A short while ago, on my Facebook and Instagram sites, I mentioned two principles that are critical for a guitar student’s success. The first is, what you do in between lessons determines your progress, and second, in between lessons you are your own teacher. But what does it mean to “be your own teacher”?
Just as teachers often assume a student knows what to do when, at the end of the lesson, we tell them to go home and “practice” (almost everyone doesn’t know what the concept truly entails), we also assume that students know what it means to “be your own teacher.” But what does “be your own teacher” really mean? Over the next few posts in my blog, I hope to help you answer that question.
The first key to being your own teacher is learning to listen, both to the information that is received from outside of us as well as the information that comes from within each of us.
Learning to hear our own playing, how we truly sound in performance, is incredibly challenging. So often we hear what we want to sound like (perhaps we have a favourite recording playing in our head) but we don’t accurately assess what is truly coming out of our instrument. This is where modern technology can be incredibly helpful. Recording our performance during a practice session, even if it is simply on our iPhone, and listening to the playback allows us the freedom to be our own teacher and critically assess our performance—both the good and the bad.
Many individuals when they hear a recording of themselves for the first time only hear the bad and this response can cripple their progress. Ironically, those who only hear the good in their playing can be just as crippled in their progress. We must listen very intently to our performance and identify what sections we like and how we might enhance their effectiveness, as well as hear what sections that are not what we thought they sounded like and figure out what corrections and adjustments to make. There are two sides to every coin and both must be recognized if it is to be of any value to us. We want to hear the good so that we can enhance what we are doing well and redirect our focus to the things that need further work, and we want to hear the not so good so that we can correct or modify the passage in question and make it into something that communicates what we intended.
I often tell my students that the tape recorder will be their best teacher. It does not excessively criticize us or bestow meaningless praise; it simply reflects back to us what is really going on. Once we are aware of what we are doing or not doing, we can often easily make the adjustments needed to get the results we are after. Sadly, we often fail to make the progress we desire simply because we are not paying attention to what is really coming out of our instrument. We can’t change what we can’t hear.
In addition to dealing with the information that comes from outside of us, we also need to listen to the information, particularly the messages, that comes from inside each of us. It has been said that the most powerful source of wisdom is within. For many students, the negative messages we tell our self cripples our progress. Sometimes we berate our self, which can make us increasingly afraid of failing or trying new things. Failing is part of the learning process and can be a valuable teacher. It can redirect our efforts if we are paying attention. Unfortunately, we are often ashamed of our failures and fail to learn the lesson. To “play” means to have fun, to amuse, entertain, and enjoy oneself. If we are constantly scolding or criticizing our self, the fun can be squashed pretty quickly and this can be very demotivating if not demoralizing. Similarly, if we are always telling our self how brilliant we are, how impeccable our playing is, we are probably missing the opportunity for us to truly reach our potential. We need to be fair, honest, and kind with our self. Being overly critical or bestowing excessive and insincere praise is not helpful to us as a person or to our musical progress.
In his book, The Seven Habits of Highly Effective People, Stephen Covey identifies listening as a core characteristic of successful individuals. “Seek first to understand, then to be understood” highlights the importance of listening. As creators, we want to be original artists and share our ideas and perspectives. However, I have learned that if we truly listen to others, it is then where we can truly discover the depth of our own thoughts and ideas. For example, when we are learning a composition that is new to us, to seek the intent and meaning that the composer intended (To seek means “to dig,” which requires concerted and sometimes backbreaking effort. It definitely isn’t passive) often becomes the inspiration and doorway to discovering the wealth of our own ideas. Too often we rush in and impose our own interpretation on a passage and then we miss the opportunity to truly discover the creative possibilities. When we misunderstand or ignore the intent of the composer, we often lose out on discovering the creative ideas that we have hidden inside us. However, when we truly understand the composer’s intentions, it gives us an amazing opportunity to discover our own, and then as interpreters, we have the opportunity to also be creators. In other words, when we truly hear what others have to say, in some strange way we also discover what it is we need and want to say.
To “listen” means to give one’s attention to. It means we must take notice of the information and messages we receive and respond appropriately. How we respond is the critical step. If we listen carefully and take the appropriate action, we having taken a critical step in becoming our own teacher.