July 28, 2019

Student Abuse

Here is one of many stories that guitar students have written to me over the years….

Hi Jamie,

I have a history of hand problems, and I was searching for some instruction on proper form that might help. I was a student at GIT in the late 80s, and practiced about 15 hours a day, apparently without proper form (though my teachers never corrected me).

In return for my efforts I ended up in a cast, completely unable to play, and on doctor’s orders I put the guitar down for 5 years (yes, FIVE YEARS) to allow my ligaments to recover.

Thanks, Larry

Larry is a victim of what I call “student abuse”.

My (Short) History as an Abuser

When I was 17, I began my teaching career, being hired by the local music school where I had taken a few years of lessons. They hired me because I was a very advanced student who played well enough to impress most people.  I was not hired because I knew anything about teaching.

The people that hired me to teach made the major mistake of assuming that if someone has a natural talent for something and is able to DO something well, well then they somehow can make other people able to do that thing also.

My father had many natural talents. One of them, which he did enjoy showing off every once in a while, was wiggling his ears. God knows how he did it, but he could do “something” inside his mind, and access the right muscles, and make those little babies dance! Now, I seriously doubt he would have been able to teach me how to do it (although, to the best of my recollection, I never asked!).

Anyway, it didn’t take me very long to learn that I was a horrible teacher. How did I know? Because I kept watching student after student who was unable to do the things I had easily learned to do on guitar. I couldn’t understand why, but I hated the fact that I was taking people’s money and was not giving them what they were paying for. I was not able to make them better on guitar. Of course, I could keep “giving them stuff to play”, which is what happened to poor Larry from the story above.  

Instead, I quit teaching.

When I went back a few years later, I had begun to understand why I could play the guitar rather easily.  I started to become able to make other people do what I could do on guitar. That was over 40 years ago.

What Is Student Abuse?

I once read a very interesting definition of child abuse. It was “ To demand from a child behavior that is beyond their abilities, and developmentally inappropriate”. You don’t punish your two year old for not having the good sense of a five year old!  IF you do so, you are harming them. That’s why they call it abuse.

I have seen far too many cases where a teacher is giving the student music to learn that is far beyond their abilities. The student can only struggle and, like Larry, suffer the damage.  I can only call it “Student Abuse”.

I don’t see a difference between parenting and ANY teaching situation. Any student is a child when they come to their teacher, no matter what the age of the student, or the age of the teacher.

For me, the “child” in the student is the part of them that wants to become a guitar player.

It’s Not Your Fault

Like all victims of an abusive syndrome, the victim of the abuse rarely recognizes that they are being abused. No, quite the opposite.

Like all abuse victims, they believe that whatever nasty things are happening to them is their fault. And the person administering the abuse is always very happy to support that viewpoint. In fact, they will usually suggest and support it if the victim doesn’t think of it themselves. 

 When no progress is made by the student, the (unfortunately) typical reaction from the teacher  is to offer a number of explanations, all of which put the blame on the students inability to learn rather than the teachers inability to teach.

Student Horror Stories

Here are a few “favorites” from my list of true life stories I have heard from students as they tell me about their experience with guitar teachers:

  • My teacher told me I have no talent.
  • My teacher told me she gets so frustrated teaching me. I started getting physically sick with fear as I thought of going to my lesson.
  • My teacher told me he has to get a drink after our lesson.
  • My teacher told me to quit, I will never play well.

In all these cases, the student has simply never received the basic foundation of finger ability on the guitar that makes playing music on the guitar possible, easy and fun. To attempt to play difficult music without this foundation and to practice many hours a day for years, is an abuse syndrome that no teacher should allow.

I have met and taught many people who have endured this kind of abuse. I have met people )like Larry in the story above)  who had to stop playing for years because of inflamed joints, tendonitis, and all the other maladies that will descend upon someone who is allowed to grapple with the technical demands of music they are not ready for.

We can perhaps forgive the student. They don’t have the experience to know any better. But, the person who is supposed to be the “professional”, the one taking the money; he or she should certainly not allow this. He or she should know better, and act better.

I hear from people who are beginning to demand more from their teachers, and who are firing teachers who they find lacking. I say good; that is as it should be. How dare anyone treat so lightly and carelessly the sincere and often desperate desires of those willing to pay their money and their time to become guitarists. 

Teaching music is in many cases providing nothing less than emotional salvation. It is salvation for the people who are desperately driven to create music themselves and for the  billions of people who need the spiritual nourishment that musicians provide with the music they create. To do anything that frustrates or prevents the fulfillment of that desire for musical development on the part of the sincere student is just plain sinful.

Education is God’s Presence in this world. If there is one truly spiritual activity that we perform in relation to our fellow beings it is enabling their growth by sharing our knowledge, and sharing it with love. When it is done as it should be done, the world becomes more of the Heaven we are always praying for and are truly responsible for creating.

What did you think? I'd love to know your thoughts on this article, please leave a comment.

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  1. Wow this article is very well written and meaningful Jamie. Jeri sent me the link to read it and I enjoyed the read. I couldn’t agree more. Not everyone can teach and not everyone can teach well. There is a difference as you so clearly explained.

  2. Jamie, having bought your course and joined many of your classes it is clear to me that you sincerely want your students to develop the skills necessary to play the guitar. You are not just giving your students excellent instruction you are giving them love. I am so glad that I discovered you and your teaching method.

  3. That was an inspiring article, Jamie. As someone who struggles to find time and has followed instructors who've tried to accelerate the learning process through teaching difficult techniques and my own decision of attempting them which has led to setbacks which retarded my learning experience. This was eye opening and has led to my rethinking of the learning process. Thank you.

  4. Hi Jamie – Just want to share my appreciation of something I learned from you that several previous guitar teachers didn't show me…

    I've been wanting to play Green Day's "Minorty", including the intro which always gave me trouble.

    This week I finally played it at an open mic and, while not perfect :-), it went well. In addition to using deliberate practice to firm things up, what I found remarkably helpful was simply applying more pressure with the pick, as I learned in the string shifting exercise.

    While practicing, mistakes started cropping up with increased speed (haha – of course). I finally realized that in my attempt to go faster, I was inadvertently applying less and less pressure. Once I focused on maintaining good pressure, I was able to play at the original's tempo. Very satisfying experience :-).

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