You’ve probably heard the expression “Those who can, do; those who can’t, teach.” It is usually meant as a put down of teachers – as though every English teacher is a failed writer, every business management teacher a would-be executive who couldn’t cut it, or every golf instructor a golfer who just couldn’t make it on tour.
I think this is a ridiculous over simplification. Accurate in some cases, but completely misleading about the role teachers play in our lives. In any case, I don’t want to dwell on the idea that all teachers are second rate failures, or bother listing a bunch of counter-examples showing how wrong it is.
Instead, I want to consider the flip side, namely that successful performers in many skill areas (sports, entertainment, business, academia, etc.) are poor teachers of the skills they are so good at.
Being good at doing something does not guarantee you’ll be good at teaching others how to do it. In fact, I suggest a person’s “success” in a certain skill area can (sometimes) stand in the way of being a good teacher of those skills.
Let me expand this thought a bit further…
Inability to Identify with Student Limitations and Lack of Skill
First, there is the failure of the “successful” person to identify with the undeveloped abilities of the student. Successful people with high levels of specific skills can do the things they are good at more or less effortlessly. Often they don’t realize not everyone has those same latent abilities.
Teaching a musical instrument is an obvious example. The piano or violin or guitar teacher usually has years of experience playing the instrument. This has involved thousands of hours of practice where difficult, complicated techniques and patterns have been completely absorbed and internalized.
For such a person dealing with a student – especially a beginning student – can be a trying experience. It takes patience and the willingness to accept less than perfect results – traits that “successful” people often don’t possess.
Learning involves pushing yourself – concentration, focus, self-discipline, and (often) hard work.
But teaching involves working with others. A teacher needs more than knowledge of a subject area or expertise in some skill. A good teacher has to get into the heads of her students: understand them, motivate them, and connect them to the skill he or she is trying to teach.
In an important way the teaching/learning process can be viewed as a matter of dealing with and overcoming limitations. Student “limitations” can be of various sorts: physical, intellectual, psychological, financial. And certainly these limitations vary from person to person.
For example, a person who simply cannot make his fingers go fast enough or intricately enough will never be a concert pianist. A teacher can motivate her student to bear down, concentrate, get serious, try harder – like sports coaches often do. But if the fingers will only go at 3/4 speed, there’s not a whole lot any teacher can do about it.
The teacher fixated on winning has difficulty sympathizing with such limitations, and probably has no Plan B to make the best of the situation where “winning” does not come easily or predictably. Promoting back up plans is not how they view their job. In real life where “losing” is much more common than “winning” this can be a serious problem.
On the other hand, a teacher dedicated to serving her students, “warts and all” will have a more realistic set of expectations for the student. She will develop an alternative plan to make the most of the actual capabilities of those students.
Making Unrealistic Assumptions About a Student’s Ability or Progress
Another reason successful performers sometimes do not make very good teachers is that they overestimate the capabilities of their students. They try teaching step 6 when the student is still back at step 3.
This is really just a subset of the first reason: inability to empathize with the limitations of their students.
Back a few years ago when I was more involved in golf it always surprised me how quickly golf instructors would move from “This is how you swing the club” (step 1 or 2) to “This is how you draw the ball” (step 8 or 9) – a skill which many golfers spend years to master.
It always seemed to me that this happened because they simply could not appreciate how much more advanced their own skill level was compared to that of their students – how many years and how much time it took to develop those advanced skills.
Online guitar instructors are great at doing this too. They love demonstrating Chuck Berry or Stevie Ray Vaughn licks because one or two of their subscribers have asked for it. But this doesn’t help the struggling beginner. In fact the beginner can waste time working on more advanced things they have little hope of mastering with a reasonable amount of effort.
The truth is (or seems to be) that most novice guitar players/piano players/violin players take years to become even marginally competent at their instrument. Of course there are always exceptions, but if we are honest with ourselves, not very many.
Conclusion: What to Look for in a Music Teacher
So my conclusion is pretty clear. Beginning students – whether it’s in sports, music, academics, or any other field – should look for teachers, courses, and systems of instruction that are in tune with their unique abilities, interests, and limitations…teachers and teaching resources that can communicate simple concepts in simple terms…that can challenge students to develop and learn new things without expecting them to become pros after a few lessons – or ever.
Effective teachers are often not top performers of the skills they are teaching. What is important is their ability to break the subject matter into understandable bits and communicate them in an informative and interesting way.
For graded lessons, exercises and play along tracks for guitar beginners see the instructional material at PracticeTracks.org