Written by Simon Cheong

Friday, 09 July 2004 23:27

This article written by me was published in the Classical Guitar Society Malaysia‘s website and is reproduced here.

In over 20 years of teaching all kinds of students, be they beginners or advanced, private or university students, children or adults (admittedly, I have taught the whole gamut of students – from expatriates to our locals, children of ambassadors or millionaires to even a gangster!), I admit that everyone starts with an interest.

For the keen and totally enthusiastic person, sustaining this interest is not a problem. This is also true for those who are willing to be led and be taught as their interest can be fully developed. But, the problem most teachers face is in teaching those who have a passing interest and have actually taken the first step by starting classes.

When a student starts classes, he has made a commitment to himself – a commitment that is difficult to fulfill if the student has bad attitudes towards learning, is unwilling to do work, and is taken by surprise by what is reality and not what is imagined.

Bad Attitudes

Obviously, it is impossible to make a complete list of bad attitudes as it is as varied as there are the number of people in the world. I will relate here what I feel is important and has been observed from my years of teaching experience.

I remember a student asking me once – “What kind of students do you like?” My answer was and still is, “I do not like very talented students, I do not like very intelligent students but I like students who have a really good attitude “. Often, I get a surprised look (sometimes, a puzzled look coupled with disbelief) especially when I say it to evoke an emotion in order for me to get a point through. Then, I will explain myself.

In the past, I have encountered many very talented students, and sadly most of them have disillusioned me. Each time I would idealistically say to myself , if only I could teach such a student, I could help him/her realize and fulfill his/her potential. Sadly, I have been wrong many times. When such a student does turn up for classes with me, I fail to understand why they come in the first place when they think that they are better than the teacher!

The biggest problem I find is the student’s ego! The student who has reached a certain ‘advanced’ level of playing before having classes with me usually believes so strongly in his innate talent that he creates a wall around himself that is virtually impenetrable. Even worse is the student who has very meager ability or almost none at all but believes he is endowed with lots of it!

Without giving the teacher a chance to help him (in private practice), the student leaves without a word after one or two months of lessons! I wish to stress here that it takes more than 10 years to really make a musician a musician! Understand this anyway you can. Only those with the capability, knowledge, understanding and experience will know.

Hence, I tell people that these so-called talented people are not students that I like. I often say – ‘God has given these students 100% talent but they use only 10% of it, without allowing the teacher to help them realize their potential (or before they can even realize their own potential), they think they are good!’ This whole scenario I have painted of the talented person applies in the same way to the very ‘intelligent’ person.

I definitely like having a student with a good attitude whom God may have given only 10% talent but through sheer hard work, willingness to learn, initiative and obedience in following the teacher’s instructions and advice, builds himself to be100% talented! Students such as these bring joy and a sense of fulfillment to the teacher. They are also the reason for a teacher to carry on in his profession and remain an idealist in his search for the ideal student. The ideal student is one that meets all three criteria – talented, intelligent and has a good attitude!

Unwillingness to do work

As I have stated earlier, almost everyone starts with an interest. ‘I like’ are pretty big words to use. So often has a music teacher heard the student saying ‘I like’ or the parents saying ‘my child likes music’ that we are led to believe that teaching such a student would be a breeze.

Hold it! Quite often, this interest or ‘I like’ does not include ‘I am willing to work’!

These students use their heart, so to speak. For the adult student, the teacher has an uphill task having to play a psychological game to get him to do the work. The one who is willing to be disciplined and can discipline himself has a better chance of carrying on with his classes.

For the child, he would not know beforehand what taking up music classes entails (or any class for that matter) and after being enticed, the practicing comes as a big surprise! From here, a whole lot of problems arises especially when the parent interferes without understanding the issue.

Some of these problems are due to the fact that the teacher and student go through a period of trying to get to know each other. The difficult students, some of whom are spoilt, egoistical, lazy and with a poor attitude, would give the teacher a very trying time. There would be a psychological tussle for the upper hand. And the teacher must show his authority, which is being challenged, while at the same time gain the child’s respect as well. This would go on for quite a few months before reaching the final conflict which, depending on circumstances, could be a happy one or the opposite. Unfortunately, the lesser experienced teacher, not knowing that such an event is happening, would most probably mishandle the whole situation with the child’s parents!

Being able to convert, to enlighten, to ‘wake’ the student up, is and will always be the crowning success for all teachers. I must say that there is a fair percentage of successes. Hurrah for all parties concerned!

Reality v. Imagination

Many a time music teachers have students who, after signing up for classes, find that it is not what they want nor is it what they imagined a music class to be. This is even more apparent with classical guitar teachers. Why?

In Malaysia (and the world over as well, I presume), commercial or popular music has taken over our lives through its insistent psychological brainwashing and our involuntary acceptance of it. This is caused by the might of the advertising industry and obviously, MONEY talks! Everywhere we turn, commercial music reigns supreme – on television (the biggest culprit, in my opinion), on the radio and even on the streets – as it hammers on and on loudly through the amplifiers. Most people’s first encounter with music is through this insistent beat which engulfs them, and this brainwashing is made complete when the beat is accompanied by visuals – namely, the television!

Seeing pop bands in action, with members holding their electric guitars and fans screaming, does set the imagination on fire. So, an interest in the guitar is lit. I want to learn to play the guitar . Great, until they actually enrol for classes.

Music educators agree that the proper way to learn music is to have proper classes. Therefore proper music education is one that teaches a person to read, understand and acquire a skill in music. What it boils down to is to make the person musically literate and after which, it is up to the individual to follow his likes and dislikes or taste in music.

Here is where the reality of the classes is unacceptable to these individuals who have been influenced by what they have seen and heard. It is the teacher’s responsibility to enlighten and explain the process of learning but unfortunately, usually after the first or second lesson, these few individuals disappear! In so doing, they have not given themselves a chance to learn. How sad it is that ignorance and the heart (‘I like’) rule. Hopefully, this article will help set things straight for these ‘enthusiasts’.

Nowadays, there seems to be a ‘bridge’ for such students. In the past, maybe some 30 years ago in Malaysia, individuals who were influenced by the pop phenomenon turned away from proper classes and went to a popular performer (usually, someone who sings in a pub) for lessons. These lessons were not for the long-term development of their music education but for them to learn the latest songs. These ‘pub’ personalities are often musically illiterate themselves!

Today, there are those who have undergone formal music classes but have not achieved anything which resembles a classical musician’s achievement, as their ability is ‘neither here nor there’. Their interest still falls into the popular categories and they have progressed to giving lessons in a more formal way than the ‘pub’ teachers did.

Their classes are usually more expensive than the normal formal classes. This is because this group of students are not here for an education, but to learn the latest songs and will not stay on. The student looking for such classes fail to understand that their needs and wants can only be satisfied if they acquire sufficient skill and knowledge. And this can only be achieved through formal lessons. I do hope that this article will help the prospective student realize the need to have a new outlook and apply the right attitude in order to succeed.

Simon Cheong

9 July 2004

NB. I would like to state that the above article does not intend nor is intended to be malicious or slanderous in nature but is a perspective recounted from experience. Its intention is to be helpful. My presentation as in my classes may at times be rather blunt and to the point, causing some to be slighted, but I tender my apologies as my intentions are true.

by admin