How do we measure our success on a musical instrument? By the reaction of others who listen to us play? By what we can play this week that we couldn’t play last week? The short answer is – yes, those things matter. But ultimately it has much more to do with how we feel about what we’re playing, if it gives more satisfaction than frustration. This is a tricky thing, for sure, because it gets into much bigger questions about how we feel about ourselves generally. Part of my job as a guitar instructor is through demonstration and intuition to determine how fast I should move a student along. Will throwing a lot of new material at a student inspire or just frustrate them?
I really, really want each and every student to feel good about their playing. After all, they are not here because they have to be, they’re here because they want to be! One school of thought in the teaching of musical instruments is that a student should never move on to the next thing until they have thoroughly conquered what the teacher has presented. This is the classic way to teach guitar and for many decades it was standard operating procedure. Mel Bay, Alfred’s and other guitar courses began with Book 1, and when a student finished it they could move on to Book 2, and so on. This had value in a certain way and probably still does, especially for younger students. Youngsters have nothing to compare learning the guitar to except what happens in school, where they move from chapter to chapter in their text books. Also, to be quite frank and perhaps a bit cynical, using those cut-and-dried methods is much, much easier for the teacher than having to prepare lessons each week for individual students. The little devil who sits on my shoulder and whispers in my ear says, oh wouldn’t THAT be nice!
But I don’t listen to him. I also don’t accept students under the age of ten for this and other reasons. I just hate those method books with their rigid regimen of note reading and exercises. Maybe I’m wrong but I believe they do more to discourage budding guitarists in the long run than make them feel good about their playing. Sure, after a year you can read and play the melody to “Down in the Valley” but do you really want to?!?
So I carefully plan lessons and always try to be aware of how a student feels about what he or she can do. Right now I have a student who is a pretty darn good player but he doesn’t think he is, and he gets very frustrated when he makes a mistake and often just stops playing when one happens. He’s only been with me for a couple months and I’ve been doing everything I know how to make him understand that he IS a good player and that a mistake here or there is nothing to stress out about. Sure we all want to play perfectly, but you know what? There is no such thing as a perfect guitar player! He recently heard me play at a regular gig I have and while he was intently listening I forced myself to screw up from time to time, so he could hear what I was talking about in his lessons. But I did keep going – I always impress on students the only real, common bond the listener and player have is the rhythm of the song. Break it, and you’ve only calling attention to a mistake. A mistake that most likely would have been unnoticed or at worst, immediately forgiven by the listeners. I’ll keep trying to make him feel good about his playing and I think he will, hopefully sooner rather than later. Because he really is a very good player. No lie!
Another thing that I deal with both myself and with students is how to measure success. I’ve said it before and I’ll say it again. I so wish I could do my first year or so of guitar playing all over again because I clearly remember the pure joy of being able to say, hey, I couldn’t play that last week, and this week I can! Now I have to measure my success in terms of what can I do this YEAR that I couldn’t do last year. The trick it to believe that you will be better next week, next month, next year, whatever. I know that is hard for some, which gets back to that bigger question of how one feels about him or herself in a general sense. I won’t go there but I do hope that a person’s lessons with me are a positive experience and I vow to do everything I know to make them be.
So, like the old Bing Crosby song says, accentuate the positive. Resist falling into the trap of comparing your own playing to someone with much more experience. I’m not denying that natural talent is real and some have the propensity to learn at a faster rate than others. But when a song or a musical concept seems insurmountable don’t equate your inability to play it with some kind of larger failure. Maybe you’ll get it, sooner or late, maybe you won’t but the fact is you most likely do have songs that you know in your heart of hearts that you play pretty well or that at least you’re satisfied with. Play them. Then go back to the hard stuff for a little while. And have faith.
Peace & good music,