He may only be 21, but Dylan Welsh already carries a very impressive resume. A multi-instrumentalist with an entrepreneurial spirit, Dylan is a freelance guitarist, bandleader, arranger, and music educator who has built a strong online presence with his remote session work, Skype music lessons, and arranging/chart preparation.

Dylan’s father being a guitar player himself, Dylan was surrounded by musicians growing up, who saw that he was beginning to play guitar and mentored him. As a teenager, Dylan began picking up any instrument his friends needed in their bands, learning drums, keyboards, and bass. His love of music and internet-savvy eventually led him to network online, create his own website, and begin offering online music lessons through Skype.

We spoke to Dylan about his approach to teaching, the key to musical improvisation, and how to make traditionally dry topics such as music theory exciting and engaging. Here are four things we learned:

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1. The key to engaging students is to appeal to their musical interests.

Many beginners get frustrated and demotivated as a result of being placed into a musical program they have no interest in. This is a major roadblock in learning that Dylan avoids by immediately exposing his students to musical knowledge that interests them.

For Dylan, the goal of music lessons is to get students enjoying their instrument as fast as possible. His approach involves pinpointing his students’ areas of interest and using those as a starting point for their musical education. As he experienced firsthand, learning ceases to become a chore and starts being fun as soon as there is interest in the content.

He also stresses the importance of checking in to make sure that his students are happy with the trajectory of their lessons. Constant and transparent communication is the best way to guarantee that the lessons are in line with the student’s musical goals, and that necessary adjustments are being made by the instructor to best fit the student’s needs.

2. Improvisation is something musicians must ultimately teach themselves – but teachers can help!

Musical improvisation can be intimidating for many students because of an ingrained fear of making a mistake or playing the wrong note. Once students get past this initial hurdle, they can begin learning to improvise, with the help of their teacher.

“You can’t really, in the end, teach someone to improvise,” says Dylan. “What you can do is equip them with the tools necessary for them to teach themselves how to improvise.”

The key is a solid understanding of music theory, some confidence, and plenty of practice.

One effective approach is to have students begin by practicing improvisation within specific constraints, then gradually removing these limitations as their skills improve.

Dylan also offers the following tip to guitar players: if a note sounds off, simply bend it up a half-step. As Victor Wooten says, “You’re only ever a half-step away from the right note.”

3. Start with the song – and the theory will follow.

Dylan’s approach to teaching music theory and ear training involves working backwards, in a sense: rather than diving straight into music theory, he likes to start with a song or genre that interests the student, and have them deconstruct it to its chord progressions and melodies.

Once this is done with a few songs, students tend to begin seeing the patterns in music they enjoy, and are more willing to put the work into music theory, knowing that it can help them accomplish what they want with their own music.

When people are just starting out, they may be bored and frustrated by music theory and ear training, as the benefits are not immediately apparent. It’s crucial that instructors continuously encourage new musicians to practice these skills, even if it’s only for 10 minutes a day. 

4. Listening skills and ear training are some of the most valuable tools in a musician’s arsenal.

Dylan finds that it’s a much better idea to learn a piece of music by ear than to go hunting for sheet music. It teaches the player more about the ins and outs of the instrument, and makes for excellent ear training practice.

This approach also allows musicians to better understand what is happening musically when playing in an ensemble, and even makes it easier for them to pick up new instruments in the long run. As a bonus, for those who are not yet experts at their instrument, having ear training and understanding the underlying music theory of songs often makes up for shortfalls in technical skills.

While perhaps not always the most fun to learn, listening skills and ear training allow a deeper understanding of music than students will ever get from simply studying sheet music. This makes learning them an absolute must, especially for beginners. In fact, Dylan asserts that these skills were the key to his success as a professional musician!

Teaching and its Rewards

Dylan’s approach to teaching is so effective precisely because it’s student-centric.

He uses his students’ interests as a starting point for his lessons, making even traditionally dry topics such as ear training and music theory interesting by integrating his students’ favourite music into the learning process.

This teaching model creates a situation wherein the teacher can build a lesson plan that best suits their student, while the student receives the maximum benefit from their lessons: Win-Win.

Dylan says that teaching music has been one of the most rewarding aspects of his professional career, and encourages other musicians to share their knowledge and seek opportunities together. His passion for music, tailored style of instruction, and dedication to teaching music theory and ear training is an inspiration to us here at Musical U.