Teaching Guitar: The Dark Side
As the decades rolled by in my career as a guitar teacher, I found myself increasingly playing the role of a "student advocate". This happened for a very good reason: it became obvious that guitar students desparately needed an advocate, someone really looking out for their interests. I came to understand the actual experience of people who spend a lot of time, money, and effort in the attempt to learn this wonderful instrument. I was struck by the endless parade, over 40+ years, of people who have a sad history of years and decades taking lessons and trying to learn guitar with no success. Their stories are disturbing to me, and their despair is especially upsetting. And so, I have made it my business (literally) to examine and address the reasons for this situation.
My message is this: if you are doing what your teacher tells you, and you are not getting better, it’s your teacher’s fault! If you are not seeing old songs and pieces getting easier to play, if you seem to struggle with everything you try to learn, and simply move from one thing to another, AND you are doing everything your teacher tells you to do, then your teacher does not know how to teach YOU to play the guitar. Maybe they can teach some people, but obviously not you. They will probably try to put the blame on you, but it is their own lack of teaching ability. Some of you may find this shocking, but I know it is true.
There is no shame in having a “lack of teaching ability”. There is quite a deal of shame in not RECOGNIZING the fact, and continuing to take people’s money without delivering the product. Because of “The Principles”, there is no longer any need for this situation to continue. I have said over and over, very boldly, that ANYONE who uses the Principles will learn to play, and become as good as they want to be. I prove it every day with those I teach in person, and my testimonials prove it with people around the world I have never met, but are using “The Principles” to achieve growth they didn’t think was possible.
I have gotten many letters from students telling me of their bad to awful to horrid experiences with guitar teachers. Here is an interesting excerpt from one of them:
“If I hadn’t run into so many horrid teachers on ego trips - who believe in the “purity” of music and put down one’s innate abilities instead of trying to work with you at your level of ability - I might have been much more advanced today. Music teachers seem to be in a class of their own. You don’t get the same abuse in physics or English or foreign language study.”
I believe this person is very correct: when it comes to “ego-trips” and intimidating, petty, self-protective behavior masking deep seated inferiority complexes, I believe guitar teachers are in a class by themselves. And there are very good reasons why you don’t find the uplifting purity in the teaching process that you do find from teachers of other disciplines, especially mathematics (I have always found that math teachers tend to be wonderful, superior teachers with a true love of the subject and a desire to pass it on).
The main reason is that many people out there teaching guitar DO NOT WANT TO BE TEACHING! They didn’t plan on it, they wanted to be performers, they wanted to be “stars”. They are frustrated. Many are really still trying to be stars, and will leave that teaching gig as soon as they don’t need the money! I will go so far as to say that sometimes they will harbor a secret contempt for the student, as if the student were to blame for their unfulfilled dreams. (I am not saying EVERY guitar teacher).
You students out there should keep this in mind as you go about trying to make progress based on your association with flesh and blood teachers. You very well may bump up against their “inner conflicts” and “quiet desperation”. I certainly did from time to time with some of my teachers.
It’s a Jungle Out There!
Now that I have psycho-analyzed the mindset of a great number of my fellow guitar teachers, I am sure I made a lot of new friends. In case there are any teachers left who I haven’t offended, I would like to make another excursion into the psychology of guitar teachers!
Part of my mission with GuitarPrinciples is to educate guitar students as to what is REALLY possible for them to achieve as players. I have seen with my own eyes that it is extremely common for students to have limitations placed upon them bry thier own teachers. for no good reason other that the fact that the teacher is really only able to produce results with students who already have “talent”. Of course, the student adopts these limitations as part of their own belief system, and it becomes a self fulfilling prophecy. “I am tone deaf”, “ I have no sense of rhythm”, “I’m just not musical”, “I’m too old”, and the litany goes on.
In the letter above, where a student was commenting on how guitar teachers seem to have this egotistical “we must do it my way, with the music I like” approach to every student, he wondered why guitar teachers in particular are so obnoxious in this way. I recieved some powerful insight into this back when I was first marketing "The Principles of Correct Practice For Guitar". I contacted a life long guitar teacher I came into contact with on the web, and, being my usual naive self, I sent this guy my book, figuring he would see how wonderful it is!
Well, not only didn’t he think my book was wonderful, he disclosed a whole lot about his philosophy of teaching. I showed his remarks to a friend, who made a very perceptive comment. She said “He is threatened by the statement you are making that anyone can learn to play the guitar well. He wants to feel that he has some special talent, not available to everyone.”
After much reflection, I believe my friend is right.
Here are excerpts from the letter I received, only a few days after I sent him my book.......
"Your book on “correct” practice techniques represents an approach which I fundamentally disagree with. You say, “I firmly believe that anyone can learn to play the guitar as well as they want to, if they have the correct information and use the correct approach.” This is simply not true.
There are many journeyman basketball players who work every bit as hard as Michael Jordan, who maybe use the same practice techniques as Michael Jordan, who wish they could be as good as Michael Jordan, who never will. We are all given a certain amount of talent or potential.
I also think that your statement that “anyone can play...as well as they want to..” seems to make the assumption that it’s all about technique and mechanics. How can you possibly think this when it is clear that some people have better ears than others, some have more natural rhythm, some are more naturally creative, some have less personal baggage.
It could cause a marginally talented person to think they have done something “wrong” when they have followed the formula and failed."
Let's leave aside the fact that in the 20 years since this teacher wrote this, his words have been absolutely refuted by the thousands of people around the world who have become guitar players, even after years of failed attempts, by using "The Principles". What struck me about this teacher’s reaction was his passionate and steadfast opposition to my book, even though he didn't read it! Because of what he said, and because he responded within a few days, I am quite confident he read the preface, and perhaps glanced through the book. He certainly didn’t try the exercises with his students and give it the time and thought that anyone who is using “The Principles” knows is required to even BEGIN to see the potential of this method of approaching the learning process as it relates to guitar.
He was poised to dis-agree from the beginning. Like most guitar teachers, he was quite proud of his particular viewpoints (as I am of mine), and he was ready to assert them as superior to someone else’s, even if he really had no understanding of what someone else’s viewpoint is (a mistake I never make). This teacher is obviously much more interested in passionately asserting his own viewpoints, and vehemently disagreeing with a different viewpoint, than in even understanding what he is dis-agreeing with!
What do you think would happen to you if you came in for lessons, and presented him with some “teaching challenges” he hasn’t seen before, and required a different approach than he is used to using? Do you think he would take the time and trouble to understand where you were coming from, especially if he had never seen anyone coming from that place before (which happens often as the years go by, there are a lot of different types of people out there!).
You would be labeled as one of those people with very limited “talent” and “potential”.
This ego based, sell-protective “attitude of limitation” is the primary characteristic you must be on guard against in lessons. You will be affected by it, you will inherit the legacy of that limitation, even as the teacher himself suffers it without knowing it. This does not mean you cannot learn anything from a teacher like this, you can learn a lot because they obviously have a lot of knowledge, you must step carefully however, especially if you are coming from a different place musically and temperamentally.
The next thing I want you to notice is the statement “We are all given a certain amount of talent and potential”. This is an extremely arrogant statement. It is the assumption of putting yourself in the position of not only assessing for someone where they are (talent), but also how far they will be able to go (potential).
I cannot count the number of great people I have read of, who at one time or another were told by some “expert” in their field, that they would never amount to anything, or achieve the goal they said they would. These people, after wisely ignoring the judgment placed upon them by some “expert”, then went out and became great in their field, usually achieving something no one else ever had.
While it may be true that we are all “given” something, to think that you can judge WHAT that something is, and then judge what that something can BECOME, is to presume a power that no one can truly have. Albert Einstein comes to mind first, being so unusual in his mental organization when he was a child, that the people around him could only conclude he was “retarded”. If there was any lack of ability, it was on the part of others to recognize the talent and potential that was really there. They couldn’t recognize it, because Einstein’s peculiar mental nature didn’t fit their pre-conceived notions of what intelligence SHOULD be. His peculiar mental nature led him to ponder questions no one else had ever thought of before, such as “What would happen if I sat on a beam of light and shined a flashlight ahead of me”, which led him to discover the relative nature of space and time. Not too shabby!
To base your teaching approach upon the judgment you have already made about how far a person can go, is a supreme violation. For myself, I am interested in the greatness that lies within every ordinary person. I look for it, I find it, I point you toward it, and together, we nurture it.
How Do People Become Experts?
There is a field of study, called “expert performance”. It is basically the study of “people who are great at doing something”, and trying to figure out why they are the way they are, and how they got to be that way. Anyone who begins to turn their thoughts to the subject of what is called “expert performance”, begins to notice a few things. The first thing that will strike you is how often you come upon the fact that these “expert performers” had the experience of very early instruction with “expert teachers”.
Bach, Mozart, Beethoven, Liszt, John Williams, the Romeros, Tiger Woods, all world class performers in their fields, and all recipients of excellent training, while very young. Then we learn other things. We learn that these people, as the years went on, began to make their respective fields of study the focus of their lives. This brings about a crucial developmental stage. At the end of this stage, the person emerges, like a butterfly from a cocoon, as an “expert performer”.
We notice other interesting things as we study this subject. We notice an interesting historical trend, where in any field of human performance, an individual will emerge who is far superior to anyone around him at the time. He is able to do things few, or no one else, can do. Then as years go by, usually one or two decades, more and more people pop up who can do the same things, just as well.
When Paganini, the great violin virtuoso of the 19th century came on the scene, he was so far beyond the violinists of his day, that people thought he had made a pact with the devil. He jealously guarded the secret of his technique, and would scoop up all the music from the orchestra after a concert so no one could study it.
As advanced as Paganini was, nowadays, any average, ordinary professional concert violinist can do what he did. The same is true of that icon of classical guitar in the 20th century, Andres Segovia. There are thousands of people the world over who now play at his level of technical ability, due to the advancements and increase of education in the study of the classical guitar.
There are many more examples of this in the field of music, and sports, (such as the 4 minute mile). They all serve to illustrate the fact that when we are wondering about our own ability to achieve a new skill, such as playing the guitar, there is every good reason in the world to absolutely abandon the way of thinking that says “Some people just have a gift for it, I don’t”, and to adopt the way of thinking that says, “There is a method that can be used by anyone to develop this skill, and it is simply a matter of discovering that method, and USING IT!"
A Scientific Report On "Expert Performance"
There was as landmark study in the '90's on the subject of "The Acquisition of Expert Performance and Deliberate Practice" by cogntive psychologist Dr. K. Anders Ericsson. This study revealed some startling insights about how people in varioius fields become experts. It especially highlighted the importance of what he called "deliberate practice". I have always called it "correct practice", because it is the only kind of practice that acually make us better!
Here are some excerpts from this study relevant to our discussion:
* “The role of early instruction and maximal parental support appears to be much more important than innate talent, and there are many examples of parents of exceptional performers who successfully designed optimal environments for their children without any concern about innate talent”.
Translation: whatever age you are, the most important thing for you to do is NOT to ask whether you have talent or not, but to CREATE your own learning environment, teachers, books, practice time, etc., and constantly use it and improve it. The “talent” will follow.
* “It is possible to study and analyze the mechanisms that mediate expert performance. The critical mechanisms reflect complex, domain-specific cognitive structures and skills that performers have acquired over extended periods of time. Hence, individuals do not achieve expert performance by gradually refining and extrapolating the performance they exhibited before starting to practice, but instead by restructuring the performance and acquiring new methods and skills.Individuals improve their performance and attain expert level not as an automatic consequence of more experience with an activity (more practice) but rather through structured learning and effortful adaption.
Translation: this statement is extremely important. It means that getting to be good or great is not a matter of “doing more of what you are already doing, or tend to do” (refining and extrapolating the performance they started with). Getting better, becoming good or great is a matter of acquiring new methods and skills. And these methods and skills can be taught. They can be copied by anyone, you, for instance, and when you do the same things, in the same way that the experts do, you will get the same powerful results they do!
* “Our analysis has shown that the central mechanisms mediating the superior performance of experts are ACQUIRED; therefore acquisition of relevant knowledge and skills may be the major limiting factor in attaining expert performance.”
Translation: This says it all. The “central mechanisms”, the key things that make an expert an expert, are acquired! They are gotten somehow, not inborn. Now, guess how they are gotten? By proper instruction and proper practice, that’s how! And the better the teacher, and the more diligent the student, the faster the process!
Do you realize what good news this is for all of us who want to be great guitar players? It means it is entirely possible; it is just a matter of finding the correct methods, and learning how to use them.
Do you realize what good news this is for all of us who just want to be able to play well, to be “good” guitar players? That is even easier, because it takes less time! There is absolutely no good reason why anyone who wants to play well is not able to learn how to do so. There is absolutely no good reason why anyone who wants to get better than they are cannot do so. There are, however, lots of bad reasons.
When the misguided teacher referenced above I told me I was wrong in saying anyone can learn to play as well as they want to, he was, in reality, wrong. He is, in fact, ignorant of the true state of affairs when it comes to learning advanced skills in particular areas. He wishes to perpetuate the myth and cult of the “gifted artist”, and exclude others desiring entry into the special club. He will help those who already have some “talent”, and he will limit and harm others who don’t.
When he said “ your method could cause a marginally talented person to think they have done something “wrong” when they have followed the formula and failed.”, he really missed the whole point. The main idea is to realize that if you have “failed”, if you are not getting results from your practice, you are practicing wrong! And the sooner you realize that the better!
Likewise, if you are not getting results from your lessons, the lessons are wrong, not you!
Let me end by making one last point. When I say anyone can become as good as they want to be, the operative word is WANT. What people say they want, and what they really want and are willing to work for are often two very different things. It is easy to say you want to be a great guitarist; it is another thing to back that up with your actions. Here is another interesting excerpt from the above quoted report:
“Expert performers design their lives to optimize their engagement in deliberate practice”.
The term “deliberate practice” means the kind of practice that is designed to cause improvement. In sports, it would be considered “training”, as opposed to just “playing the game”. For musicians, it means effective, correct practice intended to create an improvement in actual playing ability, what I call Vertical Growth, as opposed to just “playing the instrument”.
The report goes on to talk about how expert performers will generally arrange their lives so that they can practice at least 4 hours a day, and will arrange an afternoon nap so that evening hours can be utilized for more practice. This is exactly what I did when I was young.
I took a nap after school, and spent the rest of the time practicing the guitar and studying music. No, I didn’t keep up my grades in other subjects, and just got by as well as I could. I felt I had started guitar and music late (age 14) for my goals. I had no musical training as a child, and felt a great pressure to prepare myself to be able to do music for a living. So, I would never allow anything to stand in the way of my practice, and made many sacrifices because of it. I was determined that it would be guitar first, and everything else about life second. That is how people act when they really want something. If I had had the advantage of the kind of training that I can now provide for people, I would have made incredibly better progress in half the time, but you do what you have to do! (Would that have made me do my homework? Probably not!)
So, I stand by my contention that with the right information and the right approach, anyone can become as good as they want to be on the guitar. Most people have more modest goals with the guitar. Many people write to me and tell me they don’t intend to be great on the guitar, they just want to be good, and I think that’s wonderful, and absolutely possible for anyone. I am dedicated to making it possible for anyone.
I was thumbing through a book the other day, and came across a quote that says exactly what I am always trying to get across to my students: (Wilfred A Peterson)-“Great people are merely little people expanded, great lives are ordinary lives intensified”.
At Guitar Principles, helping you expand and intensify your relationship to guitar is the goal of all our work.