After he left I was reflecting on guitar teachers I had early on and it came to me yet again how they shaped my teaching style. We’ve all had good and bad teachers, not only in music but also in school. What makes a good teacher?
I am also fortunate to be married to a wonderful lady who spent 35 years teaching in the public schools on the elementary level. I learned a lot from her too (I hope!) in terms of commitment, teaching style, and yes, sacrifice for your students. Although I studied music education in college as a music major I seriously doubt I could have held out for 35 years in a classroom environment. At least I have the advantage of teaching people who WANT to be here, rather than those who HAVE to be here!
Anyway, here’s a rundown of guitar teachers I had early on and at least some of what I learned from them.
My first teacher was a very stern lady of German descent named Mrs. Bucholz. She taught out of her house not far from where I grew up in Mystic, Connecticut. My parents decided that I was serious enough to warrant their investment in lessons. Problem was, Mrs. Bucholz was a rigid classical style teacher and player and my interests at age 12 ran to folk music, especially the music of Peter, Paul & Mary. In her view this was a total waste of time and effort. In fact, when I would begin to play the first few measures of “Freight Train” she would brusquely tell me to stop and get back to slogging through some Carulli etude in Alfred’s Guitar Method, Book 1. Ugh. I hated it. The positive take-away here was that I did learn to read guitar music. And I stuck it out for longer than I might have, possibly because she had a very cute teenage daughter who would be around from time to time!
A couple years later, after attending a couple Newport Folk Festivals and sitting almost at the feet of the likes of Mississippi John Hurt, Reverend Gary Davis, Bukka White and Dave Van Ronk I got into acoustic blues. Upon hearing my sorry attempts at that style, my dad thought it would be a good idea if I took some jazz guitar lessons. Now, to my immature mind, jazz had nothing whatsoever to do with acoustic blues (yeah, right…) but I agreed. I began lessons at the venerable Harry’s Music in New London with a young man who was attending the local Coast Guard Academy, most likely the jazz guitarist with their famous band. He immediately tried to impress on me the importance of barre chords – yikes! – and fancy inversions. I bailed after a few lessons. My bad. I still regret that to this day. But I did learn how to play a full barre F Major. He was a nice enough guy though and it made me realize that you didn’t need to be a hard ass to be a good music teacher.
Many years passed when I played in many groups and mostly learned stuff on my own and from other players. Then about 20 years ago I decided I really needed to learn to be a better jazz guitarist and began lessons with a great player in Boston, whose name escapes me now but along with many years of professional experience playing jazz he had toured extensively with Bo Diddley (which he kind of poo-poo’ed). Anyway, as good a player as he was, his communication skills and enthusiasm were definitely lacking. I would stop him while he played and say, hey, how did you do that? And he was either unable or unwilling to explain and demonstrate at a speed I could comprehend. When I asked him about constructing a solo he would say – just play what you hear! Problem was, I didn’t hear anything…. Lesson learned, as it related to my own teaching. Communication is essential to the learning experience.
My most recent teacher was the very best. He is a fantastic jazz guitarist named Jim Robitaille. He lives in New Bedford and plays frequently in the area in groups, duos and as a single. Jim understands that everyone learns at different speeds and most importantly he listens not only to the student’s playing but also their questions, concerns and frustrations. In fact, I’m overdue for a “check-up” with Jim!
I guess what I’m getting to here is the importance of not hanging on with a teacher with whom you don’t connect but have faith in one with whom you do. But also be open minded enough to know where the issues lie – with the teacher or your own expectations.
Peace & good music,