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9:00 am
Wed July 30, 2014

Teacher, Teach Thyself?

We are binge watching In Treatment, starring the marvelous Gabriel Byrne, and there is a relationship, in the most respectful terms, between certain elements of private counseling sessions and private music lessons.

My trusty, rustic Takemine classical, purchased in 1987, has been my faithful companion through many a circumstance and bad student. (Metronome and pick not included.)
My trusty, rustic Takemine classical, purchased in 1987, has been my faithful companion through many a circumstance and bad student. (Metronome and pick not included.)
Credit Jim Lange

Byrne's character, Dr. Paul Weston, is having all sorts of fits with his patients, his private life is fractured, and his detached therapeutic persona is shattered by the revelations of his own therapist, the bright and insightful Gina.

My life is nowhere near that level of upheaval, but there's no doubt I've had some strange encounters with students.

The dabblers.

Some students that only wanted to dip their proverbial toes in the water. These type students, seeing that actual work is involved, soon cool their initial enthusiasm (usually around lesson 6) and stop lessons. This might be the social media equivalent of a selfie: "Here's me, with a guitar." Next: here's you, without a guitar - which gathers dust.

Are their goals realistic? Not even close.

One student, a mature professional person, wondered, after a few weeks, "Why am I not making music like James Taylor?" This professional must have forgotten about the long hours required to become certified in her field.  Why would this not apply to guitar or to any worthwhile study?  People dismiss music as being easy and I accept that, but my amazement remains.

What to say, when to say it.

The imparting of my great wisdom is a difficult matter. The information has to be given out at the right time with the right person. No unnecessary dissertations, no prolonged explanations to beginners or even intermediates. You're confusing them and bogging them down with needless details. Get to the basics and stick to them.

I have made mistakes in this regard.

Waxing on philosophically, I told a student "you eventually become your own teacher." He took this literally and never showed up for another lesson.

That will teach me to open my stupid mouth.

Define the aim clearly and succinctly.

Then stand back and duck.

A professional man once consulted me and when asked about his goals, his answer was exact. He had had plenty of playing-in-a-band rockabilly experience, but wanted to learn how to play Bach correctly.

After three lessons, he realized that he would have to relearn everything. "That's too much work, " came his response after three lessons. He rightfully came to this conclusion and saved us both a lot of misery. Rockabilly and old Johann are not even miles apart: they are light years apart. Both require devotion, commitment, love and a helluva lot of work.

Can I teach that?

One kid came in, plugged in his electric guitar, complete with distortion pedal, and proceeded to perform all manner of heavy metal fingerboard acrobatics. When he finished, I smiled and simply said that he played very well. I even asked about his right hand technique. Many musicians cannot define what they do in concrete terms; that's for us teachers. Had he "blown me away"? - a common phrase for a revelatory musical performance.

Truth is, I don't play that style, not do I fully understand the whole esthetic of heavy metal music. It's a foreign country to me with a language all its own.

I was straight with him: if he wanted to learn theory, extended harmony beyond "power chords," or any other verisimilitude known to a classical-jazzy-latin-progressive guitarist who's main instrument is a nylon string, then yes, it could work. He could not cross over into my world any more than I could into his.

We weren't a good match and both concluded that it was best he searched elsewhere. This was an amicable parting.

Leave your baggage at the door.

There are dilettantes who come fully loaded with all sorts of misinformation, misconceptions and expectations.  More likely than not, these seem to be professional men who come armed with lots of information gleaned from magazines, what their friends have told them and all manner of research. The problem is clearing away all that noise and getting them to listen.

You don't have to prove you're smart nor well-informed. A spirit of cooperation and goodwill goes a lot further. Often, in these cases, there is a locking of horns over simple ideas.

"Put your left hand like this" I might proffer.

"Why?"

"Because your thumb and your forearm needs to support your fingers."

"But, I've seen so-and-so [insert name of famous guitarist here] do that."

I want to say, "Then go study with him and good luck with that," but I hold my tongue and gently tell them that it is a solid idea that will promote a fluid ease in the left hand. I can even detail the what, the why and the how. The questions don't bother me-that's a healthy skepticism to be encouraged.

These over-thinkers usually come back the next week with frustrations that these changes are not working out for them. Methinks they imagine themselves endowed with salty, Yankee ingenuity and can figure all this out on their lonesome.  I can't get through all that to teach them a thing.

This student did his biblio-knowledge dance for a few lessons and then disappeared for several weeks. Stopping by his house to sell him a guitar and I soon felt like I had dropped by a police station for a nice, grueling interrogation. He asked about those lessons he never attended and I told him that there is such a thing as continuity in teaching and that lessons, even if paid for, are not valid in perpetuity. The polite, but heating up debate continued until finally his wife, a symphonic musician came to my rescue by telling him, in no uncertain terms, to let it go. She feels the same way about lessons. His protestations ceased.

Yikes. Yowsa and all that.

Your work is your bliss. The area where I practice and write I call my bliss station.
Your work is your bliss. The area where I practice and write I call my bliss station.
Credit Jim Lange

Is it in a book?

Yes and no.

One man, after purchasing the required books, kept asking about other books that might further illuminate his study. Round and round we went, with him coming in weekly with new books.

There are great things to be found in music instruction books, but they mean nothing unless your work on them and ultimately, experience them. Words are meaningless compared to experience.

Are you calling me out?

A friend of mine told me a horrifying story about how a student, who was part of a large class he was teaching, "called him out" - or challenging him to play for them to prove that he could. Deep sigh.

I have had umpteen of these challenges, most of them by rank beginners, who use this tactic to deflect attention away from their own shortcomings in the weekly practice department. One classic example was when I was trying to inspire a rather laconic student by playing some fancy finger magic. His response was cryptic at first:

"Awesome tapping guitar."

"What?"

"Awesome tapping guitar. It's on YouTube."

In short order, he was frankly stating that my guitar soliloquy was not impressive and that this video of this player should be watched in order for me to get a more realistic assessment of my own, evidently, more humble abilities. This, from a student, who had missed way too many lessons, had a severe case of overconfidence, and could not, even at the end of the semester muster up the most basic of songs.

I have long since come to terms with my place in the guitar universe and am quite happy. My standard answer now is simple: " That player is terrific. I can't do what he/she does." The silence that follows is priceless as the purpose breaks and now the focus is back on the student. It was a way of deflecting responsibility away from the student.

"Now, what will you be working on this week?" I am an old, clever dog who understands every trick, every sleight-of-hand and every accountability escape clause that students devise.

The most horrible students ever.

I had a college student who complained that he felt like he wasn't being challenged enough and he outright did not like the music. I did not figure it out at the time, being a trusting soul, but he was chasing his tail and wasting time.

Every week, it was the same: "I don't like this piece. It's too hard." So, I'd set him onto another. Finally, it came down to he couldn't really play a complete anything-it was total fragmentation.

And I was to blame. ?

He told me it was my fault that he couldn't play anything. Dumbfounded and furious, I learned a lesson that changed every lesson to follow. I would no longer make offers to students of what they wanted to play. Nay, I tell them what to play and it's that or nothing. A college syllabus must be like a legal contract - unbreakable, no loopholes, written in clear and marked language. Even then, students will lie and say they did not get one if things go sideways for them.

Another tale is worth telling.

Sometimes you meet some real winners and I thought I had seen them all.

I went into the breach, so to speak, subbing for a teacher at a local university. This teacher had started a guitar class and was called away to active military service quite unexpectedly. I thought that this was going to an easy fit.

I was so wrong.

Those kids resented the school for taking away their teacher and they didn't take a shine to their sub. I have worked some tough crowds before, but these kids were like the high school kids with the same level of maturity.

No matter how hard I tried to win them over or to convey the new goals for the semester, they weren't giving an inch.

Then there was the one kid. Oh boy. He spent class time regaling us all with his strumming and flagrantly ignoring what the rest of the class was doing.

At the end of the semester, the moment of truth came when the playing exam took place.

There he sat, at first defiantly, using every off-the-wall excuse and reason he could summon as to why he could NOT play one of the required pieces. Note: not one note of any of the pieces could be played.

"I have a superiority complex, " he joked and began a long and convoluted plea to give him a passing grade. I'm sure my face was a red as the rage felt inside and it took everything to remain calm enough to keep repeating, "Which of these pieces would you like to start with?"

What a sight we must have been: this rebel-without-a-clue doing the soft shoe shuffle and his livid teacher repeating the same thing over and again. Perfect reality TV stuff.

I finally stated, "So, you cannot play ANY of these pieces?"

"No." He had run out of steam and pretense.

"Alright, Mr. So-and-so. Please send in the next student."

It should and could have ended there, but it didn't. No, he must prove himself to be a jerk of almost immeasurable proportions. He took his complaint to someone high on the academic chain. The music department chair told me about this and I felt like someone has dumped a bucket of ice cold water on me. This horrid brat, who not tried one iota to do the work, was trying to get me in trouble!

In the end, nothing came of the big bluff, but I did read the student evaluations and could guess which was his.

This isn't about the guitar at all.

Some only want a person of authority to recognize their talent or even more, to bolster their self-esteem. Many, young bright college kids are so full of self-doubt that they looked so pained when a lesson does not go well. They feel that they are letting me down. This is not the case. I am not emotionally engaged with the outcome. I am the biggest cheerleader when they succeed, but if they do not, it does not upset me. I point the path out again to them. That's my job, plain and unencumbered with emotion.

When I first started teaching privately in 1977, this  emotional detachment was impossible. A young musician is dealing with so many struggles  and most of the time, I was very emotionally volatile. You could wind me up without even trying. Age has given me the wisdom to become much more comfortable with all aspects of my musical life. I am one happy boy these days.

Because my teaching is usually private, one-to-one instruction, the thin barriers and boundaries between people can become permeable. I have felt my psyche invaded and students have tried getting into my head and trample around. This has to be prevented.

Did I mention every trick is used by college students?

Flirtation is often used as a way of insuring a good grade. College girls are the usual suspects in these cases.

The hilarious stories I could tell you. Let's meet over a good coffee for that one, yes?

I have had great students. And I love teaching.

Reading about my trials and tribulations may lead you to think that I am a rough teacher or that perhaps I don't enjoy it. This is far from the truth. I don't have to teach - I have my full-time job in radio.

Teaching is ultimately about learning. Learning how to communicate, to clearly define concepts that you may understand instinctively and to express yourself in the most concise and clearest terms.

A therapist must never make the therapy about themselves and, by the same token, a teacher must never make the lesson about their personal relationship with the guitar or music. I have learned to be detached: to be still, to observe, to compartmentalize my own relationship with music and the guitar.

I most sincerely want you to succeed and see that light come upon your face when you realize that you CAN do it. That brings me great joy and is the greatest joy of teaching. This is perhaps the divine element of teaching: the delight in seeing the growth of others; effecting positive change through music.

Well, it's back to In Treatment and poor Paul Weston. I hope he works his own issues.

Maybe a guitar would help?

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