Letter to a Young Teacher

I received an email from a young jazz guitar teacher in Europe

asking about how to stay interested in what he was was doing and how to

make teaching more fun.

I wrote the following in response and post it here in the hope

that some bit of it may be of interest to you.

I really enjoy teaching and, particularly, helping a student to really ‘get it’

( whatever “it” may be at the moment )

it’s clear to see when that happens…the student suddenly has extra energy and an excitement that motivates them to delve even deeper in the topic…

one way to keep it fun is to keep re-enforcing the fundamentals…if they are interested in jazz: have them play quarter notes or 8th notes over a 1 chord vamp with really solid time…can they keep the line going without hesitation? are they making nice note choices? are they developing thematic material ?

on a real practical level: how is their fretting hand technique ?…where do they keep their thumb ? how much overall force are they exerting ? are the fingers kept so that they have easy access to the fingerboard or are they curled up near the palm when not in use ? are they holding their pick too hard or too loose…? do they like the tone they produce ? have they explored other methods of tone production ?

another way is to work with each student on the music they really love the most…using those tunes and performances to break down structural basics and concepts…pointing out a deeper dimension in what they already like ( maybe the deeper voice leading, maybe the way the artist uses dynamics ) always pointing the student towards a more subtle and nuanced approach to playing and experiencing music ( this then carries over into broader aspects of their life )

asking them to breathe with their notes…breathe with their phrases…

if you haven’t checked out The Alexander Technique you may wish to do so…it isn’t about body posture so much as it’s about body awareness and usage…allowing the head and neck to be free, the spine lengthened, the hips and butt solid and stable…for players that sit down this can open up a whole other world…a body centered awareness that they carry into their playing and throughout the day…this is integration…the merging of the player with the person…it becomes a 24 hour a day continuity rather than some playing interspersed with periods of ‘dead-ness’ or ‘spaced out-ness”

music deserves the respect that we are fully there when we play…attentive and ready to serve both the sound and the space…when we attend in this way good things often happen… these are just a few fruitful areas…I usually wish that lessons were longer so that we might get even deeper into learning…one certain way to enjoy teaching more and to make it more fun is to keep in mind the passing, ephemeral nature of our lives and the world…for a brief time we had the chance to sit, listen and occupy ourselves with something that doesn’t hurt anyone else, doesn’t leave scars, and doesn’t start wars…we are involved in something which promotes and fosters some of the deepest human feelings and ideals possible…I wish you the best in your teaching and look forward to reading your ideas on the subject.


Thought for the Day

“Use the talents you possess, for the woods would be very silent if no birds sang except the best.” – Henry Van Dyke

Guitar Quote

“The guitar’s most special quality is its ability to shape the dying away of a sound into silence” – John Williams

You Tube Clip

a very short example of my playing can be seen here:

Guitar and Bass Lessons in South Portland, Maine

Students who give their instrument some regular dedicated practice time generally begin to appreciate their experience as interesting, enjoyable and fun and this translates back into further motivation and interest.

I endeavor to highlight the learning process for each student and helping them feel continued excitement about the progress they experience as their skills and listening abilities expand.

Playing an instrument helps deepen appreciation for the elements of music                  ( rhythm, melody, harmony ) and students often find that their ability to perceive musical detail and nuance is greatly enhanced. This is something that can’t readily be experienced except through putting in the time and effort.

A one hour lesson once a week at a regular time is how I proceed. Less than that and the motivation and interest generally fall off and any more than once a week
seems to result in overload.

For the beginner it’s a matter of developing their
right and left hand skills and that can be accomplished
in the context of learning elements of songs and styles
they already are excited about. This way they are learning the basics of instrumental technique while staying involved in music they already enjoy. This keeps the interest up and encourages time spent with the instrument.

I ask that students bring cd’s or ipods with music that they
like and want to be able to play and we go from there.
It is no problem to simplify elements of the music they
enjoy in order to make it approachable, playable
and appropriate for their level of current playing ability.

Reading music is optional and often ( for many forms of popular music ) not required. I do encourage learning the fingerboard and becoming familiar with the fundamentals of music theory and harmony.

I have times throughout the week and you can let me know if a particular day and time best suit your schedule.

a reminder to let all this be fun
and have the actual playing
remain enjoyable and relaxing
( rather than risk it becoming
just a physical and technical challenge
to master )
paying close attention to the sound
you are actually making as you play
is one way to keep your playing
experience grounded in listening
and appreciating…
listening to the sound you
are making in the room
and staying sensitive to
how what you are hearing
interacts with your
emotions and nervous system
is something that a player of any
level of experience can take part in…
it’s where the richness is and it’s
what listeners respond to when they
hear someone sincerely playing with feeling
and heart

I can easily be reached at:



I’d be delighted to assist you in deepening your musical experience.

John C. McCain

South Portland, Maine