Teaching Stories…

There are a lot of reasons I keep teaching, and one of them is, to paraphrase the words of song by Steven Bruton, "any ordinary person would’ve given it up by now." Besides the people and the music, it’s the little messages on the answering machine about how 3 years ago they couldn’t play an instrument, and now they’re going off to play in church on Christmas Eve, and they’re so glad they can do that... Or, it might be someone playing a piece they’re learning into my answering machine in almost flawless form, and hanging up before they speak... Or, some old version of a song they’re working on that they found on i-tunes…

These are some of the stories that have touched me the most:

First gig

Jon Thomas has the enthusiasm, warmth and energy of a young Laborador puppy. He had just started playing the mandolin. He knew two songs, and I taught him another. The next lesson, he mentioned proudly that he’d gotten his first music job. I must’ve looked surprised, because he immediately said, "it’s at the St. Patrick’s Day parade – no one’s going to know that I only know a couple of tunes, and it’ll give me a chance to practice!" Needless to say, Jon progressed rapidly, picked up the fiddle as well, and now plays in several bands.

9-11 and getting around to what's important

A few days after 9-11, a fellow called who was in his late 50s. He left a message to the effect that he’d been meaning to become a better guitar player for most of his life, and 9-11 had made him realize he better just get around to it. Little did I know how much I’d grow to treasure this ornery and loveable man. He has a beautiful voice, and loves to sing and play. His grandparents were shepherds who immigrated from the Basque region of Spain. We explored his repertoire, inserting some of the sounds he was familiar with from his heritage, reminisced about seeing aspen trees that are 2-3 feet across in the beautiful sheep-grazing areas of the southwestern Colorado mountains. 9-11 changed his focus. He's an ever-improving guitar player now, and has moved in the name of true love to the Pacific Northwest.

Why it's a good idea to bring me words

When students bring in a song, I listen to it repeatedly while I type it up before the lesson. Though I could use the internet for lyrics, the process helps get me "into the zone" with the song’s chord changes, meaning and nuances. If I’m puzzled by a lyric, I’ll look it up online. One day, I hadn’t reached the internet stage with a tune I was working on when the student arrived. I mentioned that there were a few places where I’d need his advice on the words. The song was "The One I Love" by David Gray. It’s a song about a soldier who’s been shot, likely in Iraq. As he’s slowly fading from life, he’s watching the twilight come, and thinking about the girl he loves back home. He mentioned, (I thought), being "under the falling dog." I thought, "Hmmm…maybe they have a constellation called that in the southern hemisphere - like our 'Sirius' or 'Pegasus'."

When the student arrived, I asked him what the lyrics really were, he started laughing and said "that’s supposed to be under the falling dark!" We spent several minutes deciding what breed of dog it might’ve been, had the lyrics indeed been about a "falling dog." We settled on a Newfoundland, the biggest, blackest dog we could think of (a Chihuahua wouldn’t be nearly as dramatic). Needless to say, neither one of us can sing that part of the song without breaking out in laughter. It pretty much ruined the song for us. But now, when one of us is having a bad day, we say, "it could be worse, we could be dying far from home and our true love, unable to move with a huge dog about to fall on us..."

Songs and pregnancy

A student came in wanting to learn a song called "Big Fat Mama," by country blues artist David "Honeyboy" Edwards. I hesitated a little, and then said, "As a middle-aged person packing a little extra weight, I’m wondering why you want to learn THAT song?" He said, "Well, nobody’s supposed to know yet, but my wife is pregnant. She is going to be so beautiful as she grows, that I want to be able to sing this song to her and the baby."Sure enough, he did just that, and may we present: Topher!

What a difference a good song in a day can make

A mandolin student arrived at his lesson in a distressed and dejected state. While mentioning that he hadn’t practiced much, he also described the medical expenses that he was about to incur. I decided to teach him one of the happiest songs on the planet – "Mari Hakuna," by the African guitarist Louis Mlhanga. It laid out beautifully on the mandolin and he learned it during the lesson. As I was going into the house to do a quick chore, I could see him headed down the front sidewalk, whistling!

Protecting the relaxation response

Mark was in his early 30s when we connected. He’d never played an instrument in his life and wanted to get started on guitar as a way to relax from his high-intensity executive job. His words were, "I just want to be able to sit around and play." Mark is one of those high achievers who an easy-going exterior. Just when you think you sort of have a handle on what he’s about, he reveals some new skills or passion…ski patrol, motorcycle adventures to South America, using his paramedic skills to stabilize a crash victim on the highway… so, after about a year, he came to his lesson and said frustratedly, "Man, I’m just getting anything done…I just sit around and play." After a few minutes I said, "Hey, aren’t you the guy that came in a year ago saying you just wanted to sit around and play?" "Oh, yeah, I guess I DID say that!"

Full circle

A neighbor called me once to see if he could get lessons for his girlfriend if he bought her a mandolin. She grew up in China, and was a research assistant at CSU. He explained that she often talked fondly of how her grandfather had played an instrument called the pipa for her as a child at bedtime, and she missed the sound. The mandolin in this country is the closest sound for a pipa. Xiaoli came for lessons often, and eventually took a job in Denver. They got married, and now have a young daughter that sometimes is serenaded at bedtime.

Why teaching is like cooking

I had a wonderful student in Greg Bailey. He's quiet, thoughtful, perceptive and loves to play guitar. We worked together when he was in high school, and he would play something unique sounding and I'd say, "How'd you come up with that?" He'd say, "You taught me that." I'd say, "No way, you did that on your own." He returned in his mid-twenties, began performing and became an award-winning songwriter. I often feel that teaching music is a lot like cooking. I help by providing the ingredients...the usual staples, the special ingredients, the knowledge of equipment, concepts and processes. How they combine it all comes through their personality as a presentation all their own.

A song and a return to faith

A middle-aged student wanted to learn "Let it Be". While he was learning it, he mentioned that both of his aging parents lived with him and what a privilege it is him to be able to do provide a home and care for them. His parents have a deep Catholic faith which has brought them through many hardships. The student mentioned that he’d grown up in the church, but had grown away from it as an adult. He’d run into trouble with alcohol, and regaining his faith had led to his recovery. The true beauty of the song was revealed even more by his depth of emotion and gratitude for faith during the song, especially at the line, "Mother Mary comes to me, Let it Be." I am often blessed to witness the ties between people and the songs that move them, whatever the reason.

Songs and love

A student I’ve known since he was about thirteen called me on a Sunday night to see if I could teach him a Jack Johnson song at their Tuesday lesson. He explained that it was urgent, as he was about to ask a date to their first high school prom, and wanted to be sure she didn’t say "yes" to someone else first. His irresistible persuasion would be the surprise performance of the potential date’s most favorite song. The student learned it in once lesson, perfected for a week that seemed to take forever, and popped the song and the question...She said "Yes!!!!"

Parents are aliens at some point, no matter who they are

When my son was about thirteen, his friend Mark came for lessons. Mark's lessons consisted primarily of taking the songs he was making up, and helping him find the missing chord or hook to improve the song so it felt finished. One day, Mark came in and when he left the previous week my son had been kicking the soccer ball against the front steps. Mark said, "Wow, Collin, I can jam with your Mom!" Collin's reply: "I know, she's weird."

Searching for the music of an Applachian grandmother

A student from Kentucky had fond early childhood memories being at her grandmother's knee while she played the banjo. She inherited all the words to the profuse number of songs her grandmother had written. She couldn’t remember how the songs went exactly, but could remember the "vibe" and general sound of some of them. We proceeded to recreate them as best we could.

The grandmother had been the sheriff and mayor of a small rural town, and also led a bluegrass band that performed her tunes as well as many standards…all very unusual for the time. The songs were primarily about true events that’d happened in their area, such as the fellow who went to prison for shooting an innocent man who he suspected of having an affair with his wife…someone else ‘fessed up after the fact. Later, this student was ecstatic to find many old field recordings of her grandma in an archive in Berea, Kentucky. The journey will continue.



"Music can name the unnameable and communicate the unknowable."
—Leonard Bernstein, American Conductor and Composer, 1918 - 1990