The past year has been quite eventful both in the world of guitars and for me personally. I'll be talking about the guitar world next time but for now you'll have to listen to me ramble on about just what the heck it is that I do every day.
I’m pleased to say that I have a great bunch of students ranging in age from 10 to a gentleman in his mid 70s. Their abilities run the gamut from raw beginner to quite advanced and they keep me on my toes, musically speaking but also in another way. Part of my job is to teach them to play the guitar of course, or rather to teach them to teach themselves. But I never can forget that they are here because they want to be – not because they have to be.
It’s essential that I exhibit enthusiasm and encouragement. This is usually not a problem but sometimes I have to do a very fine balancing act. How hard to push a student is part of what I think about when I do my daily lesson planning before I begin teaching. We all have “good days” and “bad days” in our lives and I have to take that into account when a student who seemed to be doing fine comes to his or her lesson and just cannot even come close to playing what I presented in their previous lesson. Did I throw something at them that was well beyond their ability? I certainly hope not. Sometimes that does happen but not very often. I wouldn’t be much of a guitar teacher if I set my students up for failure. Or is it just a case of the student being tired or just plain cranky? If I sense this is the case I’ll take things very easy and perhaps we’ll go back and play something that the student knows well. The idea is to help them focus on what they CAN do, not what they can’t. This usually works.
Sometimes there are extenuating circumstances too. I can’t think of a politically correct way to say this so I’ll just be blunt. Occasionally I get a student whose weight prevents them from playing. If you have to hold your guitar a foot or more out it is all but impossible to reach around the neck. Learning correct hand position is difficult enough for someone with normal weight; a large person just can’t look over the guitar to locate the fingers correctly – or in most cases, reach around the neck at all. I’ve gone back and forth over this problem for years. Do I just tell the student straight up that the guitar probably isn’t their best choice of an instrument to learn or do I just keep my mouth shut? The few times I’ve encountered this issue over the last few years the student figures out pretty quickly that things are just not going to work out. But when they sadly announce they are going to stop lessons (with the reason usually unstated but completely obvious) I can’t help but feeling bad. Did I do enough to help them? Is there some way for an obese person to play the guitar that I don’t know about?
Then there’s the opposite problem: a student who is progressing fairly well but never seems to learn a song much past 80 percent of his potential. This can be quite a delicate situation. I certainly don’t want to dampen his enthusiasm. All I can really do is point out a simple fact of playing music. It is a far, far better thing to play a song that may be less challenging and play it as close to perfect as possible than to play something that’s complex but filled with mistakes. My approach is to point this out gently but frequently. Often times a funny thing happens. The student plays a complex piece that is unfortunately sloppy and filled with mistakes and bad technique for their spouse, significant other or friend, and the response is not exactly overwhelming. Then the student plays something rather simple, but played with confidence and perfection. The response from the listener is great. Lesson learned! Nothing succeeds like success, someone once said. I always know a student with great enthusiasm but somewhat shaky technique has gone to the next level, attitude-wise, when he casually plays a snatch of a tune he knows he can play well before he tackles the more difficult piece. What always follows is a new-found determination to clean up what he already knows – and be more diligent about the “little things” in new pieces I present.
As I’ve mentioned in this space before, sometimes ego rears its ugly head and I confess to having little patience with this. Strange as it may sound, every once in a while I get a new student who goes to great lengths to let me know that he really doesn’t need guitar lessons (yes, really – they actually say that!) but just needs to brush up or slightly expand his self-described expansive knowledge. Compounding this unpleasantness is the fact that this person is really, really bad at…. listening. To anyone but himself anyway. I suspect that what he really wants is not guitar lessons. He wants affirmation. I guess what he’d like me to say is, Gee, you are so great a player that I couldn’t possibly teach you anything! This is really a no-win situation. If I present something that is advanced and difficult and he can’t play it, his ego is bruised and he either is P.O.ed or lets me know he didn’t really want to learn that anyway – or both. If I offer something that he can play without much effort, it only proves what he’s already convinced himself of: that he is just an awesome player and really doesn’t need guitar lessons. Fortunately these types of students are rare but they do show up from time to time. They usually don’t last long. Which is just fine with me!
But what keeps me teaching guitar, after all these years, is a much more common type of student. He comes to me with little playing experience or a fair amount but he is excited and hungry for knowledge. He knows that learning the guitar can be a life long pursuit but he knows how to keep the experience in perspective. I absolutely love seeing students like this progress and sometimes I get the added bonus of making a new friend.
So I guess all I’m trying to say is that I know I’m very fortunate to be teaching and playing guitar. Some people dread going to work every day. I can’t wait to go out to the studio, look at the schedule and check my notes and plan what I’ll be presenting or working on with my students. As long as my fingers still work and I can hear music, I’ll keep doing it.
Peace & good music,