Mistaking guitar teacher confidence for competence

bigstockphoto_Heavy_Metal_3692633When I was a young child I thought my parents and teachers knew everything. Overtime my adult delusion turned to reality. Of course this is just part of growing up and realizing the Tooth fairy was Mum and Santa Claus was Dad in a red suit and cartoons were drawings done by actual people. In some cases even when we realize the reality we still like to believe some people are somehow superhuman and are free of imperfection. For many guitarists like Jimi Hendrix or Jimmy Page for me these mere mortals became Guitar Gods. Every note they played was perfection itself. Well so it seemed.

Guitar Idols

Idolizing is actually quite natural and healthy in the right dose provided you stay aware of reality. When we stop being able to distinguish the artist from their art I think its time to seek professional help. Idolizing is often what drives us to become larger than life and push beyond our perceived limits. For example if thousands of teens in the 60’s and beyond didn’t idolize Hendrix many of the great guitarists we see today may never have practiced the 4+ hours a day required of some of today’s best players.  To believe in big goals and dream big dreams often requires a big imagination and a lot of determination.

High expectations

Problems can occur when we take it all too seriously. Placing such high expectations on other people will often lead to disappointment not to mention the pressure bestowed upon your idol. As a teen I just assumed my teacher could play anything and everything. To me playing guitar was like driving a car. Someone who drives a car can drive anywhere right? The most over used phrase in the world of guitar students sounds something like “I know this amazing guitar player. He/She can play anything.” While there are certainly great guitar players around and some probably capable of demonstrating a broad range of musical styles I am yet to meet one who can play anything.  Everyone has limits and those limits are surprisingly narrow. Saying a guitarist can play anything would be like saying someone who speaks English can faithfully reproduce  every famous English literary work ever written. Shakespeare alone would require a decade or more of dedicated study. My point is don’t expect too much from your teacher. You should expect your teacher to have a solid understanding of guitar and how to teach but don’t be disappointed if on occasion your teacher is unsure and needs to do a little research. Great teachers are those who are willing to find the answers to your questions and not the ones who seem to have all the answers.

Contrary to popular belief

In a research study on doctors they found that those doctors who further researched a problem by looking through medical journals in front of their patients were more likely to reduce patient confidence yet those same very doctors were usually more accurate in their diagnosis and course of treatment. In other words they made fewer mistakes and by all accounts were better doctors. It definitely goes against our instincts. After all a guitarist on stage who needs to pull out a tab chart for a guitar solo would seem a little unusual right? The difference is when a teacher is presented with a problem they can either fake the answer to preserve your confidence (temporarily anyway) or do some research to ensure they come up with the best answer.

The smart teacher v the wise teacher

While there has been no formal study done on guitar teachers it is easy to see how the above situation could apply. The problem is we mistake confidence for competence. If your teacher is willing to admit they don’t know the answer this is at the very least a positive sign that they are not just going to pretend they have the answers. Yes a very experienced teacher may be able to answer 80% of your questions but they still don’t know all the answers and faking it may give you more confidence in them as a teacher but wouldn’t you prefer honesty? A saying I like is ‘A smart person has all the answers but a wise person asks questions’.

Good teachers ask questions

Students should therefore ask questions whenever they sense their teacher seems unsure. Dig a little deeper because many teachers believe they need to fake it so you don’t lose confidence in them especially during the first few lessons. A recent example came from a mother who said after the first lesson with her son’s new teacher that the teacher seemed to lack confidence so she requested a different teacher. The mother had rightly judged the situation except the teacher was actually very good but just unsure because the student was only 4 years old and the teacher was being cautious and was not hiding the fact that he was writing down questions to ask myself. The teacher was trained in working with young children but so far most of his students were older. He had observed 4 year olds being taught guitar but not personally conducted a lesson so he was naturally nervous. When I spoke to the teacher he said he was nervous but it went well considering but most importantly he had questions to ask. The teacher then spent all week preparing for the next lesson reading up, revising and asking lots of questions. By the 3rd week his confidence was way up and all went well. He still had much to learn but I know the 4yo student was in good hands because the teacher was not afraid to ask questions and admit he needed help. The best teachers I have found over the years are the ones who ask the most questions.

It pays to do some research

So next time your teacher seems unsure about how to answer your question notice whether they are willing to research the answer. If you are a beginner your teacher may very well have the answers but  don’t always expect a perfect answer. I have received many questions from students over the years where the answers have come to me after some research or reflection. There is often more than one answer to a question so it pays to research even when you do have the answer.

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