How to Handle Your Guitar Teacher
Gerard began guitar lessons AFTER getting and working with “The Principles” for a few weeks on his own. Being armed with the knowledge in my book and THEN going into lessons can make the lesson experience very interesting, since it very well may be that the student will know many things about playing and learning the guitar that the teacher doesn’t know!
So, depending on the attitude and personality of the teacher, the student starting out with the preparation of knowing “The Principles” may very possibly have a confusing, or even unpleasant experience when they begin lessons. I was very struck by this fact after reading this letter, and so I decided to go into some detail about it.
Hi Jamie! I started guitar lessons about 3 weeks ago after having practiced with your methods for a few weeks first. However, the things my guitar teacher has me doing, which aren’t even that advanced (basic finger exercises), are still too advanced to be able to do without extreme sympathetic tension in my fingers.
My guitar teacher said that I shouldn’t be paying attention to that and even showed me how he still has that as well... It kind of has me confused on what to do, if I want to move at his pace and do his exercises, I might be teaching myself ‘bad’ habits - which my teacher doesn’t consider to be bad.
Any thoughts? Gerard
Well, I have to say to Gerard and everyone else that I can’t help but chuckle a little at his story! After teaching for so many years, and knowing so many guitar teachers throughout those years, I can just picture his situation. His teacher would probably like to take my book from him and burn it! Of course, the wisest thing he could do would be to take it and READ it, but if he were that kind of person, Gerard wouldn’t have to write that story!
I am happy to hear that Gerard noticed the fact that the pace his teacher was imposing on him, was, in fact, bad for his development. I hope to re-assure Gerard that, even though he is confused because someone with more experience than himself is telling him the tension he is playing with is not bad, he should not invalidate his own experience, his own understanding, and the evidence of his senses. I hope to convince Gerard that even though he is a beginner, he is, in fact, absolutely correct, and his teacher is WRONG!
That tension IS bad, and it will be BADDER as time goes on! The very idea that this teacher is telling him to NOT PAY ATTENTION to the tension in his fingers is enough to make me scream! Anyone familiar with my writings will know that this could be said to be the entire foundation of what I have called “the correct approach”. This teacher is just displaying an advanced state of ignorance by saying such a thing.
Believe me, when it comes to physical tensions allowed to remain while practicing, it is one of those “pay me now, or pay me later” situations. That is why I get letters everyday from longtime players saying things like “I’ve been playing for 30 years, and haven’t gotten any better in the last 25. After reading your essays I realize all the tension I am playing with, and now I know why I haven’t gotten any better”.
And I want to point out to everyone a very interesting phrase Gerard uses in his description. He says he is “confused about what to do, if I want to move at his (the teacher’s) pace”. Well, that is pretty much the crux of the matter. When a teacher is “teaching” a student, the only determinant of the proper “pace” is the pace that results in LEARNING taking place.
Do we want to keep up the teachers “pace”, and in the end, not learn anything, or in the case of motor skills like playing the guitar, learn WRONG, and become CRIPPLED over time? How ridiculous! This teacher is using the “Factory Assembly Line Approach”. He has thrown Gerard on the conveyer belt, which will whisk him through all the usual exercises at the usual speed so he can pop off the belt at the right time and be ready for the next regularly scheduled series of crippling exercises.
It often takes me close to a year to REALLY establish the correct, relaxed form in a student’s left hand that allows for effortless, high speed playing, especially of scales and the like. (This is the average student, not the person practicing many hours a day, it would happen much quicker for them). Students and many teachers just have no idea of what developing good technique is all about. Here this teacher is basically saying, “Look, I have faulty technique, and you can have it too!” I call that the stupid test! He wants to see how stupid you really are.
Also, when Gerard says “I probably won’t reach the required level of control for weeks or months”, he needs to understand that real control will NEVER arrive this way. You may develop the illusion of control, you may develop the ability to “hold it together” on a good day, when you are alone in your room and the sun shining. But try walking out on stage, or even playing for a friend when you have developed habits of tension in your practicing. You’ll see for yourself the truth of what I’m saying.
That kind of control is like living in a house made out of cardboard, like a stage prop. It’s great as long as you stand outside looking at it. Try living in it. Have someone come in, and start leaning against a wall. CRASH!, when the pressure is on!
The Sorry State of Guitar Pedagogy Today
In all my teaching years, when I have gotten students who had lessons with others, they were the products, to some degree, of that same insufficient approach. That is why I wrote the "Principles Of Correct Practice For Guitar". That is why my book is such an “Ah-ha” experience, especially for long time, struggling players.
At one time, they were in Gerard’s’ situation, where a teacher was saying “yeah, just go ahead, don’t pay attention to those knots of tension developing in your hands. You can learn to struggle through that! See, I can struggle through it!”.
And I am not saying the guy can’t play. I’m sure he can, at least to some degree. But I will tell you this without a doubt: he has his limits; he has problems that he cannot go beyond. A student may not be able to see them, but another player would. I have known many classical guitarists who would impress the average person greatly. But another player, of sufficient development, might come along and see many flaws that the average person cannot.
ALL players have LIMITS in their playing. Some are working always to expand those limits; many are simply staying within those limits. When someone is satisfied staying within their limitations, AND they teach, they cannot help but transfer those limitations to their students.
That is what is occurring with Gerard and his teacher. I say this to all students, especially those who have come into contact with “The Principles”, and want to integrate them into their approach to learning the guitar. When you get the kind of reaction that is the subject of this essay: you must be smarter and wiser than your teacher. YOU must realize the truth of what I have said in my book, and you must realize the limitations of your teacher.
And to Gerard, I am not saying you should leave this teacher, at least not yet. I am sure he has many things to teach you. Obviously, he knows more than you do about the guitar. But there are also things that he is NOT going to be able to teach you. And keeping your eye on what all those things are is your responsibility as the student.
You see, in this imperfect world, we have to accept the fact that we are not going to find that perfect teacher who will do it all for us, and give it all to us. We are just going to find teachers who are somewhere on the spectrum of competency in the art of teaching. Some may be great players and bad communicators. Some may have great knowledge, but no ability to package that knowledge in a logical, useful way, and parcel it out to the student in the correct order.
Every teacher is different, and I myself had teachers in every part of the spectrum. But one thing I always did was say to myself “How can I get the most out of this teacher, in the shortest time possible”. How can I help him or her to be the best teacher they can be? How can I make them be better at teaching?
Help Your Teacher Teach You Better!
If the teacher seems scattered and unfocused, jumping from one thing to another, don’t let him do that! Tell him you want to stay with a few things until you have really gone as far as you can go with them. Keep yourself focused and ordered in terms of the progress of your lessons. The teacher will either respond positively, and join you in your efforts to make the lesson experience more powerful and beneficial, or they will see you as a threat to their comfortable, bland existence.
If the teacher wants you to keep going at some pre-determined “pace”, whether you are learning the material or not, let him know you don’t mind staying with something until you get it. I frequently keep students on the same song, piece, exercise, whatever, for MONTHS.
I once had a student who insisted on staying with ONE piece (a classical study) for a full year! When we started, it was way beyond her. The work she did in that year changed her level as a player dramatically. She is incredibly better now. The music looks like a war was fought on it, and it was! She solved an incredible number of technical problems she was having, and now has greatly increased the range of material she can EASILY play.
This is an extreme case, but it proves the point. You, the student, should remain in control of the “pace” of your development. Guitar lessons are not “school”. You don’t have midterms coming up that you have to cram for. We are talking about art here, and becoming artists. There is nothing more personal and individualistic in our lives than our development and expression as artists. It requires and deserves the most individual approach, not the “Assembly Line” treatment. Whatever you skimp over, or allow to be skimped over, will come back to haunt you later.
Ask lots of questions. Leave no question unasked. Never be afraid to communicate your confusion to your teacher. If you find, however, that the teacher seems to get uncomfortable when you ask your questions, or even resentful, then jot that down in your mental notebook. Put it on the list that says “Reasons I May Have To Leave This Teacher Sooner or Later”.
Once the teacher lets you know he doesn’t want you asking all those pesky questions, then don’t push it any further, on that subject anyway. See if you can find an area where he doesn’t feel threatened by your questions, and try to pull some knowledge out of him over that subject matter. It’s your call. You may say “I’ll stick around for a while longer, I think I can make some more progress in a few areas of guitar playing that are important to me”, or you may say, “Hasta La Vista, Baby, I’m outta here!”
If The Teacher Tries to Shut You Up
Often, teachers may tell you that you are asking too many questions, that your questions are actually preventing you from “getting it” because you can only “get it” on some subliminal level, not on the verbal/ mental level of words and language. Most often, they say this simply because they don’t know HOW to convey something on the verbal/mental level, not because it is really not possible or it is harmful to do so.
When they tell you this, they are trying to put something over on you, sell you something and see if you’ll buy it and shut up! They’ll try to make you feel guilty for asking, trying to get you to believe you are damaging the teaching process by your questions, rather than taking it upon themselves to search inwardly for a way to get across to you what you don’t understand. Don’t buy into that. It is their problem, not yours.
Of course, it is true that a great amount of learning of any motor skill takes place on the subconscious level, underneath the level of words and thoughts. In fact, I believe that IS the most important thing to have going. That is how we all learned those extremely complex movements called walking and talking. We watched and we learned, no words. For many people, a great amount of learning to play an instrument takes place on that level. But for many people it does not! And even for those people with that ability, there will be many areas where verbal explanations and descriptions will be necessary in order to clarify confusion, and move beyond a limitation.
It is the teacher’s job to learn how to do that. It is the teacher’s job to make that effort, not to try to get you to stop bugging him. The only time I try to dissuade further questioning from a student over a topic is when I know they just don’t have enough knowledge yet to understand the full answer to their question, such as may happen often with theory questions. I let them know they don’t know enough yet, and then I try to give them a provisional answer that will serve in the meantime, kind of like when your kid asks where babies come from, and you say “well, dear, they come because Mommy and Daddy love each other very much!” We’ll fill in the details later!
The bottom line is this: teaching is the other side of learning. All dedicated teachers know how much they learn from their students. They know how wide and deep the range of their knowledge and perspective becomes by always being open to the questions and new influences that students invariably bring. Show me a teacher who is not allowing himself to learn from his students, and I’ll show you a teacher who is maintaining his own limitations. Don’t allow those limitations to become yours.