Persistence Pays Off

By James Flood

It happens sometimes that one of my guitar students feels embarrassed as they perceive that they are lacking in talent, and therefore I, the teacher, must be feeling either bored, annoyed, or thinking horrible thoughts like “Man, this person is hopeless.” Nothing could be further from the truth. If the student voices any such feelings, I say, “All I need from a student is desire and practice.” While it is a pleasure to have a student who exhibits musical talent, I would much rather work with a student who has little or no talent but wants to improve andpractices regularly than to have a gifted student, even highly gifted, who does little practicing. Why? Because practicing (or more specifically, good practicing) means progress, and progress in the student is the fulfillment of my job’sreason for existence. It is personally satisfying to me for a student to have a desire to play and to reach their desired goal.

The tortoise and the hare is a universally familiar Aesop fable that doesn’t need repeating, but I’ve seen it in real life many times. One shining example that comes to mind is a student I had whom we’ll call Tim. Tim started lessons with me when he was in 4th or 5th grade. He specifically wanted to learn classical guitar and had already taken some lessons a little before. Tim’s hands were awkward, plain and simple. As the months went on it became increasingly clear that communication between his mental commands and his fingers was a stilted one. The movements necessary for establishing a classical guitar technique just weren’t happening. Now I would say about 20% of students just do not possess the natural coordination necessary for achieving proper classical guitar technique. Proper technique isn’t in the cards for them. Nevertheless, I work with them in getting their technique as close to correct as we can, and we work within the bounds of what they can do. But Tim was an exception. After about a year I told his parents that classical was just too difficult for him and recommended he switch to basic guitar. They and he readily agreed and this made things easier, but still his hands remained uncoordinated. Each song was a bit of a mess to untangle. I remember on one occasion telling Tim to lift a certain finger. There was no response. I asked him again, thinking he didn’t understand my request. No response. I asked a third time but more insistently, wondering why he he seemed to be ignoring my directive. As his finger sat still, he looked at me with the beginnings of a tear in one of his eyes and said with painful honesty “I can’t.”

But here’s the thing about Tim. His was a personality that had no highs and no lows. Steadiness was in his genes. He practiced the guitar faithfully every day– not a ton, but it was a daily effort, one that doesn’t seem to phase the phlegmatic temperament. After about three years I started to notice improvement. His hands were looking a bit more coordinated. He was able to play songs and they actually sounded decent. Then after four or five years his hands were set. They moved quickly and with skill. Had I never worked with him before that point, I never would have guessed that he had any significant issues in the coordination department. He was actually turning into a decent young guitarist!

Persistence pays off.

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