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A Few Words on Private Lessons

Discussion in 'General Instruction [BG]' started by theinfamous, Nov 26, 2018.


  1. theinfamous

    theinfamous

    Dec 22, 2014
    I don't know if this has been covered here on talkbass before, and if it has, disregard and keep moving. This is self-indulgent, and for that I humbly apologize. I felt like writing, and I think this could help somebody, or at least waste some time, which I know we are all about here. There are a lot of misconceptions in the "popular music" world regarding private instruction, and I think that I can help. In classical, it is pretty much a given that you will take many, many private lessons even if you hate the process. Sometimes I think people in classical WANT you to hate the process, as it builds character, and they are bitter and vindictive people.

    First of all, a little background about myself. I have a master's degree in music performance. My primary instrument is tuba (before you ask, no, that's not what pays the bills, and no, I wouldn't recommend it.) Over the course of my music education I had hundreds, if not thousands, of private lessons. I've also taught a bunch of them across all ages, skill levels, and disciplines. A lot of lessons were average, some were really bad, and a few absolutely changed who I am as a musician.

    Why should you take private lessons?

    Many people claim to have no use for private instruction. That is okay. If it isn't for you, it isn't for you. On a hobbyist level, there's only so far you can go with private instruction, and the usefulness is kind of limited. However, pretty much everyone can benefit from a lesson or two at any point in their career. Everyone has something to teach you, and no one knows everything. We all know that there are no shortcuts in music, and everything takes time, but lessons are the closest thing to a shortcut that you can get.

    Private lessons should provide at least the following things:

    1. A clearly defined path to your musical goal

    2. Accountability, both to make you practice and to insure that you are doing things properly and not being lazy with technique

    3. Emotional support and encouragement

    4. Exposure to music and technique that you may not have previously thought you were interested in

    5. Mutual trust
    Every single student I have encountered, including myself, has had at least some degree of resistance to instruction, especially those who have been playing for a while. It is important as a student to trust the instructor to give you the information you need at the time. It will occasionally feel like they are keeping things from you, and that can be frustrating. There is a reason for that. Forming new habits can be tough, and as the old cliche says, you have to walk before you can run. Sometimes students have been running on their own so long you have to re-teach them how to walk. When a long term instructor tells you to do something, you need to trust that what they are telling you has a purpose and that it will help you in the long run.

    What should you look for in an instructor?

    Foremost, you should look for someone who does what you want to do. You can learn something from anyone, and you should definitely try, but think of it this way: If you want to build boats, why would you apprentice under someone who only builds chairs? Sure, the person who builds chairs can teach you a lot about woodworking, but none of it will be boat specific, which is what you're after. In the worst case scenario, the person who builds chairs will tell you that chairs are the only thing worth building and boats are a waste of time. As an instructor, don't be that guy.

    A personal story: In college, the professor I studied under was not a tuba player. By the time I realized he was not a good fit for me, it was a bit late. I'll write more about that later. When I entered college, I was a far better player than he was, and I knew it. (I did have a lot of glaring problems that he could have helped me with, but I was too proud and stubborn to acknowledge it right away) That caused a lot of tension in our relationship. He had me read through the Rubank books as a college student. (if you had any sort of band lessons you probably remember them. They're the ones with the blue covers that are basically Arban's light) I had already been through all of them in high school, and could easily sightread 90% of the weekly lessons. I found that to be incredibly insulting and discouraging. However, when I finally got off my high horse and swallowed my pride, I realized that he could actually teach me, and he did. I would have been MUCH better off studying with someone else, but it wasn't a complete waste of time. He was a chair builder, and I wanted to build boats.

    A good instructor should challenge you without discouraging you. They should be able to offer multiple solutions to your problems. They should be able to criticize constructively without making you feel bad all the time. Feeling a little bit bad is probably healthy though.

    A rule of thumb: if an instructor simply hands you a Mel Bay book as an adult and spends all your time just walking you through predetermined lessons, you are wasting your time.

    Sometimes it is very difficult to find a qualified instructor. If you do not live in a large metro area, you might be better off going it alone with the help of YouTube. If you are looking for private lessons, ask around among the players you know. You'll probably find somebody.

    What is your responsibility as a student?

    In short, to get every single piece of knowledge from your instructor that you can. I have taken single lessons from instructors that were worth far more than MONTHS of instruction from others. Your primary responsibility, however, is to practice what the instructor tells you to. As I said before, there is a reason they are making you do those things. Trust it. Sometimes as an instructor I will give the student a task to do over time so that I can evaluate exactly what is going on in their technique. If they do not practice it, it is impossible to evaluate. Playing an instrument is a physical thing, and sometimes we need to mix things up to change or simply evaluate muscle memory. As silly as it sounds, sometimes you need to practice how to practice, if that makes sense. A lot of times I will have to teach someone something just so I can teach them something else. Example: If you want to play walking bass, you're going to have to learn your scales. If you don't learn your scales, it will be very difficult to teach you walking bass, and you'll be limited to just playing lines that you have memorized. It takes time and patience to do certain things, and you have to realize that starting things out properly will save you a lot of time and headache later. This is the most valuable thing you can get from a long term instructor, and it WILL help you get to your goals more quickly.

    For those of you interested in pedagogy in general, check out Arnold Jacobs. He was THE guy in the brass world for years and knew more about teaching and technique than probably anyone. You know that "six degrees from Kevin Bacon" thing? Well take any pro classical player and they're probably two degrees or less from Arnold Jacobs. He was that big of a deal.

    Do I need to take weekly lessons for years to develop as a player?

    When you are starting out, weekly lessons are very helpful. They will keep you from getting discouraged, keep you on track, and give you very specific things to work on. However, you have to temper that with how much time you have to work on things. If you cannot play your instrument with focused practice for at least 30 minutes a day, (realize that this is a gross generalization and everyone is different) weekly lessons are probably not going to be very helpful. YOU ARE NOT PAYING YOUR INSTRUCTOR TO HELP YOU PRACTICE. An instructor will teach you HOW to practice, evaluate your results, and help you with new techniques and any problems you might encounter. The frequency of your lessons, as an adult, will be determined by your level of work and how quickly you can master new techniques. When you progress into advanced levels of playing, lessons will become less practical and much more theoretical. Concepts will be harder to grasp quickly, so weekly evaluation is probably not really necessary or even helpful, unless you have specific concerns or questions for your instructor. I will say it again: YOU ARE NOT PAYING YOUR INSTRUCTOR TO HELP YOU PRACTICE. If you cannot find time to practice, do yourself and your instructor a favor: Take a little break.

    Will lessons harm my creativity?

    The biggest and most frustrating misconception in music is that learning proper technique, theory, and discipline will make you less creative. It does not affect creativity in the least. The purpose of lessons is to give you the tools to go out and make the noises you want to make, when you intend to make them. There are a lot of people who hold musicians who are "self taught" in very high regard. A common example people use is Mozart. He was a prodigy and wasn't he self taught? No. Also, you are not Mozart. His father got him started with lessons at a very young age, and he was obviously a very rare case of genius. I'm going to boldly say something that not everyone will agree with, but I have yet to be proven wrong- I have never met someone who identifies as self taught who I would consider to be a complete musician. Yes, there are many who are very fine and quite talented, but every single one of them has at least one very glaring hole in their technique or musical knowledge. (I'm not trying to say that being self taught is intrinsically good or bad, it just isn't what a lot of people think it is) With people who hold those self taught musicians in high regard, there is also a strange aversion to reading music. For some reason, people think that the very act of learning how to read notes on a page will make them a robot that is only able to reproduce what other people have done. It is as silly as saying that learning how to read text on a page will make you only able to re-write what others have done. The sound you make with your instrument is like talking, and notes on the page are like the written word. It is nothing more and nothing less. Written music is a tool that you can use so you don't have to memorize every little thing you come across. It makes things A LOT easier. When you learn to read music, it will open up a whole new avenue of projects and things you can work on in music.

    Do I have anything else to add?

    Boy howdy do I ever. You, as a student, need to be aware of when it is time to cut and run. I would have progressed as a player much faster if in undergrad I had recognized where I wanted to be and transferred schools to somewhere that had a low brass professor I got along with better and could actually teach me tuba specific things. I, however, was busy being disillusioned.

    Sometimes, you will run into people who try to teach you who are threatened by or jealous of certain aspects of your playing. You need to recognize this and try to figure out if it is going to be detrimental to your relationship. Humility on both sides of the instructor/student relationship is of paramount importance. A huge red flag is if your instructor deliberately and directly puts you down, but a lot of times it will be much more insidious. Sometimes they may not even be conscious they are doing it.

    Again, be HUMBLE. It is the luxury of the ignorant to believe that they know everything. Ask stupid questions. Don't be afraid of embarrassment. You are not taking lessons to show off how good you are, you are taking lessons to get better. I remember reading an article way back about a race driving instructor who said the worst students were the ones who would show up to the track in their expensive Porsches, brag about what a good driver they were, and proceed to drive terrifyingly fast around the track. Also, its a good thing to remember that you need to shut your mouth in order to learn.

    A lot of instructors will tell you the same things. If you're constantly disagreeing with all of them, you are wrong. Admit it and change, or you will forever be held back by your own stupidity.

    There is no magic in music. Nothing anyone does or says or teaches you will replace the value of hard work on your own. Instructors are there to help you along, not to carry you to success on their shoulders.

    Thanks for taking the time to read, and hopefully what I've written will help somebody. Feel free to add things you've gotten from your own experiences.
     
    Spacewoman, AFRO, NG51 and 11 others like this.
  2. two fingers

    two fingers Opinionated blowhard. But not mad about it. Gold Supporting Member

    Feb 7, 2005
    Eastern NC USA
    I admit I only skimmed. I will go back and read every word later.


    Your post is thoughtful, well-written, and chock full of great information.

    Lessons are a RELATIONSHIP first and foremost. Relationships are built in give and take from both sides.

    Teachers absolutely should cater to their students (when possible). They should not spend months hammering Mozart into a student who wants to be the next Lemmy.

    However, students should be neither lazy nor spoiled. Learn is a verb. It requires action and effort (for most of us). Also, your favorite music is not the only music you can learn from.

    Again, great post @theinfamous ..... from a reformed low brasser. :D
     
    LarryBama, ak56 and theinfamous like this.
  3. DrewinHouston

    DrewinHouston Not currently practicing Supporting Member

    Apr 20, 2009
    Houston Heights, Texas
    Disclosure: I am not a great bass player
    Great post, thanks. I've learned most of these lessons but wish I had known this 40 years ago. I am back again taking weekly lessons with a great teacher now.
     
    LarryBama likes this.
  4. theinfamous

    theinfamous

    Dec 22, 2014
    I should also clarify- an instructor should help you with difficult passages you are having problems with on your own. I mean that you should not use lessons as personal practice time.
     
  5. IamGroot

    IamGroot

    Jan 18, 2018
    Excellent post by OP. Well thought out. Maybe this will get a sticky.
     
  6. BassChuck

    BassChuck Supporting Member

    Nov 15, 2005
    Cincinnati
    A good instructor saves you time. A bad instructor wastes your time.

    One mistake many students make is the assumption that a private teacher will provide the motivation that a classroom teacher may provide. In reality the private instructor works for you to help you reach YOUR goals. If you are waiting for them to show you a path to fame and fortune, you'll be waiting quite a while.

    One mistake that many private instructors make is they blur the line between music teacher and psychologist. While some of that might be needed, it gets in the way of the music, which is the main reason for the relationship to exist.

    If a student has the talent, time, and personal motivation to reach their goals, the instructor can be a help. (see first sentence).
     
    theinfamous and IamGroot like this.
  7. RustyAxe

    RustyAxe

    Jul 8, 2008
    Connecticut
    I read every word. Had more than a few LOL moments, too! This is the best TB Post I’ve read in years. Not only do you get it, but you express it so well! You should submit this to one of the mags for publication. Really. Thanks for the read!

    Oh, and thank you Fred Redente for making suffer (and learn) the Great American Songbook when I was 12.
     
    DeltaTango, IamGroot and theinfamous like this.
  8. theinfamous

    theinfamous

    Dec 22, 2014
    Thanks for the kind words folks!
     
  9. DuckSoup

    DuckSoup

    Dec 20, 2017
    Colorado
    I'm taking my first private lesson this Thursday. I've been self taught (Using online resources) for a year, but I'm reaching a road block. I want to put the ideas I have in my head, down on my bass, and I just don't know how. I want to be creative with my music.

    Realizing I've reached a roadblock is why I found an instructor to jump-start me and help put me on the right path.

    I honestly don't know what to expect. I'm a bit nervous.

    I appreciate your post, I think it helps as a student.
     
  10. IamGroot

    IamGroot

    Jan 18, 2018
    Duck Soup,

    Good Luck. Why are you nervous?

    Wierd thing is a lot of things my instructor said didnt sink in until years later.
     
  11. DuckSoup

    DuckSoup

    Dec 20, 2017
    Colorado
    I think I'm just afraid of having unrealistic expectations or something. Plus, It's a new area for me being self taught. I'm afraid that I've been doing it all wrong, learning bad habits or something, and having to jump back to square one.
     
  12. IamGroot

    IamGroot

    Jan 18, 2018
    My first bass instructor (one lesson only) watched me play for a minute or two and pointed out I needed to work on moving up and down the neck more and my right hand picking style needed to become more consistent. Dead on accurate.

    So with that advice, I had something to work on for months. Look at it as a great opportunity to improve your playing.
     
  13. vvbudh

    vvbudh

    Dec 3, 2018
    Very useful to someone who still needs to find an instructor. Thanks mate.
     
  14. LiquidMidnight

    LiquidMidnight

    Dec 25, 2000
    The challenge always comes down to a "not knowing what you don't know" or a Dunning-Krueger Effect when it comes to picking a teacher. There are a myriad of teachers out there, everyone from people who will teach you tunes and "tricks" to others who will really teach you music (Oh no, am I sounding like Jeff Berlin!)? Children who have parents who are accomplished musicians are at an advantage, because even if the parents don't play the particular instrument of choice, they have enough general music knowledge to know if a teacher is worthwhile. I had a band leader years ago who was a solid vocalist and could cowboy chord on guitar. By the time I was in sixth grade, I probably already knew more music theory than he could ever hope to know. But for some reason, he gave guitar lessons and had a sizable number of students. I never knew what the hell he could be teaching them. How to play a G and a C chord? Here's a Mel Bay book with chord diagrams. That would probably get you just as far. I guess ignorant parents thought he was providing some sort of value. But I digress.
     
  15. trailer

    trailer Thumper Supporting Member

    Jan 18, 2008
    Guntersville, Al.
    I started playing guitar over 30 years ago and picked up the bass about 10 years ago and I'm taking my first lesson today. I gig almost every week and practice on my own but when a local guru advertised that he had slots available I jumped at the chance. I know I'm as good or better than most cats around here but I also know that there are several areas that I could improve on. I am very excited!
     
    IamGroot likes this.
  16. IamGroot

    IamGroot

    Jan 18, 2018
    Good Attitude! we live in a parallel universe.

    BTW, I know a musician that bought a plantation home in a small Ala town that no one could afford the upkeep and added music rooms with really good soundproofing. Just a bare room with wooden paneling over soundproofing. Has someone living there 24/7. Cool vibe.
     
  17. trailer

    trailer Thumper Supporting Member

    Jan 18, 2008
    Guntersville, Al.
    Thanks! Sounds like a neat place, would love to visit!
     

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