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How Teaching Music Has Made Me a Better Musician

I have a very vivid memory from when I was in high school. One of those memories that sticks out among others, but I can’t exactly place why. Let me give you the back story.

I had already been playing music since I was ten years old. I was playing in a progressive rock band at the time, and I had recently become quite serious about studying jazz. The truth was I was probably more hardcore about studying music then than I am now.

I was studying under a teacher quite diligently, and I soaked up everything he said and practiced everything he told me to do. I had developed an enormous amount of respect for my teacher. To me, he was more like a mentor. I trusted him to tell me to do the right stuff to improve as a musician.

At the same time, there was the occasion that my peers and I, who all studied with the same teacher, would complain. We were getting to the point in our musicianship where certain holes and weaknesses were becoming apparent. So instead of blaming ourselves and trying to do something about it, we would blame our teacher.

“If he would have taught me more about theory and less playing by ear, I would be better off with some of this stuff by now!” “My sight reading chops aren’t up to snuff. I wish he would have focused more on that with me a long time ago!”

These sorts of ridiculous, lazy, blame-shifting comments. It’s tough being a teacher, I suppose. But the bottom line is we respected him, and we trusted him. He wasn’t just some guy we went to once a week to check lessons off our list. We were all hardcore about being musicians. His expertise to teach and lead us on our journey as musicians was held in high regard.

Here’s my memory.

One day I was hanging out with a friend who also studied with my teacher. I told him that I had met someone who asked me if I would like to teach beginner guitar students at her home studio. I said that I was thinking about doing it, stop working at a coffee shop and switch to teaching music for my high school financial needs.

He began discouraging me.

Telling me that the reason he doesn’t want to teach students himself is that he “doesn’t feel qualified.” What if you don’t teach the student the right stuff in the correct order? You could screw that student up! I mean, we don’t even have the training to be teachers.

He wasn’t necessarily telling me I wasn’t qualified, but both of us were essentially on the same musical level. Remember, we respected our teacher a lot. So much so that we hyper-analyzed our own teacher’s flaws. It’s funny to think about it.

I have to admit, my friend’s discouragement made me think twice about starting to teach. I suppose I had just as many insecurities as my friend did at the time (Ironically, my friend is now a full-time teacher).

But I didn’t listen. I knew he was wrong. My thought was, “I’m more than qualified to teach beginning guitar lessons to anyone. And when will I “be ready” to teach anyway?

So I accepted the job to teach the guitar lessons, quit my barista gig at the coffee shop and started taking on students. Even though that was a small, simple decision to make, it was probably one of the most important ones I’ve ever made. The truth is, deciding to teach that day changed the trajectory of my life.

How teaching music has made me a better musician

When I started teaching lessons to those kids, I had something to offer. I had some knowledge that they didn’t have and that made me valuable.

What I found as I started teaching them what I knew, is I actually had to think. What is a good starting point? How did I start? If I teach them this, what should I teach them next? How did this technique become easy for me?

When you teach something you know to someone else, you come out of it knowing that concept even better yourself. Having to break the material down into smaller steps helps you solidify what you already know. If you want to truly understand something, or be good at it, teach it.

Here’s another story:

Fast forward about a decade later. I’m out of music school with a Bachelors Degree in Jazz Performance. I’ve taught many students since my first teaching gig, and I had also been teaching jazz online, blogging just like I am now.

One day I open up my inbox, and it’s an email from a higher up at Hal Leonard, the music book publishing company. It was an email asking me if I’d like to write a music book for them. They had some titles they were interested in publishing and wanted to know if I’d be interested in writing one of them. I was unsure if this was a scam or something. But sure enough I looked up the guy’s name, and he was legit.

The first thought that came to my head was: Oh man, I’ve never written a music book. I have no clue how to do it. I don’t think I’m qualified to do this.

The second thought was: Why me? What made this guy think to ask me? I’m not famous. I don’t have a strong music education resume.

But I cast aside all of my fears and doubts and took up the offer. The concept for the book was easy enough, we signed a deal, and I spent the next six months writing the book.

A year and a half or so later, I had my own concept for a book. A book about how I think about improvising on the guitar. I pitched it to my contact, sent in samples, he liked it, we signed a contract, and I spent another six months writing that book.

What I learned while writing both of these books is I wasn’t just teaching other people. I was teaching myself. I was solidifying ideas I had by actually explaining them and writing out exercises. In many cases, I was composing exercises I had never tried before. I would suddenly think of an idea and think “Hey, that would be challenging, and fun to try!” Before I knew it, I was starting to get nervous about making my deadline because I was spending so much time practicing the stuff I was creating!

Teaching others through these books helped me become a better musician.

I came out with an eBook of jazz etudes. It was the result of me wanting to break down jazz language for myself over different jazz standards. I wrote another eBook called Zero to Improv, a jazz improv and theory book. I wanted to look back and fill in any gaps I may have had in my playing, so I wrote it. Now hundreds and hundreds of people are using these books, and I get emails all of the time hearing how much they have helped.

Every time I do a skype lesson, a private lesson, record a podcast episode or write a blog post, I am learning. I am learning even though it is manifesting itself in teaching others.

Not only is teaching fulfilling in spreading the knowledge and joy of music to others, but it also keeps feeding me with more knowledge, and continually challenging me to become better.

My question for you today is what is holding you back? Is it fear and insecurity like it was for me in high school? Is it the belief that you aren’t “qualified?” Is it perhaps the feeling that teaching isn’t worth your time?

If you aren’t a teacher at any level, I want to encourage you to teach another musician something you know today. Try it. You may be surprised at what you will learn yourself or how it might challenge you to become better. Who knows, maybe something extraodinary will come out of it, like teaching has for me.

If you are already a teacher, I know I don’t have to convince you.

Brent Vaartstra
Brent Vaartstra is a professional jazz guitarist and educator living in New York City. He is the head blogger and podcast host for which he owns and operates. He actively performs around the New York metropolitan area and is the author of the Hal Leonard publication "Visual Improvisation for Jazz Guitar." He's also the host of the music entrepreneurship podcast "Passive Income Musician."


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