Being a teacher is hard.
Some days I wonder whether being a teacher is worth it.
Other teachers have told me in the past, “Students come and go. Don’t get too used to having any one student around, because they could be there one week, and quit the next week. You’re there to teach them how to play the guitar. That’s all.”
But no matter how hard I try to stay detached from my students, my heart doesn’t cooperate, and it aches because I DO care about them, not just as students, but as people.
I care when a student I’ve taught for seven years suddenly has stage fright before a recital and has to leave in embarrassment without playing.
I care when a student who has Asperger’s breaks down in his lesson because he is so frustrated with that ONE MEASURE OF MUSIC which keeps being played incorrectly.
I care when a teenage student cries during her lesson because her mother was just diagnosed with breast cancer.
I care when a young student hangs his head in shame as his father suddenly berates him in front of his classmates for playing the wrong rhythm too many times.
I care when a student stands silently by the door as his father brokenly tells me that they will not be at lessons for the next few weeks, because his wife, the boy’s mother, is dying in the hospital.
I care when a student says that she didn’t practice all week because she was up until one o’clock every night studying for the exams that will determine if she can go to college.
I care when a student’s voice trembles as he tells me that he can’t come to a performance because he has to be with his father that weekend, and his father doesn’t support his guitar playing.
It’s hard to sit back in my teacher’s chair and simply, humbly, offer what few words I can to comfort. I am only supposed to be the music instructor. But my mother’s heart wants to bind up the wounds. So we go on in the lesson and I try to tell my students about key changes and the difference between free-stroke and rest-stroke and what the notes on the sixth string are, and then I go home and ache for the hurt these children experience.
Being a teacher is so hard.
But it IS worth it because music brings a ray of hope and loveliness and freshness and meaning and real LIFE to their lives.
My students go home. They walk their fingers across the strings and they learn determination. They are angry or happy or sad and they turn to the guitar to express their emotions without words. They persevere and pick up the guitar day after day, week after week, and they grow a few notes closer to beauty.
Then I know that being a teacher is worth it.
At a master class this weekend, Olivier Chassain, an incredible guitarist and professor from France, gave a wonderful answer when I asked him what is most important for children to gain from their weekly music lesson.
“A smile”, he said.
“They should come in with a smile, they should go out with a smile. If they are no longer smiling when they play the guitar, then there is no point.”
What, indeed, is the purpose of music if you don’t want to play it?
Music helps us feel. It eases us through the hard feelings. It provides a vessel for unspoken longings, injuries, dreams, wishes, exultations, speculations, loves.
Giving music to someone else is a gift. When I imagine as I teach that every music lesson is an opportunity for me to hand each student a tiny present, wrapped up with imaginary colorful paper and ribbon, then I can approach the children with excitement, eager to help them unwrap their potential so that they too can give tiny gifts to others.
Watching Maestro Chassain teach this past weekend was a reminder to me that being a teacher, while difficult, is all about discovering the glory of music so that it can be shared with the world. Every once in a while, all teachers need to remember why they should continue to care.
“Give the best of you!” Maestro Chassain urged the guitarists at the master classes. “Don’t be reserved; be generous. Be inventive when you play! Take a risk! Life is risky from the minute you stand up and quit your bed.”
This journey is not an easy one. It is dangerous to care about the children who pass through my studio every week, knowing that one day even the best of them will come for their last lesson, before moving on to bigger and better things, as they rightly should. My hope is to inspire children to love music, learn more about themselves and their abilities as they grow, and finally to understand what it means to share the heart of music with their friends, families, and audiences.
Even if most of my students never become professional guitarists, hopefully one day they will look back fondly on their explorations into the realm of classical guitar. Maybe a few will pick their guitars back up as adults, to enjoy music as a relaxing hobby or to play along with a friend. One or two students may end up joining me on the path of music as a career. But no matter what my students choose to do individually, I want to teach them all this truth: a true musician must be willing to put their own self into the music so that it carries the depth of soul that will connect to every listening ear.
“Life is risky from the minute you stand up and quit your bed.”
And I smile as I welcome my students into the room.