Sometimes a student will say something that absolutely cracks me up. For example, one of my longtime students was struggling with a song recently and she reported that a certain chord in the song was so difficult and sounded so bad (and it wasn’t really all that bad!) that when she was trying to play it at home her fire alarm went off! Now, I’ve heard of negative reactions from pets and spouses but never from a dwelling! We had a good laugh over that one.
I encourage my students to sing with their guitar playing, at least in the privacy of their homes if they are uncomfortable doing it in front of me. Most mumble something about not having a good voice or being nervous about it and I do my best to convince them that it is unfair and unrealistic to compare their own singing voices to what they hear on a recording. Sometimes this is understood, sometimes not. But occasionally I’ll have a student who – and there is no other way to put this – just can’t sing a lick, but they don’t let that stop them! A guy who was with me not too long ago became a very fine player but his singing was not even remotely close to being in tune. Did that stop him? Hell, no! The bottom line was that he just loved doing it and who cares what it sounded like?!? Although I would never encourage him to do an open mic and sing, all I know is that he felt good and had no aspirations of glory. Good for him!!
For a couple summers a few years ago I had a college-age young woman who COULD sing, and sing very well. She was an average guitar player but worked hard on that part of her craft and began writing some very good and very personal songs. Being a summer resident here on Cape Cod she was not going to be someone I saw for too long but my biggest problem was trying to keep myself from just listening to her for the length of a lesson. I’m not sure what happened to her as we’re not in touch but my guess is that she is doing very well in performance and I keep hoping I’ll see her name in print somewhere.
Sometimes my job is to be a sounding board as much as a guitar teacher. In the last few years I’ve had quite a few students who were dealing with some serious health issues, or had a spouse who was, and I know that their guitar lesson is as much an escape from some harsh realities as a musical learning experience. I do credit myself with being a good listener and that can be vital sometimes. It can be hard to not let those stories get me down, though. Basically, and perhaps a bit selfishly it does help me keep my own life in perspective.
There are times though that things don’t work out as well as I’d like in terms of personalities. Fortunately this does not happen very often and I’ve learned to know when to suggest a student try a different teacher. A few years ago one of my students arrived with very high expectations – nothing wrong with that – but it came out over the course of a few lessons that she was deeply scarred emotionally from a nasty divorce. This affected just about every aspect of her life from what I gathered but sadly it also affected how she approached learning to play the guitar. I was as gentle with her as I could be but she was easily rattled by even the most basic musical concepts that were essential. She did not progress as she had hoped in spite of me trying just about every technique trick I know and her frustration turned to tears and then to anger. After a few months she stopped her lessons and I’m pretty certain that she blamed her lack of success on me. There have only been a couple times over my 40-plus years of teaching that something like this has happened and for a while it upset me quite a bit but I had to keep reminding myself that there were much bigger issues in play.
There are also occasions when I misread a student’s personality. Years ago, when I taught as much electric guitar as acoustic, once in a while I had to deal with the young stud guitar player who was certain he was going to be famous and didn’t really want anything more than for me to tell him how wonderful he was. OK, fair enough. His money was as green as anyone else’s. But there was a time or two that I made mistaken assumption that a new student happened to be that sort. I had to learn to dial back my immediate assumptions and this was a good thing; a couple of those young guys were doing nothing more that hiding their insecurities with bluster. I think that may have been the point that I learned to listen better and not let ego issues on both sides affect my teaching. Best of all, a couple of those young Guitar Heroes went on to play professionally and years later told me how much they enjoyed their lessons with me, although it certainly didn’t seem that way at the time!
These days most of my students are older and I only teach acoustic techniques although I still play the electric from time to time. Older students are wonderful in so many ways but the best may be that their life experiences, which they often share with me take the “long view.” Many will trust me with personal information (which I would never reveal) that brings our time together to a higher level. I sincerely appreciate this because playing music touches a part of our psyches that should inspire something oh so simple but fragile too: trust.
Peace & good music,