Teaching By Travel Brochure

There is a certain situation that guitar students can easily find themselves in, or, put more correctly, there is a certain situation that a student may actually be in, and not know it. In fact, it would be good if they did find themselves in it, instead of just being in it without knowing it! It is the situation of being, what I call, "taught by travel brochure".

And what could I possibly mean by that? Well, I don't mean being taught long distance, or taking some kind of correspondence course. I mean something a bit more subtle, which I will lay out for you.

Many guitar players, along the course of their lives, become guitar teachers. They are often people who have a good amount of what is called "natural talent", which simply means the tendency to do the "right" thing when it comes to performing a set of skills. It's like there is some innate sense of how to go about something. It can even be something the body knows, but the mind doesn't quite know consciously what is being done. For instance, I have a sister who has always been a great singer. She just popped out of the box that way! Even when she was in the first grade, it was evident that she was a great singer. She obviously had the ability to just hear good singers, and then her mind and her body were able to put it together to produce the same results she heard other people get.

But even though I say it was her mind as well as her body, it doesn't mean it was her conscious mind. I doubt very much she could have described to others what she was doing, or have been able to bring someone without that talent closer to the state she was in, of being able to sing so well. In other words, at the subconscious level, her mind could direct her body to sing, and do things like using her vocal mechanism, support, etc., correctly; but at the conscious, verbal, analytical level, she did not know what she was doing.

This is the way it is for many guitarists who are considered good guitarists. They just pick it up and BINGO! Beautiful music happens, or at least, music! The problem comes when these people start to "guide" others to do the same thing...

When I discovered classical guitar, I had enough natural talent to teach myself to be able to "play the notes". I was able to learn pieces and play them fairly well, in tempo, and make them sound like music. I was able to get further on my own than, as I found out later, many people are able to take it even with a teacher. (The fact is though, I was also doing many things ass-backwards, and guaranteeing many playing problems I would have at more advanced levels, and have to undo later, but that is another subject). The point is, I was able to get relatively further than the average person, and didn't run into the same types of "beginner" problems that others had (I ran into more "advanced" problems).

Because of the fact that I never had to deal with "beginner" problems, when I began to teach I had no way of relating to the beginner problems that I was encountering in my students!

I couldn't understand why so many students couldn't just hear a passage and then play it. Or why they couldn't watch me play a scale run and then just move their fingers like that. I, like most other teachers, began by making the great cardinal mistake of teaching: I taught the way I had learned. I assumed that just because a certain approach worked for me, it would work for everybody. I soon found out I was making the wrong assumption!

I realized that teaching this way only yielded hit or miss results. Of course, the really "talented" people would benefit. Those people will learn something from any teacher. But my student body was becoming full of people who basically made no fundamental progress; they only made what I have called "Horizontal Growth". You can make horizontal growth (playing more stuff the same way) on your own; you don't have to pay somebody for it!

Dealing with this realization is what led me to develop the teaching methods I use today. But I am writing this to warn all guitar students and to advise all guitar teachers: the world is full of guitar teachers who haven't become aware of these things, and who only keep students "busy" learning more stuff, and playing it in the same "handicapped" fashion! They do not turn out, consistently, good players. I am not saying this in order to accuse or point fingers. It is just a statement of fact, based on knowing many guitar teachers throughout the years, and hundreds, if not thousands, of students. I am saying it because it needs to be said.

I have often thought that if reading and writing were taught in the same ineffective manner as the guitar is, we would be a world full of illiterates! (And at one time, we were, because the systems of effective teaching did, in fact, not exist.)

And I am not saying all teachers are like this. In fact, I am sure we all fall somewhere in the spectrum from "horrible" to "wonderful", and personally, I am learning all the time. But I believe the vast majority of teachers, (and this is probably true for teachers of anything) don't work to improve their teaching skills, modify their teaching style, or learn to improve the results they get from their students as the years go by.

No, I believe many teachers fall into the category of "teaching by travel brochure", and here is what I mean by that. Because the "talented teacher" has never had to experience the "beginner problems", they don't know how to lead the student from "beginner hell" to "talent paradise". The best they can do is describe, or demonstrate (by playing) what it is like to live in "talent paradise".

When the student can't "get" something, the teacher will grab his guitar and rip off that lick or whatever, and say "It's like this!" and then stare at the student, and wait for them to repeat it back (because that's what they, the teacher, were able to do when they were the student).

It's like, for instance, I grew up in a wonderful paradise island, and you live in a ghetto. You want to come to the Paradise Island and are asking me for directions. Well, since I didn't come from the ghetto, I can't tell you the steps to take to get here! I can only describe what it is like once you are here!

So, you ask me for directions, and I send you a travel brochure, describing my wonderful island paradise.

Rather than helping you get here, I'll probably just make you feel a whole lot worse about where you live.

Great classical players like John Williams and Pepe Romero were taught from a very young age by their fathers, who were master teachers. They were supervised constantly in their practicing. They were prevented from developing the usual problems in basic technique on the instrument. Do you think they can relate to the way it feels for a player who has not been so blessed with that early training? Sympathize maybe; relate, I don't think so.

Chopin would play for a student, expect them to be able to play it back, and kick them out if they couldn't. I once heard a story from a student of Julian Bream. He asked how to do a certain technique, and Julian said in an annoyed tone, "You just do it". Segovia was known to play for a student and say "do as I do".

Is there something priceless and sublime to be learned by just seeing a Master play? Absolutely! I have had major revelations just by watching the way Segovia moved his right hand away from the strings. It said so much; but only after almost 30 years of my own playing experience. At another time, it would have been useless. (But I'd advise looking anyway!).

What to do about this situation? If you are a student, take a serious look at two things: your progress (think in terms of months), and your teacher. (I am assuming you are practicing and doing what your teacher tells you to do). Ask yourself these questions:

  1. Do I feel comfortable asking my teacher any question, no matter how stupid? Do I get the feeling the teacher gets annoyed with me if I do ask a stupid question (of course, there is no such thing as a stupid question, except the one you don't ask.)
  2. Do I feel like my teacher is constantly checking to make sure I am paying attention, and to make sure I understand? (Sometimes a student thinks they understand, but I know they don't!)
  3. Do I feel like my teacher will bend over backwards to make me understand something? Does my teacher try a hundred ways to explain something until I get it? Or until we decide I need further background in a particular area before I can understand a certain point.

Now if you are a teacher, it's very easy. Just be the kind of teacher who would get a yes on every one of those questions if your students answered them.

Teachers, never assume anything! Here is an example of a time when I became aware of an assumption I was making in teaching, an assumption that explained why a lot of students weren't making progress with things they were working on. In my own practicing, right from the beginning, I got in the habit of taking small sections of things, a measure of two, and doing them over and over, while watching my fingers. One day, I realized that my students never watched their fingers while practicing, and so they had no idea what their fingers were really doing, and therefore no ability to change a bad habit, because they didn't know they had a bad habit. Well, needless to say, I immediately declared it "National Finger Watching Month" for my students!

Don't assume your student is even listening to you when you speak. Often, they are not. And that must be addressed, before the subject you are trying to communicate is addressed. Often, a student is busy having an emotional reaction to something that just occurred in the lesson, so they are not listening from the part of their mind they need to be listening from in order to "get" what you are saying.

Being able to sense this in a student, and bring them to the right place, is an art in itself.

Develop the ability to "jump inside" the student. Experience what is going on in the lesson from their viewpoint. For instance, do you want to experience how weird it feels for an inexperienced left hand to fret a guitar? Just play yours using the right hand to fret! That's what it feels like in the beginning, and did for us to, but we forget.

Don't send your students a "travel brochure" when they are asking how to get from where they are to where you are. Go find where they are, and lead them out!

Jamie Andreas is a virtuoso classical guitarist from New York.

She started playing guitar at age 14, by 17 she was giving concerts and teaching guitar.

Jamie Andreas