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Interview on How to Become a Guitar Teacher

Roger Miller; Image used with his permission.

While you might not have heard of Roger Miller, there's a good chance that one of your favorite bands is influenced by his work with pioneering Boston post-punk band Mission of Burma. This band has influenced countless titans of alternative and indie rock over the last 30 years, including Superchunk, Nirvana, Pearl Jam, Fugazi, Pixies, Throwing Muses, Sonic Youth, Moby and R.E.M. It is easy to hear echoes of Miller's distinctive style in an entire generation of American rock guitarists. In addition to recording and touring with Burma, he also works with Alloy Orchestra, a Boston-based group that performs live accompaniment to silent films. When not busy playing live he finds time to teach guitar lessons in the Boston area.

Training and Experience

Love To Know (LTK): Roger, what training is needed to be a guitar teacher? What special skills separate a guitar teacher from a guitar player?

Roger Miller (RM): One needs a fairly comprehensive understanding of the guitar to teach it. In my case, I started in the mid-60s with blues, and then got into rock and psychedelic rock. I composed four pieces for guitar as a composition major at CalArts, and then became a full-time guitarist for Mission of Burma during the punk era. My Burma style blended the energy of punk with my experience as a composition major and my interest in experimental sounds.

In my case, most of my lessons come to me because they know me from Mission of Burma. My style is pretty distinctive (or so they say), and they come to me for that - my non-normal attitude to the guitar.

I believe the most important quality in a teacher is sympathetic understanding. I do not have a regimen that I put onto players. I find out what they want to learn, and go from there. There are very basic truths about the guitar -- certain ways to hold the pick and hand that are the most ergonomically sensible ways to go about things, as well as the fundamental aspects of strumming and picking. I always bring those up if the student seems to need it, but I am never rigid in my approach.

LTK: How do you gain experience in the wide number of styles needed to teach guitar?

RM: Play your butt off all your life. In the '60s and '70s I played in blues bands, cover bands, original bands, free-form bands, country bands, jazz fusion bands, etc. The more you play and the more musical environments you put yourself in, the greater your awareness as a guitarist.

Balancing Teaching with an Active Career

Roger Miller playing guitar

LTK: How do you balance teaching with a career in music? For example, what happens to your students when you go on the road?

RM: I do many things to survive as an artist. I perform and record with the Alloy Orchestra, Mission of Burma and others. Three out of the last four years, a film I scored was at Sundance. I even taught sound design at Rhode Island School of Design last year.

For me, teaching guitar "fills in the holes" of my income. I don't need it all the time, and clearly I can do nothing about it when I am on the road with one of my performing groups. I enjoy it most as a part-time activity. Some students come once a week, some every other week when I'm around, and others whenever they feel the need. I have had a number of students come just once, which is fine with me. They just wanted to hear me talk about what I do, and that was it. In general, my students really enjoy my teaching. Many have told me they wish they had come to me instead going to an earlier teacher with a more rigid, specific teaching agenda. But then, they came to me because they know what I have done.

LTK: How did you decide to start teaching? What's the best way to move into teaching and get a client base?

RM: Again, my situation is somewhat different, as I am a "known-entity" in a very specific style/attitude. In 2005 or so I hadn't taught for a long time, but I needed cash pretty badly as none of my bands were playing much that summer! I posted on Craigslist, and got a very strong response. Pitchfork Magazine found out about this and ran an article on my placing an ad on Craigslist -- for some reason they thought that was odd and/or funny. I just wanted to pay my rent! But it sure worked. That summer I often had 15 lessons a week. That kept me alive quite well, thank you.

Craigslist and word of mouth is how I get my students. Again, I don't seek regular consistent students, so my situation is a bit unusual for a guitar teacher. I am perfectly happy if they only come once. And on more than one occasion I have suggested that the student stop coming because I didn't feel I was teaching them anything anymore.

Qualities of a Good Teacher

LTK: Switching gears a bit, what should students look for in a teacher?

RM: Look for someone who will show you the direction you really want to go, while also getting you to learn the basics, the fundamentals about strumming, picking, and the meaning of intervals. Basically, find someone that will give you the skills you need to become the guitarist you want to become.

LTK: What advice do you have for people who don't already have some degree of fame who want to teach guitar?

RM: Present yourself very clearly, what you can teach a student, and how you can adapt to their needs. Look at other guitar lesson flyers and posts and see how you can be different enough, but seem to be "all things to all people."

Getting Started

You don't have to be a member of a legendary and influential post-punk band to be a successful teacher. Mr. Miller's advice carries much weight for the less renowned guitar player looking to get his or her feet wet in the world of teaching. Broad experience, coupled with a sympathetic ear and the ability to market oneself in a manner that conveys both a special insight as well as a near encyclopedic knowledge of the instrument are the key components to teaching guitar. A willingness and ability to tailor lessons to a student's needs and experience go a long way toward setting you apart from the pack. Over time, you will also be able to rely on word of mouth as satisfied students share their experience with friends and colleagues. Until then, post fliers, talk to local guitar shop owners to see if they can steer students your way, and make the most of each lesson with your students. If you do a great job and your students find it easy to relate to you, you'll eventually find yourself fully booked.

Interview on How to Become a Guitar Teacher