Teachers – in a class of their own

I recall doing an audition for a band a few years ago. The audition went pretty well I thought; all the players seemed happy with what I’d done.

Then the singer approached me and asked, ‘So, what do you do for a day job?’

‘I’m a guitar teacher,’ I replied.

She smirked at me and said, ‘Ahh… those who can, do. Those who can’t, teach.’

I hate that tired old saying, and I’ve heard it quite a few times over the years.

I said to her, ‘Well, there’s two extra categories that you didn’t mention. There are people who can do both, like me; and there are people who can’t do either, like you.’

Needless to say I didn’t get the gig.

My point is that teachers in all disciplines often seem to get a hard time. Many students assume that their science teacher is a failed research physicist; their drama teacher is a failed tv star; or their local guitar teacher is a failed rock god.

It is true that not everyone can teach, and this includes teachers. When it comes to guitar (my area of expertise), I’ve known some brilliant teachers and some hopeless ones. All have been excellent players. But the ability to effectively transfer thought processes from one mind to another doesn’t really have a lot to do with actual playing ability.

My best guitar teacher was Harry Alleman, an old chap with arthritis who couldn’t read music. He hardly ever said a word in lessons but he would quietly sit and play chords, rhythms, and songs. And I would sit and watch and copy his moves.

‘No. More like this,’ he’d say.  Or, ‘C# minor, 4th fret.’ Or whatever chord I was struggling with. I learned how to play from this gentle, wise old man and I treasure those memories.

On the other hand, the worst teacher I ever had was quite a famous player with a very impressive performance record. He talked incessantly during lessons and I didn’t understand a word of it. My questions were treated with disdain and I hardly touched the guitar during our sessions. I learned nothing from this man.

‘…those who can’t, teach’. The inherent message – that guitar teachers are failed performers – is insulting to all good teachers who may, or may not, have had a successful career in the music business.  My belief is that a good teacher should inspire a student to enjoy the instrument. That’s all – simply to enjoy playing the guitar. What comes as a result of that could be anything.

Conversely, a good student can inspire a teacher to enjoy the job. I remember a statement made by Steve Vai: ‘Teachers are the most important factor in the evolution of the human race.’ (Guitar World 1991)

A final thought. I’ve met guitar players over the years who proudly say, ‘Me? I’m self-taught, man!’ They then go on to talk about the tabs they read in magazines, the clips they absorb on YouTube, or the uncle ‘who used to be in a band’ who showed them some chords.

I believe that no one is completely self-taught. We may be self motivated, but our learning can come from many directions, including from those that have nothing to do with music. If we can keep our minds open, we can make everything a learning experience and enrich our lives tremendously.