Am I a good teacher? Judging by results, I seem to be doing ok. A friend emailed me to mention that an adult friend of his had tried to take up the guitar, but gave up after one or two unsatisfying lessons. That can happen. My response was, try a different teacher. Of the two adults I am currently teaching, one just started a few months ago. By the end of the first lesson, he was reading simple notation. By the end of the first month he had learned to play a simple piece of music and by a couple of weeks later he had performed it in public. I schedule "guitar nights" every now and then specifically to give students a chance to play for others. Why did he progress so fast? I arrange things so that should happen. If you choose the right sort of things to start with, in the right order, you can progress pretty fast. Later on, things may slow down from time to time as some things just take a long time to absorb. But the initial progress is extremely important to give the student encouragement and excitement. My other adult student has been with me for several years and not only is he playing a lot of concert music (at the last guitar night he played the Alborada by Tarrega, a quite virtuosic little piece, and a fantasia by Francesco da Milano, with good contrapuntal sense), but he has just completed working his way through Aldwell and Schachter's 600 page textbook on harmony. He also composes.
So it is with considerable experience in realm of adult study of music, the guitar in particular, that I read the piece in today's Wall Street Journal. In case that link goes away, let me quote some relevant bits:
Can old dogs learn new tricks? Developmental psychologists have long said no. The so-called "critical periods" theory of learning says that if you want to learn something, start early in life... For years, the strongest evidence for youth as a once-in-a-lifetime period of learning seemed to come from animals. Take barn owls. Shortly after hatching, owl chicks calibrate their eyes with their ears. In a classic study, the Stanford biologist Eric Knudsen put prisms in front of owls' eyes, disrupting their normal capacity to link what they saw with what they heard. Young owls easily learned to compensate for the distortion, whereas old owls could not... My own dream had always been to learn a musical instrument, but every attempt, from grade school onward, had ended in failure. A few summers ago, at the age of 38, I decided to take one last shot.
To my surprise, there was scarcely any scientific literature on whether adults could really pick up an instrument late in life. The problem wasn't a lack of scientific interest in adult musical education. It was a lack of subjects.
To learn a musical instrument, you need to put in a lot of work—10,000 hours is a number that is often cited—and to do a proper study, you'd need a reasonably large sample of adult novices with sufficient commitment. Nobody had studied the outcomes of adults who put in 10,000 hours because so few adults were willing and able to invest that kind of time... First, and most important, take small steps and don't expect overnight success. It's not realistic to expect to develop professional-level skills instantaneously. Whether you want to paint, cook, pick up a sport or learn anything else, your brain will need a heavy dose of rewiring.
Musical instruments, for example, require the brain to coordinate eyes, ears and hands (in some cases, feet as well). Most of us know enough to make allowances when we hear a child play at their first recital, or paint their first painting, but we forget to cut ourselves the same slack. One reason that children sometimes outperform adults is that they don't worry nearly as much about how good they are and how they look; they just get to it.Also, remember the folk wisdom of generations: Practice every day, no matter what. Because you're taking small steps, you need to take a lot of them. Learning a skill depends on building new memories, and studies show that we learn new information most efficiently if we spread our practice out rather than trying to cram it all into a short period (like before a test).And practice strategically, always targeting your weakest skills. Studies show that with everything from chess to typing to soccer to music, deliberate practice aimed at remedying weaknesses is a better predictor of expertise than raw number of hours... It's also crucial to find a teacher who understands how you learn. The best guitarist in town may have once jammed with Carlos Santana, but that doesn't mean he can explain what you need to know, in terms you will understand. [my emphases]Let me see if I can adequately get across how much of this utterly enrages me! But before that, I have to say that there is quite a bit of truth here. It is the unexamined assumptions that are so awful. The first is the truly absurd assumption that scientists, specifically "developmental psychologists" and "biologists" are the first place you go to find out something about learning music. Good god, why? Musicians have been teaching music forever; don't you think they have figured it out? This constant genuflecting to science as being the highest source of wisdom, even in the arts, is absurd beyond belief. Owls? Oh, please! And then the mindless reciting of the "10,000 hours" crap. When he does cite some real truths about learning music, he demeans them by calling it "folk wisdom". "Studies show" is a phrase that I have learned over the years to be extremely suspicious of. What most studies show, in my experience, is that when scientists try to figure out things artistic two things happen: either they are completely wrong, or they "discover" something we have known for a very long time.
The sentence "it's also crucial to find a teacher who understands how you learn" conceals another treacherous misunderstanding. No, it is not crucial to find a teacher who understands how you learn; it is crucial to find a teacher who understands how music works and what helps people--in general--learn. Yes, students are all different, in the sense that they have different sensitivities and capacities and obstacles, but how you handle this doesn't vary greatly from student to student. It really doesn't.
I don't think I have read a single article in the mainstream media this year about music that was not completely misleading. But that is why I started this blog!
How about some guitar music to end the year? Many years ago I had the pleasure of having Manuel Barrueco for a house guest for a few days. Not only a wonderful guitarist (one of the most precise and expressive there is), but a very keen and perceptive mind and a great sense of humor.
Oscar Ghiglia is not so well known as a performer, but here is a small sample. He is, however, one of the great guitar teachers. I spent two summers working with him in his master class at Banff, Alberta in the 1980s. A widely-read, cultured man, and one with with a special gift for the metaphor that reveals the musical expression.
Leo Brouwer is best known as a composer, but he is also a remarkable and unique guitarist. I think his best playing was on an album of Scarlatti sonatas:
Incidentally, when Manuel Barrueco was staying with me I played part of the album for him. He wasn't as taken with it as I was, but then he plays a lot of Scarlatti himself--quite differently!
Enjoy these less known guitarists and my best wishes to all my readers in the new year.