Before you start dreaming of owning your own Rock-and-Roll school or even teaching your dorm room neighbor, you must have a KILLER FIRST LESSON. When you nail the first lesson, you send your new student off enthusiastic, inspired, and ready to sign up for your super-mega annual lesson package. After all, great student retention is what keeps your rent paid and brings that dream of a 1965 Fender Vibrolux Reverb closer to reality.
Great lessons don't happen by accident. They take focus, a plan, and practice. Here's a guide to putting together a great first lesson.
1. Have A Song
Nothing gives a student more satisfaction on the first day than learning how to play a song. I like to teach “Satisfaction" by the Rolling Stones. Pick a song that you know inside and out so that you can break it down into parts:
Riff, Chords, Strumming.
2. Break It Down
Remove all assumptions you may have about music vocabulary and instrument functionality. Start from the bottom of the bottom. Even if your student is familiar with some terms and techniques, it's good to reinforce the foundation. Having a clear and concise definition of each term saves time going forward. Attach an action to each description. Here's an example:
"Tablature is a system of writing down music for stringed instruments. The lines on the page are the strings on your guitar – the lowest in *pitch being the lowest on the page, highest pitch is the highest on the page – like looking down at your guitar. The numbers tell us what *frets to put our fingers on. So this line on the page is this string on the guitar. The number 2 means the second fret on that string. Go ahead and put your index finger right there. Perfect."
EVERY SINGLE subject should have a concise description with an action attached. The more effectively you describe, the more time you have for the student to play through the part to get it right. Find your own way of defining each term so it doesn't sound like you're regurgitating a Wikipedia entry. When you use your own words, your student feels like it's a custom lesson just for them.
3. One Thing At A Time
Keep your lesson plan a secret. Revealing only one topic at a time keeps your student focused on the task at hand. This makes it easier to remember the techniques and leaves the student with a stronger sense of accomplishment with each topic. If you tell them they'll be learning a strumming pattern that you don't get to, the student may feel like they failed the first lesson, which is absolutely not true. Any playing is great progress!
NOTE: A student may be having trouble nailing the first two notes of a riff. That's cool…that's why they're taking lessons! For all they know, learning the first two notes is what the first lesson is all about, and for them, it is. Let them explore the topic for as long as they're comfortable, and move on only when they're ready.
4. Let them play!
Once you've demonstrated a technique, allow the student time to explore what it feels like when it sounds good, and notice the difference when it doesn't sound so good. Play back and forth -- my turn, then your turn, until it's smooth and relaxed. The more the student works on the technique right in front of you, the more it becomes locked into their muscle memory so that when they go home they know EXACTLY what to play, how to play it, and how it feels when it sounds right.
When the confidence level rises, it's a great opportunity to play along for a little extra inspiration. Throw down some chords as they're playing the riff, or take a lead while they're strumming their first “E" chord to show them how it all comes together. Once you think they'll be able to play their part right without you around, you're ready to move on.
NOTE: Mistakes are good! If a student does a technique improperly or hits a wrong note and they get discouraged, have no fear. Let them know that the ability to recognize a mistake just by hearing it reinforces their ear. It is a form of ear training, and it proves that their ear is working properly. Not only is this an encouraging twist on an “oops," but it is absolutely true.
5. Keep The Momentum
The goal is to make every second of the lesson seem planned, but customized at the same time. If every second is filled with intent, the student will be focused and jamming the whole lesson. Have the next topic prepared so you can move forward without hesitation. Here are the 3 topics I keep in my back pocket for the first lesson.
2. Open Chords
Take the time to define every term and have it ready so there's no lag in between topics.
The most common reason students don't practice is that they're unsure of what and/or how to practice. At the end of the lesson re-visit each topic you covered with EXACTLY how they should do it at home. Have them try it as if you're not there. By removing any gray areas, your student is much more likely to practice when they get home.
No matter how great the student does on their first lesson, it is more important to reinforce topics than to throw them more. If you get through all the topics for the day, go back to the top and play it all through again with the same enthusiasm as the first time. This will make your student's fingers even more ready for those bar chords coming up soon.
7. Be Available
Even though you've thought of everything they could possibly ask, there are always things that might come up. Make yourself available via email, phone, or text to answer any questions they might have. Their musical journey doesn't stop at your door, and neither should your teaching. Often times your students become your friends, and maybe some day a colleague. Develop your rapport by staying connected outside the lesson room.
Stay positive and confident in your work. If you're comfortable, so is your student. If you're having fun, so is your student. If you're student is making progress, so are you. Now go make some musicians!