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Sunday, June 10, 2012

The One Who Won’t Go Away

Yes, I’m still here. My ultimate goal still eludes me. But little things keep me going. For example, this week I decided to see if my free stroke alternation has improved—since my main goal is to improve my rest stroke, I’ve virtually ignored free stroke during my right hand alternation practice sessions. To my surprise, when I tried doing free stroke alternation, I immediately felt awkward. Switching back to rest stroke felt like coming home to a better place. For me, this is momentous. Rest stroke has always felt like something other than my native language. I could do it, but never with the comfort or fluency of free stroke. So when rest stroke starts to feel like home, I don’t take it lightly.

Obviously I’m troubled by the fact that, kilometers from my goal, I’m progressing in millimeters. It heartens me, however, to know that I’m far more patient now than I was in my youth. When I first began playing the guitar in my teens, patience was alien to me. This, by the way, goes a long way to explain the current flaws in my playing. But today I’m far better able to practice with an untroubled mind. Frustration and impatience are symptoms of emotional baggage that throw obstacles in one’s path. If each morning I can confront my recalcitrant right hand with equanimity, then I’m more likely to sustain the work needed to solve my problems. Mind you, I’ll not overstate my serenity. I’m not Buddha, and the toddler in me is still there banging his little fists on the highchair. But he’s faded enough that he no longer runs the show.

As an aside, here’s something I like to tell students who are off to college: you can learn a lot, though it might be something your teachers never intended to teach you. During my project, for example, I’ve noticed that I’m sometimes dismissed as one who willfully ignores good advice by those who are telling me things I’ve tried many times before or things that make no sense. (An example of the latter is one who apparently thinks my technique would improve if I just ditched the metronome.) I get the distinct impression that some would be happy if I just admitted failure and quietly went away. This spotlights a delicate matter that some teachers would rather ignore.

There’s an old saying: “victory has a thousand fathers—defeat is an orphan.” Everyone is happy to associate with someone who succeeds. Guitar teachers are no different. We swell with pride over the students on our watch who get better. But what of the students who don’t? To be sure, some fail because they don’t do what they should. Obviously it’s unfair to blame teachers for the failure of students who ignore them. But what about the students who do what they’re told, and yet they fail? Very often they’re shunted aside. I’m reminded of a story one of my teachers told me. He was working with a student who, after working with another teacher, had come to him with severe hand problems. This student claimed he was practicing many hours a day. To see if this was true, my teacher talked to friends of this student. They emphatically confirmed that the student was an obsessive practicer. Yet when my teacher delicately tried to raise the subject of hand problems with the student’s teacher, the teacher airily dismissed this with “isn’t it amazing what some students will say to get out of practicing?”

To those who don’t teach for a living, it might be surprising to learn that much of what goes into a high reputation for teaching is a carefully manicured illusion. Bear in mind that I’m not talking about teachers who simply do what they do and let the chips fall where they may regarding their reputation. Rather, I’m talking about those who endlessly twiddle with their brand, ensuring the word goes out that they’re a cut above the rest. Some of this is true enough—some teachers really know what they’re doing, and are in essence broadcasting their real success. But much of this branding is hype. Seen from afar, a particular teacher might bear the look of the one who’ll take you to heights you’d never achieve on your own. Close up, however, you’re confronted with a jaded burnout who capriciously cancels lessons and couldn’t be bothered to teach you how to tie a shoe, much less learn how to play a Bach fugue.

Even good teachers hit a wall in what they can do. Most problems they can help you with, but some problems are more subtle and don’t yield to obvious solutions. Various teachers react in various ways. Some are intrigued by a seemingly unsolvable problem, and see it as a challenge. All too many, however, are annoyed. A student who works hard but inconveniently doesn’t progress goes against the brand. Rather than dimming the brand, it’s easier to blame or dump the student.

I am that inconvenient student. And I’m not going away. How one reacts to this can offer a glimpse into what one is (or would be) as a teacher.

——[My next update will be June 17, 2012]——

1 comment:

Anonymous said...

I just find it interesting that you regard replacing a faster free stroke alternation with a slower rest stroke one as "progress".
Surely, you've not only failed (so far, since improvement may well come soon and suddenly - and I hope so) to improve your rest stroke speed, but you've also lost a more important thing in the "naturalness" of your free stroke. I would strongly suggest that you work on free stroke alternation from now on.
On your original quest, have you tried having your better students look at the problems you are having? There's no substitute for personal attention, and they probably know you better than anyone commenting on the Internet...