Student Abuse

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, as long as they weren’t too discriminating! I was not hired because I knew anything about teaching. In fact, I don’t believe the subject of whether or not I knew anything about “how to teach” was ever mentioned. I was being hired to teach, to transfer knowledge to other people and have it turn into “skill”, the ability to do something, in this case, play the guitar. But my new employers did not make any effort to see if I could actually DO that, beyond requiring me to give a recital to show I could play my instrument.

This was not your local music store selling merchandise and also offering lessons in order to enjoy a second revenue stream and the benefits of increased traffic. This was a music school run by conservatory trained musicians; conductors, violinists, pianists, etc.. Like the average person, perhaps even they knowingly or unknowingly subscribe to the belief that someone is capable of teaching effectively and creating real results, simply because they are able to DO something, simply because they have a natural talent for it.

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!).

Whatever the case may be, I myself proved quite satisfactorily that it is possible to be able to do something, and not at all be able to CAUSE someone else to be able to do it. Many people find something that, for some reason, they find very easy to develop skill with, and they may very well develop that skill, at a very, very fast rate. Some people are just going to take to that basketball, or that guitar, in a big way. They may also start to spend a whole lot of time doing that particular thing, and because of doing this, they may approach the professional level.

But I have this stinging memory of sitting in a lesson with a girl around my age, in one of my early “lessons”. I was teaching her classical guitar. She already played guitar, so she wasn’t a total beginner, but she was new to classical guitar. So, I naturally started giving her the same material that I had begun my classical study with, the Carcassi and Sor collection of studies quite common for classical students. I really didn’t have much trouble with them, so I naturally thought this was a good approach.

Well I have a memory of watching this poor girl really struggling, really being unable to meet the demands of this music. In fact, from my experience now, I see that I was probably witnessing the beginning stages of the kind of handicapping playing problems that can even result in serious physical injury. She just couldn’t put it together. Nowadays, I do anywhere from 2 to 5 years of preparation with a student before putting them into those pieces. There are bars, half bars, and other difficult left hand positions that must be held WHILE you are doing complex and fast right hand patterns. If you are spending an hour or more a day practicing this stuff, AND holding unknown and unfelt tensions in your body, you WILL hurt yourself. I hear the stories all the time; people forced to stop playing because of serious injury to muscles and joints, sometimes for years.

As I sat there, I remember a series of feelings. First, helplessness. Then, confusion, I didn’t know what to do, other than show her how I could play it (I’m sure that made her feel good!) Finally, I felt hopelessness. I started not enjoying teaching. I felt like I didn’t know what I was doing. I felt this way because I was right, I didn’t know what I was doing!

Well, I did know one thing I was doing. I was torturing people and taking money for it! I didn’t consciously realize it, but I must have felt intuitively what I was really doing to this poor student. I was requiring her to deal with music that I had absolutely not prepared her for.

I quit teaching for about two years. When I started again, privately, not at that school anymore, I tried to actually THINK about what I was doing, and how I was teaching people. I began to develop practice methods, teach them to my students, and be very focused on getting results. Even so, it was a long and gradual process of learning ALL the ins and outs of what playing the guitar is about, and why so many people have such a wide variety of difficulties with its many aspects. Over time, I guess all of this became my book, “The Principles of Correct Practice For Guitar”.

I realize now that I wasn’t just witnessing that girl’s ruination as a guitarist, I was allowing it, in fact, I was causing it! I was causing it because I was in the position of responsibility for whatever results occurred (assuming she was doing what I told her to do), and I didn’t know HOW to create good results. I don’t think we could expect that it was her job to figure out how to “get it”, or “put it together”. No, I was getting paid for that. This girl was not only NOT getting what she paid for, guitar playing ability, she was getting some possible medical conditions instead, not to mention a very probably a lifetime of saying to herself “gee, I really wanted to play the guitar when I was younger, especially classical guitar, but I just didn’t have the talent”.

Of course, the only person deficient in talent was me, as a teacher!

As the years went by, the only excuse I could give myself as some bit of solace was that maybe I was pretty terrible, but as guitar teachers go, I was “par for the course”. At that time, my teaching was the usual hit-or-miss approach. It was “sure, come on, take lessons with me. Maybe you’ll actually learn to play, and maybe not. One thing is for sure though, I WILL get paid. If you don’t learn to play, well, I guess you just don’t have what it takes”. I know that many of you players and students out there know this is a common scenario, I get your letters. There are a whole lot of guitar students sitting in lesson rooms around the world, feeling like they are not getting anywhere, or at least not anywhere past where they already are. And the other person in the room (as in “teacher”) is not able to do anything about it, except say “well, keep practicing”, and “oh by the way, do you have the check?, oh yeah and “see you next week”.

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! You don’t expect a 7 year old to be able to exercise the kind of judgment that requires the experience of an adult, or even a 17 year old. IF you do so, you are harming them. That’s why they call it abuse.

No, it is a parents DUTY to KNOW what is developmentally appropriate. If they don’t know, they are supposed to find out! Don’t take the job if you don’t take the training!

Well, personally, I don’t see a difference. 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. The “child” in the student is the entity that, hopefully, will develop into the accomplished practitioner of whatever is being learned. Perhaps they will become a parent themselves, and teach other people. And that is why, when I see so much evidence of absolutely ignorant teaching, so much “attitude” on the part of teachers themselves about even getting a clue about what they are doing, I can only call it “Student Abuse”.

I would like to illustrate some of the atrocities that I have seen. And I do so not simply for the sake of pointing the finger of blame, although I have no problem with doing that when it is simply the truth. But I do so for two reasons. First, 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 good obedient 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 first. That’s where the “I guess I just don’t have the talent” part comes in. When no progress is made by the student, the unspoken assumption is that the student lacks ability to learn, not that the teacher lacks ability to teach.

My second motivation comes from the fact that I happen to know a truth that is supremely important: it is possible for any normally functioning person to play the guitar well enough to fulfill the goals of the average aspiring student. Further, it is possible for any normally functioning person to achieve the professional level of playing if they put the same amount of time and focus into it as one would for any highly sophisticated skill or profession, AND if the student receives competent instruction every step of the way.

However, guitar students should know that the people they go to for instruction, the “guitar teacher”, is often particularly opposed to using “methods” or “systems” in teaching. For a number of years, I taught guitar in a local music shop, along with many other teachers. I was developing many teaching “systems” for different styles and levels of students, and investigating many books on teaching guitar. I was the only guitar teacher who used “method books” in the store. When I would talk about the different books to other teachers, they would have disdain for the idea of using books in teaching! I think they felt it was an encroachment upon their divine status as possessors and purveyors of the magic power of playing the guitar, which I guess they would impart to the chosen few by a tap on the head or something. I thought they were stupid and lazy, and I still think so.

Guitar students must wake up to a number of truths concerning the goals they have, and the means by which they seek to achieve those goals. They must understand that this prideful attitude on the part of many so called guitar teachers stands like a guardian at the gates of guitaristic ability. They must understand that a professional guitarist, or those attempting to be one, often feel like part of their ability to actually survive and thrive in this very practical world, depends on ensuring that they themselves are viewed and venerated by the common person as possessed of a special, magical power, and so they often try to keep a certain distance and respect between those who can cause the magic to flow out of that wooden box (themselves) and those who will gather in groups and listen to them (everyone else in the world, audiences).

The psychology behind all this is buried very deeply inside all of us. We use the word “star” to denote famous people. We have “movie stars”, and “rock stars”. Well, what is a star? It is an extremely distant, luminous and awe-inspiring object, which we may gaze upon in awe and wonder, but know we can never touch. There are two kinds of people in the world, those who want to be “stars”, and those who want to worship them. I advise you to be neither. It is the very desire to worship a star that keeps a person from attaining the same position. Yes, talented people who have developed their talent are wonderful, but not when they put themselves in the position of “teachers” and still act like stars, subtly re-enforcing the inevitable distance between themselves and their students, as if their students were nothing but more audience members!

This explains the haughty attitude often met with in guitar player/teachers. I remember how I felt when I watched a video of Segovia teaching a master class. He had this poor woman, quite an advanced player, playing the Bach Chaconne. For about an hour, he tortured this player with facial expressions, gesticulations, and other direct and indirect methods of reducing someone to a state of utter despair. He mocked her for not being able to make a particular stretch for a chord, one that I doubt most people could make. He told her even his wife could do it! I can’t do it! Moreover, upon careful listening of a John Williams recording,of the Chaconne, one can hear him shift to a position where that chord is much easier (avoiding the stretch that Segovia’s wife can do), so John Williams doesn’t do it either. At the end of the “lesson”, after he has taken her apart, and neglected to put her back together, Segovia gives her a sheepish kind of grin, as if to say, “okay, you can get up now and leave, now that we both, as well as the audience, understand that you don’t quite “have it”.

After such a condemnation without anything constructive, I would have, especially in my fragile younger years, felt like killing myself . It was as if he needed to clearly re-enforce his own untouchable status as an artist. This is why John Williams has said of Segovia in interviews “he was a lousy model as a teacher”.

The fact that so many guitar teachers, as well as guitar students, are completely unconscious of this pervasive and pernicious attitude was underscored for me recently upon viewing a video made by the author of one of the most popular books on the market today for classical guitarists. As I was watching this video, the author tells a little story of how he was teaching someone “Recuredos de la Alhambra” ( a venerated piece for classical guitar that often eludes those passionately desiring to play it well for years or a lifetime). He talks about how this woman was completely unprepared and unable to actually attempt this piece. This of course means that expecting her to be able to deal with the piece would be setting her up for failure, and doing her great harm physically and mentally as well, what we have defined as “abuse” above.

But, he blithely divulges to the audience that he was “teaching” her Recuerdos anyway because “he needed the money”! I couldn’t believe what I was hearing. It was hard to believe that this was how this person related to teaching the guitar, but it was even more incredible that he didn’t feel embarrassed about letting everyone know what he was capable of doing to them, and “for the money” no less! How is this different than someone going to a doctor because they have some dread disease, and the doctors says to himself “well, I know I can’t really do anything about their disease, but I need the money, so I’ll treat them for about a year”. Meanwhile, the patient gets worse.

I have met and taught many people who have endured this kind of abuse. I have met people who had to stop playing for years because of inflammed 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.

None of us are perfect, and we are not supposed to be, or required to be. We are, however, supposed to be working toward perfection. That is a constant in the school of life, and it is a characteristic of every great artist. What we are supposed to be, and required to be, is honest. Honesty, the love of the truth, is the fuel that propels us toward our next level of growth. This is true in the practice room, and in the teaching studio. Honesty on the part of the teacher and student, and between the teacher and student, is the pre-condition for getting past every barrier to growth that arises. It would be great if this honesty is practiced equally by student and teacher, but it must be practiced by the teacher. The teacher must truthfully acknowledge the reality of whatever is or is not happening with the student, and find out what to do about it, or stop taking money for doing nothing.

More and more, I hear from students who are beginning to wake up. They are beginning to become aware of what is really going on with them as they interact with the profession that they must turn to in order to fulfill their dreams of becoming guitarists. I hear from people who are beginning to demand more from their teachers, and who are firing teachers who are found 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. Let those teachers be put on notice, and held accountable for results.

I could go on and on with all the various manifestations of this “abuse syndrome” that I have seen, and the harm it has done. Sometimes it is done out of malicious intent, and sometimes out of plain old laziness and mediocrity. I hope that students will begin to learn what they SHOULD be getting from their teachers, and that teachers will realize the true seriousness of the job they do. Teaching music is in many cases providing nothing less than emotional salvation for many of the people of this world who are desperately driven to create music themselves, not to mention the other 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. When it is not, we get more of the Hell we allow, and so deserve.

Often, it is not until our later years that we fully realize, and fully despair of, the inadequacy of the guidance we received when we were young. Will Durant, in his monumental “History of Civilization” tells us about one of the most famous letters in history, a letter from the Mogul Emporer Aurangzab (1658-1707), who was reflecting on how badly he was educated by his appointed teacher. The teacher was coming to him after many years to ask for a recommendation to another court. Aurangzab refused, and listed in great detail all the ways in which his teacher failed to prepare him properly for life, and instead of serving the needs of his student, merely served his own vanity and pompous position. He said:

“if you had instructed me as you should have done, nothing would be more just; for a child well educated is obliged as much to his teacher as his father”. I still remember how you amused me with your airy questions of things that afford no satisfaction to the mind, and are of no use in humane society. All I retained of it was a multitude of dark words, proper to bewilder, perplex and tire out the best wits, and only invented the better to cover the vanity and ignorance of men like yourself that would make us believe that they know all, and that under those obscure and ambiguous words are hid great mysteries which they alone are capable of understanding.”

So, there is nothing new under the sun. But, I am hoping that in the little corner of life called “playing the guitar” where I have chosen to reside, there will dawn a new, and brighter day.

Copyright Jamie Andreas, Guitar Principles.