How to Teach Guitar: The Role of Empathy

Rob's Totally Awesome Guitar Teaching HandbookThe following is an excerpt from Rob’s Totally Awesome Guitar Teaching Handbook.

When was the last time you were terrified trying something new? I’m not talking about the fear of sharks at your first surfing lesson. I mean trying something you really want to do, but you’re worried that Jah had other intentions when he doled out your aptitude. Perhaps it was dancing lessons, auditioning for a band, deciding to write a novel, or going on your first date after a bad breakup.

Many beginning guitar students will have the same kind of fear. They’re often courageous adults who were told in elementary school that they have no rhythm, or are tone deaf. They’re coming to you because they’re still searching for a way to make music despite discouragement, and they’re hoping you can point the way. Empathizing with them—feeling what they feel —will help you teach them.

FistOne way to empathize is to recall a comparable time in your life. You may have to dig deep. Kids risk failure all the time, but as people mature, they tend to find their path and then cruise it—seat back, one hand on the wheel. Even if you’re a dedicated life-long learner, it might be hard to remember the last time you were scared of being bad at something.

I got reacquainted with the fear of failure when I started singing lessons a couple years ago. I spent my first lesson mortified at all the unpredictable sounds I made. Afterwards, I remember recovering in my parked car soaked in sweat, staring at the dashboard, feeling like a vulnerable kid.

I recall that moment when I start lessons with a new student, reminding myself that while it’s just another day of work for me, it might be one of the scariest things they’ve done.

What do you think: How necessary is it for a teacher to empathize with their student? I’d love to hear some stories.

You can learn more about Rob’s Totally Awesome Guitar Teaching Handbook here.

Comments 14

  1. All I know about Rob’s guitar teaching is he strolled into our high school pep band rehearsal, showed our guitarist how to play “Honky Tonk Woman”, and the place went nuts at the next basketball game!

    Great memories, Rob! Glad to see ya still passionate!!


    Dominic Barsi – Drums

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      Hey, Nick! Great to hear from you. I still think of you when I hear that cowbell at the beginning of “Honky Tonk.”

      (Nick Barsi sat next to my in Physics my senior year in high school, practicing his drumming on his binder. He was a real class act, graciously endured my fledgling guitar playing at a couple games.)

  2. I find that most 10 year olds are pretty fearless, so it’s easy to get them motivated. Once you hit the teens, it becomes a different story. Fear of sticking out, being different and making mistakes creep in. Which is strange, because most who want to play music want to express themselves! The benefit of a teacher is empathy and example. Kids both know and don’t know that adults weren’t born with the ability to play an instrument and that it certainly took a long time. They have to hear it consistently from teachers, parents and mentors.

  3. Empathy is definitely an important quality to have with beginning guitar students. That and patience. I teach in-person and also online which I have found provides some measure of relief for new students. The nervousness can be compared to stage fright for somebody starting out. Taking lessons in ones own home via webcam can really help ease that, at least I have found it to be so.

  4. Not only do we, as teachers, require the ability to relate to and empathize with our students but we also need to find creative ways to help our students cope with performance anxiety. Notice I did not say “overcome” because that is simply not possible…BUT…with the right guidance, training, and support, we can help them rationalize, recognize the symptoms of, and eventually manage their anxiety. Since music is arguably one of the most important areas of self expression, you would think that this type of teaching would be a staple of all music related curriculum. The sad truth however is that this vital area is often the one given the least amount of attention. How’s that for irony??? Sorry folks, but sometimes the “Just Do It” approach just isn’t good enough. Some suggested reading: “Notes from the Green Room” by Salmon & Meyer, and “Performance Success” by Don Greene.

  5. As a guitar teacher, my goal is to bring my students to a level of confidence with their musicianship to the point where they can be free to express themselves through their instrument. Road blocks are sure to get in the way and empathizing with my students gives them that extra lift for those tough times.

    Empathizing with my students shows them that I, their teacher, am just human and have been down the same road that they are on and have gotten through it. I tell them “You know, playing the guitar wouldn’t be as rewarding if it wasn’t tough sometimes, but the good news is that we are both on a similar journey and I am here to help you through it!”

    On another note, I am a proud owner of Rob’s Totally Awesome Guitar Teaching Handbook and I am here to say that it definitely gave me the extra boost I needed to take on my guitar lessons business full time! I recommend this book to any instructor.

    Thanks Rob!

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  6. When you’re older, you’ve already failed at way more things than you thought you ever would. And coming to a guitar teacher for some is kind of a way of saying, well I failed at teaching myself, too. For others they didn’t even try doing it on their own but just had always wanted to learn and come to you with an open mind and a ready spirit. Some of my most cherished memories of guitar teaching are helping adult students finally get to play songs they love and grew up admiring. It’s great for kids too, but adults appreciate it more and it’s a more mature kind of relationship between the teacher and student there that is conscious of how deeply meaningful good teaching can be.

    Thanks for this post in reminding me of the importance of empathy.

    ~ Zac Sullivan ~

  7. After spending over 20 years as an instrumentalist, and in no way a vocalist, I dared myself to start learning how to sing. I was so moved by a band called The Frames that I decided to learn two of their songs and perform them at the annual Coffee Shop Jam student recital that Rob and I collaborate on with another friend of ours. Rob was awesome at coaching me on the vocal and guitar parts. I was TERRIFIED when I got up on stage to perform, but I got thru it and was proud to have done it! My kids even rewarded me with a little treat and congratulated me on “not letting my fear stop me” (a phrase of encouragement my wife and I often use with them).

  8. Enjoyed your article immensely. On a personal note, I have seen so much misunderstanding about what is talent and what it actually takes to master the art of music among the general public, that I find it very easy to empathize with those who may not have had the advantage of growing up in a musical family for example. While not everyone will become a virtuoso guitarist, it is most assuredly true that insensitive comments to the struggling student is often all that it takes to crush the fragile spirit of one who is unsure of the gifts that he/she does posses. These gifts are often hidden beneath the surface and a little well placed empathy can certainly help to bring them to see the light of day.


  9. I love this post. I am both a student of guitar and a teacher and I can really relate to what you are saying. It is not just about teaching that student to play. It is about helping them conquer any fears/uncertainties they have as well as reassuring them that they can do it. Only once they are ready to learn can you begin to teach!

    I too have a website Guitar Jam Tracks HQ where I share all of my best lessons and content to students all over the world that I want to succeed. If you could give me some honest feedback as I try to create what you have at, I would be honoured!


  10. I didn’t teach guitar, but instead piano. It was quite a challenge but very rewarding to see my students achieve something they didn’t think they could achieve. You are right that it is not just about teaching them how to play, but conquering their fears. Some have the talent and others have to work on it a lot harder. I did grow up with a brother that played quitar and I now have a son-in-law that plays acoustic guitar. I think it is the most beautiful instrument made.

  11. Fear of failure is one of the greatest fears people have and is closely related to the fear of criticism and rejection. The older you are the more afraid you are. Being able to help students to overcome these fears is a very much needed quality of a teacher. I think that teacher should be strict, but kind and supportive.

  12. From my experience, the older you get the more scared you get. Most children I have worked with over the years have been much more willing to try something new than an adult is. Imagine if you had to give a prepared speech? I think it should be the goal of the teacher to help overcome these fears. Empathy does not mean strict though.

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