Friday, January 15, 2010

A Good Kettle of Fish

Each semester, the deck is reshuffled and new guitar students appear before me. It's a chaotic time with students usually dragging the process out for two to three weeks, but this year things are looking much better. We are pretty much organized at this early a date. That's not the usual mode, let me tell you.

I was a bit more organized and ordered the book in advance for the college bookstore. That has made all the difference. I once had a student drag this process out for about five weeks. For those of you who do not know, there are fifteen weeks to the lessons. It was terribly frustrating.
Most of the students fall into three categories: 1. They just want an easy one credit hour. 2. They want an easy one hour credit, but genuinely want to start the guitar. 3. They have had some experience on their own and realize that they are ready for the next level. And they need an easy one hour credit.

The goal of the average college student is to weasel. Oh yay, be not naive oh brethren and sisteren. That's why the syllabus is virtually airtight: to avoid giving the clever weasel a way out.


Long ago, I trusted in the basic goodness of students. Color me naive then. I do not have this belief now. Experience has taught me to mistrust.

I once had student who was not satisfied with the easy material that goes with learning to read music for the first time. He wanted more advanced pieces and I gave him some. Trouble was, the next week I asked to hear them, he'd struggle through a few bars or just outright declare that the piece was too difficult and could he try another. We went on this carousel for about 12 weeks before I realized what useless and circuitous path we were on. I forced him to choose pieces to play as a final exam. Well, he wasn't happy with that either. He started to blame his failure on me. Needless to say, neither of us were happy with each other, but I learned a very valuable lesson about what now appears on the setlist: A crystal clear set of objectives and skill set is outlined and you ain't gonna get out of it.

Another valuable lesson was a guy who missed so many lessons, I'd thought he'd dropped. He came sauntering in like nothing was amiss (He had balls, I'll give him that. Probably go on to a very successful political career.) and sat down. I tried to bury my anger and give him enough rope to hang himself and hang himself he did. Then, when all else failed, he lied and said that he hadn't gotten a syllabus. Then started the old misdirection began: his absences were because of blah blah and he didn't have time, blah. Finally, the kid disappeared for two more weeks and to my utter astonishment then shows up at the jury (The final playing exam). As I stated, the guy had nerve. (If Special Forces needs a candidate for their sniper program, boy howdy do I have a name for them.) The kid played miserably and did not even enough. When he finished, he looked at me like I was supposed give him a standing ovation. It was horribly uncomfortable. My colleague bailed us all out with a polite, "Thank you. That's all we need to hear." He was failed because he failed to fulfill the requirements.

The private lesson is a one-on-one meeting and is so different from the anonymity that a large classroom can afford. It's an odd kind of experience to be sure. There's a whole set of dynamics that comes with it that the teacher has to be prepared for. Students might find it easier to show displeasure when you are being purely objective and less friendly as you teach them. They also might mistake your friendliness as flirting or being a pushover.

You can't win. Too serious a demeanor and you scare away students as being too mean. Too goofy and they don't take you seriously.

I have seen expressions fall into dissappointment as I give the harsh news that, "This isn't going well." I have seen young women smile with sure certainty that I was enchanted by their beauty only to realize that an A was not in their future.

I had one older student who, upon leaving for her lesson, would walk a short distance down the hall, only to turn around, shoot a glance at a certain region on me, then a sharp look up at my face. How do you handle that? You don't until it becomes an issue.

Most slackers accept their fate with quiet acceptance, but some choose to try to blame it on me.

Don't even try.

As I said to a student last night, "My friend, I have been doing this since 1987. I know all the angles." He smiled huge.

And probably went out and thought about one I haven't thought of yet.

No comments: