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Many times in answers, (including mine), we exhort the OP to 'get a teacher'. I've got to wondering if that's actually the case. I've played with hundreds of musos - mainly the guitarists - who have never been to a teacher, but play perfectly well. In fact, when I try to teach them something, they shun me!

In fact, in my own case, although I had several teachers in my youth for the piano (mainly as vehicles for passing grades), I've managed just fine on other instruments - guitar, bass, drums as a few, with no help from teachers. The internet wasn't around then, either, so can't be considered a 'teacher', as of today. In reality, I taught all those for decades to must be hundreds of students. So, the question arose - is it necessary? Why? Are there instruments which can be self-taught better or worse with/out a teacher?

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  • Comments are not for extended discussion; this conversation has been moved to chat.
    – Doktor Mayhem
    Jan 14, 2023 at 19:09

6 Answers 6

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With most instruments you can get to a decent level by yourself. But there are a handful of things a teacher will be able to give you, such as:

  • Efficiency. An experienced teacher will probably be able to understand problems you have and send you into the right direction, even for problems you did not know you had. This can also prevent learning bad habits.
  • Vision. A teacher will help to keep improving.
  • Experience. A teacher will be able to teach you tricks you’d need years to learn by yourself.
  • Repertoire. A teacher might know pieces for you to try playing to keep you motivated.
  • Instant feedback. This is very important. A teacher will be able to give you feedback within a second or so, which helps much more in the learning process.

Sure, you can get there without a teacher, but a teacher will help you to get there faster, to get further and to prevent things that will hinder you at some point. And many of these things cannot be done as efficiently via other means, such as asking random people on the internet. Thus I think it is quite decent advice if someone struggles with very specific technical problems to suggest help from a teacher.

Of course the whole thing also depends on where you want to get. If you are going with a style of music where technique and technical prowess is less important then being an autodidact will be much more viable than other styles. You talked about "the guitarists", so I’m assuming you’re predominantly doing pop music. It do not think there’s many classical musicians who never had a teacher.

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  • I like this answer. I taught classical guitar for several years before moving out of an 'affluent' area, where that's where the opportunities lay, not having any teacher myself prior. What about any instruments which may be learned pretty well without a teacher - one of the questions?
    – Tim
    Jan 3, 2023 at 14:34
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    @Tim Most – if not all – instruments can be learned pretty well without a teacher. I’d say the more basic technique is required, the more you’ll want to have a teacher even to get to basic level. Instruments such as unfretted strings where intonation is really hard in the beginning (and maybe even require some technique to get an acceptable tone out) are most likely quite a bit harder without a teacher. Once you go into extended technique and professional level every instrument should benefit from a clean technique and thus from a teacher.
    – Lazy
    Jan 4, 2023 at 15:25
  • @Lazy - Yes it's rather the getting the tone out. The hardest part to self-teach on those instruments is the bowing technique because the bow has so many degrees of freedom and if they are all slightly wrong, you get no consistent output. Fretless intonation takes a lot of practice, but it's a single dimension problem, you can hear what you need to adjust, and iterate easily. Jan 6, 2023 at 16:41
  • @JirkaHanika It is true that bowing technique is hard, but the problem with intonation is the lack of feedback. Playing by yourself you will not perceive how much out of tune you are and you will accustom yourself to playing out of tune. Having someone tell you that you are off is invaluable feedback.
    – Lazy
    Jan 6, 2023 at 17:28
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    @Lazy - I can use some powerful instruments for checking my intonation. Playback, visual tuners. (Tuners aren't just for tuning. They can FFT even a chord in real time.) However, which instrument would tell me whether my bow is perpendicular to the strings throughout each stroke, while simultaneously checking fifteen other equally crucial prerequisites for getting any repeatable tone out? Jan 6, 2023 at 19:23
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This question fortunately doesn't ask "Is a teacher worth it." That's a cost/benefit assessment that many people make and which is inherently subjective (and—worth how much?). Instead, you ask whether some things might be learned better without a teacher. Even that "sounds" subjective, so let's focus on what's observable: We can't deny that there are some musical traditions that put more emphasis on private teachers, and others that use other models of transmission.

Indian classical tradition strongly emphasizes the role of the private teacher. I get the impression that this is changing somewhat, but that especially in the past it was a "guru" model, something like the Karate Kid, in which the student devoted themself full-time to study, and learned from even the most menial assignments. Indian classical masters trace a lineage of inheritance from teacher to teacher, maybe even advertising it in concert posters or programs: Z studied with X who studied with Y.

This sense of lineage is perhaps less ingrained in Western classical tradition, but it can definitely be found. I myself have talked about how cool it is that my teacher studied with Jascha Heifetz, who studied with Fritz Kreisler, and how I have this connection to the playing style of a century ago. We do a bit of "pedigree tracing," and always mention teachers in biographies: Carl Czerny is important because he studied with Beethoven (while, um, Haydn is important because Beethoven studied with him ;) ).

The importance of the private teacher is transmitted as one of the cultural values of Western classical music, to the point that we might express outright moral disapproval of anyone who tries to "self-learn." And the entire system is set up in such a way that self-learning really would be exponentially harder, if possible at all, because there is a "proper way" of doing things. We censure even bad teachers who don't train a student to use the "correct" posture, hand position, embouchure, stance, etc. (Side note: there may be some subjective or arbitrary elements here, "this is the way to do it because this is how we've always done it," but there's also a lot of "this is the way to do it because it works best, and because later you'll be asked to pull off advanced techniques that you just can't do with that hand position or embouchure." It would be like someone "self-teaching" themself figure skating without a coach: somewhere between learning to stay on their feet and the Olympics, they'll reach a point of frustration because they can't land a triple salchow, and maybe never will because of the foundational skills they learned wrong and can't unlearn.)

But it's also true that we see musical traditions that don't put the private teacher on this kind of pedestal. Rock, for one thing, is all about sticking it to the man, and not needing [no] education; the anarchic spirit of punk rawk doesn't submit well to "wax on, wax off," and if the result is raw and "imperfect," then many subgenres would say so much the better. Nevertheless, even Jack Black shows us that a "School of Rock" can be worthwhile, and the many neighborhood music schools helping kids plug in the Fender they got for Christmas from Target—some such schools actually named after the movie—suggest that even in such an iconoclastic genre, structured instruction is more efficient than figuring it out for yourself.

Meanwhile, many "folk" music-cultures have traditionally emphasized oral transmission, "self-teaching," and less pedagogical structures. Many kinds of "folk music" are learned communally—a song or chant may be learned gradually, while growing up, from "everybody else" in the community, rather than in one-on-one intentional study. Many notable folk musicians are known for having "taught themselves," like the "outsider artists" of the visual-art world. Playing techniques among folk musicians can be widely disparate (American fiddlers, for instance, might hold the violin under their chin or against their chest, and use any number of bow holds). No one gives them grief for doing it "the wrong way." But even here, one finds hints of legacy and of "named transmission"; old-time fiddler Ernie Carpenter is noted as "descended from four generations of fiddle players," and even when summing up his life in a paragraph, sources find it important to note his inheritance and influence from his grandfather "Squirrely Bill" or the fiddlers of neighboring counties. Similar language attributions can be found for flamboyantly folksy banjo player Uncle Dave Macon, or for 17th century Irish harpist Turlough O'Carolan, or Paraguayan folk harpist Nicolás Caballero.

But many of these cases argue your point. These "teachers" are credited for their influence, but that relationship perhaps didn't look like 45 minutes every Wednesday, for $50 per lesson, due at the start of the month. These teachers might not have been outraged if the student simultaneously learned things from other masters. And most importantly, many of the musicians I just mentioned are celebrated for an individual playing style, or for innovations and inventions they brought to their instrument. And here we get to the real answer:

Is there a time that a teacher could actually be a hindrance? Maybe if your goal is to play in a way that's unlike anyone else.

There are musicians that play instruments in unorthodox ways, or even who invent entirely new instruments. I think of the band Wintergatan, best known for their "marble machine":

... but who also spend their time creating from-scratch player-piano music boxes and touch-sensitive fretless theremin-olin thingies:

Ain't nobody giving lessons in those. (Well, aside from all the helpful videos they've posted about them, and the worldwide community that's starting replicating and riffing on them.) Meanwhile, FutureMan invented a sort of bass-drum-machine-keytar thing. Then there's the whole field of "found sound." John Cage arranges a bunch of transistor radios on stage; some band (I forget who) crams a mic down the nozzle of a vacuum cleaner. Any number of bands leveraged any number of found objects, like the iconic stomps of "We Will Rock You," powered by a pile of scrap lumber. And then there's "extended techniques": Nobody gave Henry Cowell lessons on how to create The Banshee:

(... though I did have the privilege once of seeing George Crumb give tips on prepared piano for "Voice of the Whale"). Any number of musicians have turned instruments upside down or inside out, hit them, blown on them, or bowed them, where are not normally hit, blown, or bowed. And sometimes they get brand-new, unique sounds, even perfectly unique personal styles. These discoveries can't be taught—or rather, they can (I'd be happy to tell anybody the best way to attach cufflinks to a violin bridge for a fuzzbox-ish rattle), but then they might be missing a point. If the point is the discovery rather than replication, then you have to be your own teacher.

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  • This is the favourite so far, but it's still early days, you make many great points. One of which is the hierarchy - so and so was taught by so and so, and so on. That's probably a point I should have in the question: great players don't always make great teachers (a subject that's been aired on this site before), so does that in itself have much gravity? It'd be good if this stayed open for another few days, for more opportunities of answers to be offered, then I'll decide. Thanks again.
    – Tim
    Jan 4, 2023 at 9:56
  • @Tim Well, I figure we're taking as a given that a bad teacher could be more harm than help. Though honestly, they'd have to be pretty bad! Even a poor communicator might be net-better than self-learning. But there's also not just the concern of confusing teachers, or people teaching non-canon technique, but maybe also abusive teachers that screw up your relationship to music-making for the rest of your life... Jan 4, 2023 at 14:06
  • "while, um, Haydn is important because Beethoven studied with him ;)" I suppose you're new to Haydn music and fame, don't you? Jan 6, 2023 at 1:58
  • "Any number of musicians have turned instruments upside down or inside out, hit them, blown on them, or bowed them, where are not normally hit, blown, or bowed. And sometimes they get brand-new, unique sounds, even perfectly unique personal styles. This discoveries can't be taught" so, you're telling that Orchestration cannot be taught... Jan 6, 2023 at 2:02
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    @RodrigoB.Furman That was a bit of a joke (thus the wink); "Papa Haydn" has of course earned his place. But the "cult of Beethoven" especially following his death was so strong that it kind of turned into "Oh yeah, Haydn is nice, and did you know he even taught Beethoven!" Jan 6, 2023 at 13:48
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There is something to be said for which instrument you choose, what you want to do with it, and how good you want to get at it.

Instrument Choice

I'm sure others will chime in to argue, but some instruments can be fairly easily started alone, and others not.

Ukulele, for example, is an instrument that you can easily start alone. It can be made to sound good in a matter of hours if you pick the right songs with a few simple chords. It has frets, doesn't pose much of a challenge for note-reading as a chording instrument (most people just print lyrics to pop songs with chord changes above them). By learning a dozen or so chords you can "play" a ton and be happy on your own. Assuming you've managed to tune it properly, and it's a half-decent instrument, it even sounds nice when you play all four strings open.

Other instruments - violin and oboe come to mind - take a very significant amount of time to just master playing a decent, straight tone that doesn't sound hideous. The hand positions and posture are incredibly finicky on violin, and it's very easy to learn bad habits on your own that will take years to un-learn if you get serious about it. On oboe, just the care and feeding of the double reed and controlling intonation can take ages even with a good teacher.

Other instruments - and I put the OP's guitar and bass in this category, are somewhere in the middle. They have frets, which takes a good chunk of the intonation work out of the equation. There are chords to learn [guitar], and notes to learn [bass], but you can get pretty far on your own. To really analyze whether a teacher is needed depends largely on what you want to do with it.

Goal

For a lot of guitar players (not all of them!), what they want to do is be able to have an accompanying instrument to strum while singing, or in a band. Similar to ukulele, you can accomplish this by learning a handful of chords. Do you need a teacher to play? If this is all you want to do, probably not.

Other guitar players, though, want to study classical. Or they want to play jazz, or really learn the whole instrument to a high level of proficiency. This includes many fine points that are not to be found on youtube, or available to be downloaded as "guitar tab." For these players, a private teacher is an absolute necessity. What they need is the feedback and direction of a seasoned player who can identify pitfalls and select repertoire.

Ten Years From Now

What kind of player do you want to be in ten years? Do you want to be that guy who sits around the campfire and plays long into the night but never really strays from the same dozen chords? You can do that without a teacher with ease. And there is nothing wrong with that. It might be exactly what you were wanting to do. So do it. If you get stuck, look it up on youtube. Just don't expect to magically be able to do much ELSE on your own.

Do you want the satisfaction of fully learning an instrument - or do you want to move up into the higher tiers of players - or do you have a certain guitarist in mind that you want to emulate - or do you desire to be a well-rounded, versatile musician? A teacher is the only way you're going to get there.

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I've been learning to play the violin for almost 4 years now and I've had a face-to-face teacher for all that time apart from Covid lockdowns. And I will likely continue for the forseeable future.

Here's why.

I also play chess at a good local club standard (whatever that means - current ECF rating about 1900). Here's the thing. My chess rating is not that much different from what it was 50 years ago. I have coached chess. I know what to do to improve. I don't do it. I can't be bothered enough to do the work. FWIW I suspect my standard on the violin (currently working on the Beethoven "Spring" Sonata) is way above my chess standard.

If I really wanted to improve my chess then, based on my experience learning the violin, I would pay for a chess coach despite already knowing what I need to do myself.

The key thing having somebody else teach / coach me is "the other". They provide an outside perspective. They can see what I am doing in a way that I can't. They can hear what I am playing in a way that I can't (perhaps more relevant for violin).

They provide external motivation. I have a lesson tomorrow (or next week or whenever). That means that I have to practice what we've agreed today. There's no point in not practicing. I'm paying for the lessons. My parents died long ago although my father did make it to 100. Not practicing is just robbing myself. I have to turn up for the lesson and perform. A teacher can give that motivation in a way that I can't.

I also don't have an appreciation of the relative difficulties of different pieces and repertoire. (I can do that much better for chess FWIW). In terms of technical difficulty relating to my current abilities, in terms of repertoire and genre, my teacher knows much better than me.

A big part of paying for tuition is the same as paying for a plumber or electrician. They can do stuff for me much better than I can trying to do it for myself.

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  • Some of the motivation I still get is from playing with others, in several different scenarios, live. Where I can't really afford to make too many mistakes. Motivation - myself and the situations.
    – Tim
    Jan 3, 2023 at 16:22
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    This is the main thing IMO. Nowadays, there's an abundance of easily available information, but what's missing is MOTIVATION that comes from actual real-life interactions where you have to perform or face the consequences. Something to actually kick your backside. It doesn't have to come from a teacher, it can come from gigs. If you have gigs you have to do, it will force you to learn, to find information if necessary. But if there's no gig, no lessons, it's just daydreaming and entertainment. No gain without pain, or at least fear and probability of pain. Jan 4, 2023 at 8:59
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I probably suggested getting a teacher many times. I'm trying to think of the reasons why I did it.

  • A trusted teacher can answer many questions considered off-topic on Music SE. Many kinds of the off-topic questions are perfectly valid, just unsuitable for this site.

  • A teacher can spend time observing the student and address their specific issues individually. This is sometimes very difficult to do for us to do basing only on a short text description.

  • Learning to perform music requires not only theoretical understanding of concepts, but also acquiring motor skills. This is more similar to practicing sports than studying a book. Just like the athletes need a coach, a teacher can help a music student and even prevent injury. I think this particularly applies to singing, as it involves moving the body parts which are not easy to see, and need to be felt instead.

This brings to a question, how come there are so many successful self-taught musicians? I'm less confident in answering this, but I have several thoughts.

  • As far as I know, most of the professional classical musicians are not self-taught. I think it is difficult for a student to achieve the necessary discipline by themselves, and to follow the tradition strictly enough.

  • A musician is an artist, and while a teacher can guide the artistic development, in the end it is the artist themselves who must discover their path and open up to the audience. This is an individual process.

  • Acquiring an ability with an instrument requires individual practice. A teacher can advise the student what to practice and how, but cannot practice for them. Here the student's determination plays the critical role.

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To add one more superfluous account from someone who plays regularly and joyfully...

I was given piano lessons for maybe a year when I was about 6. My parents took me out (while keeping my brother in) because I was not interested, learned little, and paid attention only to the teacher's bowl of Werther's Originals that he used as rewards.

In elementary school I was taught recorder from the age of about 8 to 12, and then I switched to trumpet till I was 15. I learned to read simple monophonic sheet music and had extremely rudimentary theory and composition exercises now and then — as simple as "Write a melody that uses the following rhythm, over 8 bars." I never got very good.

When I was 13, however, I began to play my family's upright piano spontaneously. I began with monophonic melodies with one finger of my right hand. Then I started duplicating that with my left hand an octave lower. Eventually I independently discovered block chords and began pairing those with my simple melodies. (Indeed, I had had no harmony training in school.) Once in a blue moon I would do a tiny bit of motion in the left hand when it was easy.

Almost all my playing was composition and improvisation. I tried some sheet music but was very poor at reading it. I could only play if I already knew the rhythm in advance and then used the notes for the melody because my ear was not great.

Eventually a teacher interested in my compositions pointed me to Finale and told me to try notating them. I began to write for small ensembles and then larger ones. My notated compositions were similar to my played ones: simple melodies, almost no harmony, or block chords. But I was able to write things more complicated than I could play, and I started to get a sense of time signatures (being forced by the program!) and keys and voices.

I started posting my music and came across other amateur composers. Listening to their work and exchanging mine gave me new ideas to try, including ornamentation and more interesting harmony. One of them posted a bunch of "free melodies" with chord symbols for everyone's use and I set myself the task of orchestrating them. By the end of that, I had become a decent orchestrator.

Eventually I got to the level where I could return to sheet music and struggle through, having seen much more music notated by now. I started to learn pieces, probably 9/10 old ones I already knew and 1/10 new ones. I challenged myself technically. At my university to use the Steinway pianos you either had to have Grade 10 RCM completed or had to audition. I practiced a lot, auditioned twice, and passed the second time. This was a huge confidence boost.

I had also talked to other pianists over the years and had started to gauge my strengths and weaknesses. I realized that many who had had good teachers and tons of excellent practice (1) hated playing and (2) felt zero confidence either improvising or composing. If they did improvise it was over existing chord progressions. Meanwhile, I was technically quite weak and had horrible sight-reading but I loved playing, always experimented, and played every day by choice. Who got more out of it?

One day, I heard about a program at the music school of my university where graduate piano students who wanted to take a course in teaching adults would take on intermediate-level adults for free. I auditioned and was given a teacher.

For health reasons we ended up having only two half-hour lessons, but I learned a ton in those two lessons. She corrected my posture, my hand shape, my fingering, and my tone, and she assigned exercises and a piece to learn and perform later on. I quickly realized that what I got from those two lessons was about equal to the progress I could make in a year or more on my own — assuming I would ever have noticed some of the technical issues without guidance.

I went home and drilled the heck out of the bits of practice she'd given me, up and down, eyes closed, higher BPM on the metronome, variations of my own. And I learned the piece well enough that I was later told it was a Grade 4 RCM level piece that I was playing at a Grade 8 level in terms of expression and fluidity. I began watching videos on Youtube and trying to apply the advice I got from them in order to access more teaching. I found another teacher who praised my composition, but who didn't know where to begin with the unevenness of my ability: lots of ability in some areas, lots of gaps in others. I also started self-teaching some theory and harmony, and also learning to play rock, folk, pop, etc. songs from chord sheets and training my ear to work out the melody. I buy a lot of sheet music and play the pieces that are in my zone of proximal development. Right now I'm working through a book of Ludovico Einaudi, which is a great pleasure because the repetitive and fluid figures are both beautiful and like a fingering exercise sometimes.

So, where does that leave me? Personally, I'm glad I started later, because I still have the joy and passion and curiosity. At the same time, I recognize how much a teacher contributes — how much time they can save and insight they can provide that I don't have to reinvent or discover — and now I'm hungry for that knowledge, such that I apply whatever I find in depth. (I often delay finding new facts until I've really explored the current one. For example, once I learned about appoggiatura, I started hearing it everywhere and using it in my own improvisation and pieces until I had absorbed it.) I would still like to find a regular teacher, maybe even as infrequently as once a month, and now that I've moved to a bigger city maybe there'll be one who can specialize more in my unneven skills.

TL;DR: A teacher of an eager and curious student can work wonders, still with the understanding that the learning comes partly from their store of knowledge and partly from the student's willingness and desire to apply it.

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