August 30, 2011

A Guitar Teacher Gains Perspective


I love my students.

First of all, just the fact that they want to share in the study of music, and specifically guitar – something I’ve devoted my life to – automatically qualifies them for BFF status in my book. If they are highly motivated and not afraid of work (read: ready to kick some serious butt), then I get all misty-eyed just talking about their awesomeness.

But what about the student that you just KNOW has incredible potential, but never really wants to work hard enough to maximize it?

That’s the one that’ll break your heart.

Some students are just lazy, and some have yet to be convinced of the benefits of study and practice. Some are paralyzed by a lack of confidence or self-esteem.

Some are too immature to handle the delayed gratification that often comes with the territory of learning new skills. Some just like the idea of being a guitar player and balk at the idea of actually working at it.

Heck, some students come to guitar lessons more for the “therapy” and the personal interaction than the guitar playing.

The Space to Learn

If you take your coaching/mentoring seriously and you’re passionate about what you do, then you can really torture yourself over these students. You may tend to take their lack of progress on yourself, as if you’ve done something wrong. You wonder and ponder over how to motivate them.

As life would dictate, though, it’s impossible for me to motivate anyone or create enthusiasm in them – they must possess those elements already. I can only encourage them and give them the best information and strategies I can muster. They must then run with it.

One of my all-time favorite quotes on the learning process, by British instructor Nick Minnion, is simple yet profound, and speaks directly to this topic: “The space to learn is not between the teacher and student; it’s between the student and the guitar.”

You’ve got to invest yourself in anything to become good at it. That is, if you really want to become good at it. And who wouldn’t want to be good at guitar?

You’d be surprised.

This has been a tough lesson for me, as I’m just arrogant enough to believe that I can do anything.

Turn “Unmotivated Ursula” into a guitar champ? Sure, no big deal. With my eyes closed. Once Ursula witnesses my awesomeness, she will magically turn into the best student ever!

Not so fast.

Ursula has some issues to contend with – as do we all – but they are not MY issues. I can already play and I’ve done the work – the thousands of hours of work – to get to where I am. Now Ursula has to decide what she is willing to do.

Maybe she’s content just showing up, laughing a little, jamming a little, and going home. And I need to get okay with that. Ursula is not me, and she shouldn’t be.

Carl Jung, Sting and JB Share a Moment

As synchronicity would have it, I happened upon this great fitness blog by Matt Brown.

Matt is a personal trainer/coach and his article really resonated with me because I realized how absolutely accurate it is in terms of MY goals for my guitar students versus THEIR goals for themselves. The two are sometimes the same, sometimes not.

The students’ actions can be wildly different depending on their goals and motivation, and unfortunately, sometimes the end result will break your heart. As an instructor, you can often live and die with your students’ progress, so this is all about keeping perspective.

Check out this excerpt and freely substitute “guitar student” for personal training “client”:

An Outlook on Training Concerning Clients:

First off, let me start by saying that our clients don’t view training as we do. It isn’t their entire lives. They do not eat, breathe, and live it like we do. Although we try to instill this in them for their personal success, what we must do is educate them based on their goals and find common ground. Some don’t even know what they’re asking for nor do they realize the commitment it entails. Are they willing to do what they’re asking for?

The one hour-ers: Some want to look shredded and a buck 85 like in high school, but they weren’t really that shredded then. What they remember from then compared to how they look now are two different things. Is what they’re asking for realistic, based on their personality, work ethic, and discipline? Some just don’t give a crap.

I should say in a more positive manner, they give you the hour and not anything more outside of it. Training is a stop on the train, an hour away from the kids, an hour outside of team practice, games, or school, an hour away from the job they despise. They are going to have their two glasses of wine at night, they’re going to network at clubs, and they’re going to be on the computer until two in the morning. They’re going to do what they want because it’s a behavior that they don’t want to leave, their crutch if you will.

I did not mention this because it’s a bad thing, but when they expect results without having to make sacrifices, this situation isn’t good.

The converted: They do well most of the time and occasionally say “forget it”. I believe the majority of folks we see fall into this category if we’re doing a good job. The converted believe in you, listen to what you say, and are willing to make sacrifices to achieve their idea of success. They are conscious and choose to keep their eyes open to benefit their body.

The ass kickers: These folks are wired to not give in to normality, neither are they born to it. They eat clean, get to bed on time, and are in better shape than you if you’re doing your job correctly. These are the folks you train with to push yourself and challenge yourself. My 47-year-old female client can bust out 15 legit chin-ups. There aren’t too many guys doing that. Man up, guys.

I must add a side note: she is a genetic freak anyways and crazy strong, so she would fall into the category of, you work with them and try not to get them hurt. It’s like Buddy Morris said, “You don’t train (former Jet’s running back) Curtis Martin. You work with Curtis Martin.”

So what does this mean? This means choose your battles and don’t break your own heart. I learned this from my colleague, Ryan Burgess. It irritated me because I want all my clients to be ass kickers and not settle for anything but their best. However, if they don’t want to be ass kickers and are happy with just breaking a sweat, so be it.

Swallow your pride and ego. Let them be happy being them. You be happy being you. You have control over yourself and staying in the ass kicking zone, and when they decide to get serious, they can.

There’s Perspective…

Matt Brown gets it, and I’m slowly getting to that point myself.

As a person with tremendous passion for my subject, it has often been difficult to watch students treat that subject with less enthusiasm than I would like to see. But it’s getting a little easier. THEY are not ME, nor should they be.

Everyone can enjoy music or guitar in their own way. Sometimes you are really blessed and you find a student who matches your passion for guitar. Sometimes a student is good with “just breaking a sweat”, and that’s okay, too. After all, that student may not turn into a great player, but they may be the one who becomes a lifelong friend. And that’s even better.

“Let them be happy being them. You be happy being you.”

…And Then There’s Too Much Perspective

Spinal Tap

To lighten things up a little, let’s look at a great Spinal Tap moment, where the boys are staring down at the grave of Elvis at Graceland. Is there such a thing as “too much perspective”?

(Unfortunately, YouTube wouldn’t let me embed the video, so just follow the link. And be warned: there are two fleeting curse words in the clip. Ear muffs, if you’re the sensitive type.)

Spinal Tap Elvis Grave Scene – “Too Much Perspective”

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1 Comment »

  1. […] had quite a revelation about this in the last year and I’d like to share some lesson scenarios with you. Maybe you’ll […]

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Jim Bowley is a professional guitarist, teacher and blogger. A native of Baltimore, he has over 30 years of playing experience and an advanced degree in Music Education from Towson University. Jim lives in Bel Air, MD where he maintains a thriving private lesson studio and performs with his band, Remains of Radio.

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