Brendan has been my student for almost five years. Recently he had been working on a very challenging piece of music, one that pushed his limits of physical and musical development. For almost two months he had been on the brink of really “getting” it, only to come to his next lesson frustrated at lack of time to practice, an error in reading a measure of unfamiliar notes, an incorrect rhythm, a too-difficult section that needed spotwork, etc. But he truly wanted to learn it, so we didn’t give up. And finally, FINALLY, he came into his lesson and played the music brilliantly, with the deep passion and accuracy that he’d been working towards for so long.
I cried with joy.
He smiled from ear to ear, sitting up straight and proud with his guitar as tears dripped down my face.
I had never cried in a student’s lesson before, and I hadn’t planned on it that day, but knowing how much Brendan was invested in proving to himself that he COULD play this music, and hearing his wonderful success after so much struggle, was amazing. The tears came without me trying.
This week another student, Chase, came to his lesson. Chase has been taking lessons with me since he was seven years old. As he has entered the teen years, his interest in classical guitar, or any other kind of guitar, has waned drastically. Long story short… we decided to work on a pop tune that he liked, because he thought that learning to strum and sing would be a fun side-project.
At this lesson, Chase had finally reached the point where he could strum smoothly through the entire song correctly, navigating through some tricky chord changes. Satisfied with the progress, I told him that we would now begin singing and strumming, so that we could proceed to the next stage of learning the song. He flatly refused.
I was baffled. I tried questioning, reasoning, then expressing my confusion. There was really no reason except that he was terrified of singing in front of anyone, and had major performance anxiety that prevented him from singing. I remembered that anxiety had struck him before public performances, but it had never affected his lessons with me. So I honestly but gently told him that I could only help him with the song so far as he would let me, and if he would not sing, then we really couldn’t go any further with the music. He quietly agreed, his body wilting over his guitar.
No tears trickled down my cheeks this time, but my eyes welled up and I had to turn away to compose myself. I could see the embarrassment, discouragement, and disappointment in his eyes.
If I wasn’t so invested in both of these students, I would not have cried.
Brendan’s success was due to his overcoming his obstacles. I was overjoyed to see his progress, because it proved that he had taught himself the most valuable lesson, that he CAN do what he sets his mind to do, and the look of triumph he gave was worth all the previous lessons of struggle.
Chase’s failure was due to him being plagued by one of his biggest obstacles: fear. As he looked at his music in defeat, I knew that this wasn’t really about me. It was about him being affected by a deep-seated, personal issue that went beyond music.
My unexpected tears came both times not because I was proud of what I had taught Brendan or disappointed at what I had not taught Chase. They came because I was reminded that the most important, powerful lessons a student learns come not from what the instructor teaches them, but from what they teach themselves.
*Both students’ names have been changed.