okay, so that’s an analogy from flying planes, you know, that a pilot would use, because they say that planes are off-course most of the time when they’re flying through the sky. The pilot, or the computer, that’s flying the plane – they’re constantly making little, small corrections so that they get to the place that they want to be.

And a pilot uses instruments and gauges to get feedback – visual feedback – so that they can make those midcourse corrections. You know, they’re watching their gauges. I mean I’m not a pilot, so I don’t understand all the technicalities of it, but it’s my impression that they’re watching these gauges, and then, if it moves off a little in one direction, they’ll just kind of compensate so that they’re staying on their heading and heading exactly to the destination they want to go. And without that feedback, the plane can end up at a completely different destination than the pilot intended. So, you could be trying to take off and go into Chicago and if you don’t pay attention to the gauges and you just kind of go where the wind takes you, then you could end up in New York or Seattle, or in the middle of the Pacific Ocean.

You’ve got to have that feedback. And for a pilot, that comes from your instruments and your gauges. As a teacher, you need feedback to make those midcourse corrections too, because the teaching relationship – it’s a lot like a journey that you’re taking that student on. There’s a destination that they want to reach. A certain level of musicianship. A certain set of skills. A certain thing that they want to accomplish on the guitar. But you’ve got to get that feedback because the only way you’re going to get them there is to make steady corrections. Midcourse corrections. Every lesson, every email, every interaction with that person, you’re kind of steering them a little closer to where they want to be. So, if you fly blind with your guitar lessons – you know, no feedback -, then you’re probably going to end up taking your students where they don’t want to go, which usually means they’re going to quit. They’re going to throw on a parachute and they’re going to jump out the plane. Go find another plane to take them where they want to go, because you’ve got to be a competent pilot. You’ve got to be able to get them to their destination. That’s your job as a teacher. You can’t fly blind. You have to get that feedback.

And you get the feedback you need directly from your students. Okay, they are the “gauge” of your success. Sometimes your students are going to be too intimidated to give you honest feedback. That was my experience. I don’t think I’m a very intimidating guy, but a lot of them were younger kids when I first started teaching, and they were very intimidated by me for some reason. And I didn’t realize it at the time. You know, I kind of figured it out after a while and tried to find ways to connect with them more relationally and kind of help them drop their guard a little bit, but sometimes they’re not going to give you honest feedback. You might be getting it right. They won’t tell you. You might be getting it completely wrong, and they’ll just smile and leave their lessons and not get what they came for. And you have no way of knowing.

So, sometimes they just don’t have the words to express what they really feel about what’s going on. You know? Sometimes they can feel it, but they can’t verbalize it to tell you. You know, and sometimes they just don’t even know what they don’t know. All they have is just this gut feeling that their lessons aren’t going the way that they want them to. And I found that after a while. If I wanted feedback about my performance as a guitar teacher so that I could make those midcourse corrections and get my students to the destination that they want to get to, then I had to ask them for it. You know? So, what you need to do too, if you’re in that situation, is you need to ask your students some questions and you need to listen to the things that they tell you.

So, you need to ask them things like: “What are your goals? What do you want out of your guitar lessons?” You need to ask them things like: “How are you feeling right now about the lessons?” You know, it doesn’t hurt to ask them that at the end of every lesson, if it’s appropriate. “How are you feeling? What do you think about all of this?” Try to get them to talk. Try to get some feedback from them. You know, sometimes you can prime the pump a little bit just by asking them questions. You know, you could ask them every once in a while: “What’s your biggest frustration right now? What’s the hardest thing that we’re working on that you just seem to have the hardest time getting?” You can also ask them: “What are you really excited about right now? What thing that we’re going over in our lessons is really working good for you?” You know, but especially that first question. “What are your goals? What do you want to get out of this?”

You’re the pilot, so you’re asking them: “Where do you want to go? What’s your destination that you want to get to as a result of our guitar lessons?” And you need that information. That is critical information if you want to succeed, because if you don’t know where they want to go, it’s impossible for you to take them there. But once you know that, you can adjust. You can make midcourse corrections in every single lesson to get them to that place. So, listen to the feedback you’re getting, make midcourse corrections, and keep steering the lessons in the direction that helps the student get what they want out of the guitar. Your retention rates and the satisfaction level of your students are all going to improve if you just do that one simple thing. Ask the right questions. It makes all the difference.

3) People Will Disappoint You

Okay, so that was number two. The third thing that I wish I would’ve known when I first start teaching guitar lessons is that people will disappoint you. Learned that the hard way too, because I came into this thing. You know, I guess I thought. I assumed. There’s that dangerous word again, right? Assumptions. Man, they’ll kill you every time. I guess I thought everyone would always be nice and do everything I expected when I first got started with teaching guitar lessons. You know, I kind of saw the world through rose-colored glasses, I guess. I thought everyone would always be as excited about their guitar lessons as I was. I thought that everyone would always be as excited about the guitar and fired up about the guitar as I was. I just wrongly assumed that everyone would always pay me on time.

I just looked at it from my own perspective and I thought: “Wow, okay. If I was taking lessons, I would always make sure and pay that person on time. And I would send them a Christmas card, and I would give them a tip whenever they do a really good job,” and all kinds of stuff like that. Well, you know, not everybody thinks that way. I just assumed that everyone else would respond exactly like I do. That’s not true. I thought that everyone would always practice with the same level of enthusiasm that I practiced with. Wrong again. You know, honestly, I basically thought that all of my students would be exactly like me. You can imagine my surprise when I found out, after a while, that most of the people I taught were not like me, and you’re going to experience the same thing.

Sure, you will attract a few students that are like you, but most of them are not going to be like you. Okay, they are not going to think like you. They’re not going to have the same values you have. They’re not going to have the same priorities. They may not even have the same character – level of character – that you have. You know? Everybody is different. Nobody is perfect. What I found is that everybody will let you down at some point in one fashion. And I’m not trying to be negative. I’m not trying to be pessimistic here. It’s just a fact of life. People are humans. You know? We disappoint each other. And it’s better to go into guitar teaching expecting that to happen at some point than to assume that it’s never going to happen and then get devastated by it when it does.

We all have our good days. We all have our bad days. Sometimes our lessons with students are going to be on good days. Sometimes they’re going to be on bad days. Sometimes you’re going to be having a good day. They’re going to be having a bad day. Sometimes they’re going to be having a good day. You’re going to be having a bad day. It just happens. We all have different values and things that are important to us. Some people have a stronger work ethic, a stronger desire, and playing is going to be more important to them. Other people, it’s just something that they just do. That sometimes their parents make them do it. Sometimes they just enjoy hanging out with you in their lessons. It’s like a social outlet for them. You know, they’re not necessarily serious about becoming a professional guitar player. You know?

We all have different reasons for wanting to play the guitar. That was something. I just kind of assumed everybody had the same motives that I had for wanting to play. They had to take it to this awesome level and be this high-level player. Well, some people are going to want to make a career out of music and do things like that. Other people just want to have fun. You know, they like the guitar. They like music, and they just want to be able to play around with their friends and stuff. And some of them are going to have other reasons. Everybody is different.

So, I’m not saying set yourself up to be disappointed, but just be prepared for it mentally because it’s going to happen at some point. Some of your students are going to have trouble paying you on time. Sometimes it’s going to be because they’re just having some hardships, sometimes it’s going to be because they just don’t know how to manage their money, and sometimes it’s going to be because they just don’t care. It’s going to happen. Some of them are going to be late and sometimes they’re not even going to show up for their lessons. They’re not going to value your time as highly as you do. Some of them are going to skip practice. Some of them are going to miss their assignments. No one is usually going to be as serious about the guitar as you are.

At some point – this is important to understand. At some point, most of your students will quit on you. They will quit. It’s not a matter of if. It’s a matter of when. Okay, it may be after one lesson or it may be after ten years, but at some point, all of your students are going to eventually turnover. Don’t be disappointed when it happens. Expect it to happen. Attrition is a natural part of your guitar teaching business. It happens. What you want to do is you want to minimize the attrition – the churn rate, you know, that some people call it. You want to maximize your retention. You want to make sure that you have good marketing. I’ll talk about that stuff in a minute, but you’ve just got to expect the fact that they’re going to quit. Your students are only going to be with you for a set period of time, and then all of them, at some point, are going to leave. It’s going to happen.

The student-teacher relationship is temporary and transitory at best. I wish I would’ve understood that when I first got started. I had this unrealistic expectation, I guess, that if someone starts studying with me that they would be 80 years old, still in my teaching studio. That they were never going to leave. I mean that’s so ridiculous, right? Of course they’re going to leave. I just didn’t expect it to happen. And when they did, I was like really disappointed and devastated. So, just expect it, prepare for it, and when it happens, no big deal. Keep on trucking. There’s five or ten other students waiting out there to take their place. Don’t expect every student to stay with you for the rest of your life. That’s what I’m trying to say. You work on improving your retention, but you implement good marketing as well so that you have a steady stream of new students coming in too. And that’s just the nature of the music instruction business. So, understand it, expect it, and then have systems in place to deal with it and compensate for it, and then you can be successful.

4) It Always Takes Longer Than You Think To Get Things Going

Number four. The fourth thing that I wish I would’ve known when I first got started is that it always takes longer than you think to get things going. This is another false assumption. It’s kind of a common thread running through all of these things, right? Assume. Very dangerous word. Another false assumption I made was thinking that my teaching business would be an overnight success. So, you’ve got to understand, man. I’ve been doing this for years now. Seriously for the last probably like seven years or something, but on and off I’ve been teaching guitar for probably almost 20 years. On and off, nesie-twosies at first and a lot of different stuff, but I’ve been doing it for a long time. And when I first got started, I just expected. You know, when I started seriously doing it as a business, I expected it to just blow up and I expected that anybody who was looking for lessons would automatically call me and want to come and take lessons, and that I would instantly have a full roster of students. That my enrollment would just shoot through the roof.

Wrong. I thought that as soon as I put an ad in my local classified paper that my phone would start ringing off the hook and that I would instantly become a full-time guitar teacher. That I would start teaching on Monday and that I would be doing it full-time on Tuesday. Wrong. What I learned was it actually takes around two years to build a successful business. You know, it depends on your market. It depends on how much experience you have with business and teaching. You know, sometimes it could happen quicker. Sometimes it takes longer than two years, but in my experience it takes about two years to build a solid business and to kind of keep things going to where you get that momentum working for you and you get traction, and you actually are successful.

The only way to grow a successful business, honestly, is to keep at it and to just don’t quit, because all the hardships that hit you in that first year or two, all of the struggles, all the mistakes that you make – it’s overcoming those obstacles and adjusting, right? This is a journey for you too. You’re making mid-course corrections as you go too. Those things. If you respond to them and learn from them and approve upon them, those are the things that give you the skills and the tough skin, and the knowledge and experience you need to be successful with your business. Okay, so those things can only happen over time. Honestly, if you’ve got 100 students in one week, it would probably drive you crazy and just wreck your business, and you would probably get so overwhelmed you would quit anyway. You have to condition yourself. You have to build up to the point where you can handle a full-time teaching business.

It doesn’t happen overnight and you can’t microwave it. It takes time. Usually around two years of doing it seriously. So, you know, what do you do? Well, you set reasonable expectations for yourself. You make sure that you have a long-term view of things and that you are patient with yourself. Don’t give up if things aren’t moving as fast as you want them to. Don’t get discouraged just because you have an obstacle that you seem to not be able to overcome. Many times, the success that you’re looking for is just around the next corner. And if you just keep going, keep putting one foot in front of the other, just keep on walking, you’re going to see it. Other times, it feels like nothing is happening, but you look back a year later, after you’ve been walking this thing out, and then you’re amazed by the progress that you’ve made over the period of a year. But during the time, it felt like nothing was happening. It’s weird how it works that way.

But honestly, your students are probably only going to trickle in at first, and this is totally normal. And it’s actually a healthy way to grow you business. To start small and then to build it as you go. As your reputation grows, then your referrals are going to grow as well and so will your student base, and it’s going to all happen naturally and organically over time, but you’ve just got to be patient and you’ve got to have reasonable expectations from your business. You can’t expect to start out one day and then be like as rich as Donald Trump or something the next day. It’s just not going to happen that way. Don’t expect to get rich as a guitar teacher or to have overnight success.

A good goal at first is to generate a certain amount of part-time income. Maybe you want to make an extra hundred bucks a week. Well, that’s easy. All you’ve got to do is just pick up a few students and you’ll make a hundred bucks a week. It’s not that hard. It’s a perfect goal for you to set your sights on as you’re just getting started. And then later, once you get established with that, you can increase that goal to a little bit more every week. A little bit more every week. A little bit more every week. And then finally, when your student base is built up, then you can make it your goal if you want to, to be able to do it as a full-time career. And then you already have this base of students, you already have income coming in, you hopefully already have a cash reserve put away, and then you’re ready. And then you can take the step into that goal.

You know, if you just take the long view instead of just looking at the short-term view, and just keep putting one foot in front of the other, you will eventually get there, but it’s probably not going to happen as quickly as you want it to. That’s what I learned. And that’s totally okay. The best things in life are worth waiting for and the best things in life take time to build. Okay, so be patient with yourself. I wish I would’ve understood that because I would’ve saved myself a lot of frustration back in the early days. You know, it’s okay. It’s okay. It always take longer than you think.

5) Without Good Marketing, You Don’t Have A Business

Number five. The fifth thing I wish I would’ve learned and understood when I first got started was that without good marketing, you don’t have a business. In my mind, I had this weird fantasy about what I thought a business really was. I was totally wrong. Okay, a business is marketing. It’s 80% marketing, honestly. I totally underestimated how important marketing is to running a successful business. I thought it was probably 90% teaching guitar lessons and maybe 10% advertising and marketing. Well, honestly, it’s 80% marketing and 20% teaching and playing, in my experience. Maybe your experience is different. I don’t know. That’s from my experience. 80% of the equation of being a successful guitar teacher is marketing.

Now, I’m not saying that you’re going to spend 80% of your time on marketing. I’m just saying marketing is what’s going to provide 80% of your success. The 80-20 principle. Marketing is the thing that 20% of your time brings in 80% of your returns. Marketing is the 80-20 secret. The trick of being a successful guitar teacher. All that time you spent learning how to play the guitar, all that time you spent developing your teaching skills – very important, probably only 20% of the equation though. Your marketing skills are what are going to bring 80% of your success, in my experience.

Now, if you don’t understand marketing, what’s going to happen is – and this is the case with most guitar teachers that I’ve come into contact with – they don’t understand marketing very well. They know a lot about music. You know, maybe some of them are really good teacher too, but if you don’t understand marketing, then what happens is your business is just running on life support. Okay, you know how to run a business. You know how to teach guitar lessons. You know how to deliver your services. But you don’t know how to grow one. You don’t know how to grow you business. And if that’s the case, then you’re going to constantly be running with fumes in your gas tank. You’re never going to be able to kind of get over the hill and be more successful.

There are a lot of first time business owners, of all different things. Not just teaching guitar, but you’ve probably seen them. They get setup with a new shop, right? They rent this building. They make these fancy signs. They buy this fancy equipment and everything else so that they look like a legitimate business, but they don’t have enough customers coming in to keep the doors open. So, what was their big mistake? Well, they thought: “Okay, I’m going to start a business. Okay, I see what all these other businesses are doing. I’m going to do what they do.” But the problem is you can’t look inside someone’s head and you can’t see their marketing knowledge, and you can’t see their understanding of how to attract and retain customers. So, if all you do is copy what other people are doing on the outside, then you’re only going to get about 20% of the equation right.

Okay, that marketing piece, the thinking that goes into planning your business and making it successful. You can’t really copy that from someone else. There’s no shortcut for it. You know? You’ve got to learn it yourself. You can’t even piggyback off of my marketing knowledge. I mean I try to teach as much about it as I can, but until you take those principles yourself and apply them and plan out your business and stuff, you can’t truly be successful. You have to learn it. It’s just something that you have to do.

So, what you have to do, what I had to do and what I learned the hard way – if I would’ve learned this quicker, I would’ve been successful a lot earlier – is learn how to understand marketing and then learn how to do it. It’s not that complicated. You know? Just like teaching is a different set of skills than playing, marketing is just another set of skills that you learn. And the cool thing is that it really does have the potential to make you a lot of money over the course of your career as a teacher, because if you can market, that’s kind of like the golden goose that keeps laying the golden eggs. So, it’s really cool and a very useful skill to learn.

But you know, some basics to get started. Well, first thing you need to do is you need to understand the difference between marketing and advertising. Two different things. Advertising is how you spread your message. Marketing actually is the message. How you create the message and what the message is. That’s what marketing is. Okay, it’s understanding the people that you want to teach and what’s going on inside of their heads, what they are going to respond to so that you can communicate the things that they need to hear and give them incentive to choose you over your competition. That’s basically marketing in a nutshell, and then advertising is how you take all of that information and communicate it to them in a way that’ll cut through the white noise and get their attention.

Okay, you also need to understand the difference between branding and positioning. Branding is the visual image that you want to create in your customer’s minds. You know, that includes your logo, the way that your website is designed, and your marketing materials, the colors that you use, and all that stuff so that when people see your advertising, then they think and feel the things that you want them to feel, but positioning is different. Position is the value that you communicate to people that your business offers. Okay, so you’ve got to understand kind of these different little pieces and how they fit together.

So, what I recommend is that you learn some of the basics about marketing. And I have a ton of podcasts about that. I have courses like Group Guitar Launch Formula that get into marketing from a very foundational standpoint and things like that. Learn what you can about it. And then once you understand basically how it works, then put together a one-page marketing plan. It doesn’t have to be complicated. Just one page that outlines who you’re going after, how you’re going to get their attention, what they really need and want, and how you’re going to deliver that to them. And then once you put that together, then take out a calendar and then write down and schedule some basic marketing activities that you’re going to do, whether it’s sending out a newsletter, whether it’s writing articles for your local newspaper, sending our press releases, or whatever. Schedule it on the calendar so that you actually make sure and get it done. You know, it’s that simple.

But taking the time to learn how to keep a steady stream of students coming into your music studio is honestly one of the smartest things that you could ever do, and it’s going to be the biggest factor that determines your level of success as a teacher. Okay, I wish I would’ve known that when I first got started. Now I do and now I’m telling you.

6) Never Use Debt To Start And Fund Your Business

Okay, number six. This is a big one I learned too. Never use debt to start and fund your business. I made the mistake of thinking when I first got started that I needed all the latest fancy gear, all the latest fancy tools, everything for my teaching business to be successful. That I had to do it right. If I’m going to do it, I’m going to do it right. It’s all or nothing, right? Well, I went out and bought the most expensive music stands I could find. I bought the best audio recording equipment I could find. You know, the fanciest computer. The best software. You know, I was running Pro Tools in my music studio and all this other stuff, and I had racks of equipment. My goal was just to wow people with the professionalism of my studio or whatever. I had a huge library of books and DVDs. I had this super nice waiting area that I tried to put together. All of this different stuff.

You know what. None of that stuff made a difference. All it did was get me in debt and make it even harder for me. You know, the truth is – what I learned was – that marketing and student retention are the two things that are going to make or break your teaching business. Not your stuff. So, don’t start out with the nicest, most expensive stuff. Stuff comes later. Gear, equipment, all of that comes later when you learn how to do the other things right. When you have extra money that you don’t need for other things, you can spend it on stuff if you want to, but don’t give in to the temptation to use easy credit to buy all kinds of nice equipment first. Collecting stuff – you know, it has this weird psychological effect. It’s kind of like a drug. Buying nice stuff. It gives you a false sense of accomplishment and it puts you into an insecure position to stat your business from.

And it’s kind of like gas. Not the gas that comes from your stomach. It’s the gas that affects guitar players. Gear Acquisition Syndrome. That’s where you buy the coolest, trendiest boutique gear that’s out there. You know, you spend five thousand dollars on a guitar amp and four hundred dollars on a distortion pedal, and you know, seven hundred dollars on a set of hand-wound pickups, and things like that. You know, you buy 150-dollar guitar cables, monster cables and all this stuff. You know, you buy like expensive 15-dollar batteries for your guitar and things like that. That’s all fine and good, but what I’ve noticed is I have that. I struggle with gear acquisition syndrome (GAS) sometimes, but I noticed that whenever I buy that kind of stuff, it doesn’t improve my playing skills one bit. It doesn’t make me a better guitar player. It doesn’t improve my understanding and my knowledge of music theory, and how to be a better player and how to work better with other musicians, and how to be a better songwriter, or anything like that, or better soloist. It doesn’t do anything like that.

All that does is just make you feel cooler and more successful than you really are. And it’s the same thing with teaching guitar lessons. You want to start from a positive cash position and you want to stay there if you want your business to be successful. Build your business on reality, not on fantasy. So, what you want to do is you want to start off small. You want to add more equipment when you need it and when you can afford it, after you budget for it when you have the cash to pay for it. Your business is going to be more successful in the long-term and then you’re going to avoid starting off from an insecure, negative cash position. So, it’s very important to understand that. Your success. Your security as a teacher is going to have a lot to do with how much cash you have.

7) Expect The Best, But Prepare For The Worst

So, I’ll get into that in the last thing I wish I would’ve learned right here. So, number seven: expect the best, but prepare for the worst. I wish I would’ve understood that, because like I said at the beginning, I had this kind of rose-colored glasses that I was looking at the world through and I assumed that everything was going to be hunky-dory, that it was going to be awesome and easy, and everything was going to be amazing. And you know, it’s been good, but I wasn’t realistic. You know, I was kind of living in this fantasy world. So, what I recommend is expect the best, expect everything to go well, have a positive outlook, but also be prepared in case it doesn’t.

There are these old sayings. It rains on the just and the unjust. Probably heard that before. Bad things come into all of our lives. All of us. There are opportunities when bad things happen. They’re not just tragedies, but they are opportunities for us to learn more about ourselves and to grow into better people. I never expected, for example, to get diagnosed with prostate cancer last year, but fortunately all of the mindset stuff that I’ve been focusing on and working on my thinking and working on my attitudes and things like that, because of that, I was able to become a better person through dealing with the prostate cancer and the surgery and everything. Just because you decided to start your own business doesn’t mean that now you’re exempt from trouble, exempt from tough times, exempt from hardship.

You know, it’s not like the business fairy is going to come down and wave the magic wand, and all of a sudden everything in your life is going to go smooth and easy. No. Sometimes it feels like the opposite. In fact, there may even be more opportunities for you to experience tough times than you had before, but the reward is worth that extra risk. You know, but it’s helpful to at least know that it may be coming. So, in my experience, lean times are always going to come, so what you do is you prepare for them. Everybody that’s been teaching for a while probably knows about the summertime lull, and that’s when summer’s here, school’s out, everybody goes on vacation, and your student roster takes a dump. You know? You lose a lot more students in the summer. You have fewer new students coming in sometimes. You know, sometimes you have other seasons where your retention is lower. You know, sometimes it’s because there are changes in your local market. You know, things ebb and flow. You know, lean times. They just come with every business.

So, what you do is you have to look at this the smart way and be prepared. When you have good months, where you make more money than you expect, then instead of taking that extra money and going out and blowing it on beer and concert tickets, and effect pedals and stuff like that, you need to take that money and put it aside in a savings account. This is another reason why you want to avoid debt, because if you charge all kinds of stuff up on your credit cards and then you have lean times that come, then not only are you going to be in debt, but you’re going to be broke on top of that. Debt will catch you at the worst possible times, so it’s better to avoid it completely. But when you do have good months, set some money aside. It’s a wise thing to do.

And then you also want to have strategies in place that you can use during the slow times to increase your business. So, for example, I mentioned the summertime lull. Okay, if you have a predictable cycle in your business like that, when your enrollment is low, and maybe for some of you it’s like in the wintertime when the weather gets bad, or something like that, but whatever it is, whatever that predictable cycle is in your business when your enrollment is low, then it’s a smart thing to put together a plan that you can kick off during that time to add more students. Okay, it’s just common sense. For example, if it’s in the summer, you could do this cool summer program that you kick off as soon as school lets out that all your students can get excited about, like a rock guitar camp or something like that. And you can run those summer camps in the summertime, and maybe you don’t have weekly lessons as regular lessons like you do during the rest of year as much, but maybe you have these little one or two-week summer camps that you kick off one after the other and you supplement your income that way.

Okay, that’s just an example of something that you can do, but a smart business owner, a wise business owner, guitar teacher will anticipate those slow times, those low cycles in your business, and then come up with a good plan that you can implement that will backfill and cover that so that your income doesn’t drop during that time. In fact, it could even go up. Okay, so expect the best, but prepare for the worst.

Now, these are just seven things. There are probably a lot of other ones I could’ve come up with too, but these are just kind of the seven biggest lessons that I learned from my own teaching business and hopefully this has been beneficial. At least entertaining a little bit, but hopefully you can get some benefit from them too.

Thank You For Listening!

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STG 068: 7 Things I Wish I Knew When I Started Teaching Guitar was last modified: May 12th, 2014 by Donnie Schexnayder


  • efosterw

    Hey Donnie! Great podcast today. I had to take a minute and comment on the topic of marketing. You are right on when you say that the success of your business is 20% services, 80% marketing. We’re 3.5 years into our studio now and I have found that as I’m able to delegate responsibilities to others so I can focus on marketing, revenues always go up. Shocking! When I’m spending most of my time & attention providing services and marketing is on the back burner, we are DEFINITELY running on life support. As usual, WONDERFUL content. Homerun.

    • DonnieSchex

      Thanks, man…yeah, like I mentioned in the episode, I learned that one the HARD way. :)