I Lost A Student

I lost a student.

He graduated high school, attended his last lesson with me, performed his senior recital, and is now no longer a student of mine.

But it’s not as simple as that.

Each student that walks through my door is a person. I always remember that. They’re a small person, usually, a person with little life experience, but a REAL person nontheless: a child. I teach children because I love how much they learn and how they can love music with a purity that is rarely found in most adults. But because I teach children, there is always the knowledge that inevitably they will one day leave to bigger and better things in the big adult world.

In my years of teaching, I have seen dozens, possibly even hundreds, of students enter my music studio and exit, some after a few years, some after many years. Some quit when they reach high school. Some quit because they would rather focus on another instrument. Some quit because they want to focus on their social or academic or sports life. Some quit because they don’t care for guitar anymore. Some quit because they are simply graduating from high school and moving on. But they all do quit at some point.

I don’t do well with transitions. I always care deeply about the vast majority of children I teach (there have been a FEW students who have made my life as a teacher horrible, but they are usually gone fairly quickly), so every time a student finishes their time with me, there is pain as my heart lets them go, as every good teacher does.

And that’s usually the end.

But not every time.

His name is Colin.

Usually I use a different name for the students I talk about here on this blog, because they’re underage and I don’t have permission to use their names, but this time I’m sharing his real name, because I think that some day you folks out there are going to hear of him. He is a musician. A good one. And he’s got the potential to be a really great musician one day because he puts his soul into what he plays and sings and he sincerely wants to grow into the best kind of musician he can become.

A year ago I was stunned to realize that he was seventeen.

Didn’t he just start lessons with me as a 6th grader? Wasn’t it just the other day that he was wearing his black hoodie to every lesson, keeping his eyes down and refusing to talk? No… now there is a tall young man in the chair, playing his own compositions confidently with a fire that I never would have guessed was in the heart of that silent little boy.

After winter break we began planning for his senior recital.

I saw the end coming.

These have not been easy years. If Colin reads this, he won’t say it’s not true; I was very close to asking another teacher to take him as a student instead of me, multiple times, because there were lessons when I was utterly frustrated with him. We had major rough spots. During the first year of lessons he didn’t speak a word to me. There were weeks of not practicing what I assigned, days of me trying to urge him to learn a new skill or concept, lessons of moodiness and struggle, and just feeling like I was hitting a brick wall.

But in spite of all this, the honest answer is that I was learning just as many lessons from Colin as he was learning from me. Being his instructor taught me things that made me grow.

How to turn a comment into a positive critique instead of a negative remark.

How to teach someone who learns almost entirely by ear how to read music.

How to push someone out of their comfort zone just enough to grow, but not enough to drive them away.

How to take a deep breath and focus on the music instead of becoming angry when a student is being stubborn.

How to explain a music theory concept four different ways because the first way didn’t click.

How to not take it personally when a student is snippy or silent during a lesson, because you don’t know what they’ve been going through.

How to know when to be gentle in your correction and when to roar in your backlash against musical mistakes.

How to help each student find their own niche of interest in music, even if it takes you completely out of your comfort zone (Colin is the only person I’ve seen who can rap Eminem songs while playing classical guitar….).

And most importantly, how sometimes the best thing you can do for a student is to simply be there for them. They show up at their lesson; you show up as their teacher. Maybe some days you don’t feel like anything musically productive was accomplished. But maybe all they needed that day was to know that you were still there, not giving up on them, still hoping for the best and pushing them to become better.

Then maybe one day you’ll find that the young student you never would have guessed would make it this far is suddenly almost an adult, and you are in the spring semester of his final months of lessons, and now you’re just wishing you had more time.

And now he’s turning eighteen, graduating high school.

And it’s his final lesson.

You remember that you told him at guitar camp when he was fourteen that he should smile more often, because it transforms his face completely and he would be able to make friends more easily. Now he smiles all the time. Although he’s still a pretty serious guy. That’s okay… at least there’s more of a balance now than there was years ago.

He remembers that you taught him to palm mute bass lines and forced him to learn chords for an ensemble piece involving blues. You have barely any recollection of that. It’s fascinating to find what sticks out in one person’s mind, but not another’s.

You go to the sound check for his senior recital. He’s not used to singing with a microphone. You fiddle with amplifiers and mic stands. It has to be just right. Or at least as close to just right as possible.

You feel nervous on the day of the recital. He looks nervous too, but you both know it will be fine. Probably. Hopefully.

Over eighty people come to see him play classical guitar pieces, his own compositions, and cover songs. The audience cheers and claps. He makes a few mistakes, works through them, improvises a little, recovers, keeps going.

Then it’s over.

Everyone loved it.

And that’s the end.

He is no longer my student. No more lessons, no more time. This is the moment of separation that each teacher prepares for.

Except that afterwards, he gives me a hug and says, “Thank you for being my teacher. Now this is the beginning of a new era. I’m going to be a musician; I’m going to keep studying music. Now we can be friends.”

My eyes are already tear-filled with the emotion of letting go.

“Are you kidding?” he says. “I’m not going to forget my guitar teacher! Of course I still want you around. I’m going to play at coffee shops and things. And I’m going to study music. This isn’t goodbye.”

And with those words, I am invited back in.

I lost a student.

But it looks like I’ve gained a friend.

And more importantly, the world has gained another awesome musician, one whom I’m proud to call a fellow guitarist, who I’m sure will one day make a name for himself. Look out for Colin, world.

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