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Are You a Bad Student?
...I was! -
Part 1
by Tom Hess

Wasted Years

I wasted years of valuable time, thousands of dollars and much frustration in my pursuit to become a great guitarist and “make it” as a professional musician.  If I knew then what I know now, I might have been able to turn pro a lot faster than I actually did.  The mistakes I made early on are much too numerous to list in a single article. (Perhaps I should write a series of articles called, “My stupidest mistakes!”). I’ll focus here on the mistakes that perhaps some of you might be able to relate too (and hopefully avoid!). 

I was a terrible student as a beginner and intermediate player.  Actually, I was a terrible student even before I had a teacher.  I tried teaching myself at 13 years old.  It was so bad, I couldn’t even get “the teacher in me”, to make “the student in me” to do what I was telling myself to do.  After a very enthusiastic (but unproductive) start, I gave up on the self-taught method.

Who’s to Blame?

After wasting the first two years, I began to take lessons with a local teacher.  I soon became bored, blamed him for a lack of big progress and changed teachers.  This cycle occurred 5 or 6 times over the next 18 months.  Although, I was progressing much faster than I was without a teacher, I just didn’t get the kind of “big” results I was hoping for with any of those teachers.  Looking back at it now, some of my teachers were pretty good and a few were not.  But I can see now that the biggest part of the problem was ME.  Even when I was studying with my “worst” teacher, I could have progressed 2-5 times faster with him than I did… if I would have actually DONE what he told me to DO.

As a student, I thought I knew what was in my best interest to learn.  I thought I should be the one to tell the teacher what to teach me.  I thought it was the teachers “job” to teach me whatever I wanted to know whenever I asked for it.  And I also thought I had the “right” to tell him how and what to teach. 

Years later, after having the opportunity to study with 3 truly great teachers, I still blamed the “less than great” teachers for my lack of bigger progress in my early years.  Soon after I began to teach others professionally, I finally realized that my prior lack of progress as a student was much more my own fault than that of my teachers.  What is so obvious to me now, was inconceivable to me as a teenager.  And this one simple fact caused more damage to my early musical growth than anything else. 

The first big turnaround.

In 1989, I was taking guitar lessons from a local teacher named Randy. As usual, I didn't feel I was progressing much. During a lesson, I told Randy this was going to be my last lesson.  He replied, “No way Tom, you aren't quitting, I won’t let you!  I've already invested myself into you, don't you dare give up!"  I have to tell you, I was a little scared!  I was still a kid and thought I was sitting in a little room behind closed doors with some sort of psycho!  I didn't know if this guy was going to snap or what, the whole thing seemed a little weird to me at the time.  He went on to explain many things about the process of becoming a true musician (most of which I did not understand at the time).
His main objective was to get me to focus on the long term goals, benefits and results I wanted get out of music and let him focus on how he was going to take me there.  I vividly remember when he said to me:

“Don’t question my teaching methods Tom because you don’t have the knowledge, experience or teaching skills that I have.  If you want to study mathematics, English Literature, Football, Golf, or just about anything else, it is the Professor, Teacher, Trainer or Coach who determines which processes, formats and methods will be used to master the subject, not the student. You think you "know" how to judge my teaching, but you don’t.  You think you know what the best ways to learn music are but you don’t.  People who think this way are the ones that waste my time as a teacher.  This is why there are so few "truly very good" guitarists in the world compared to the masses that are not "very good" and will never be "very good".  Don’t be ignorant Tom.  Do you want to be able to do what I can do on the guitar or not? I got here, you can too.”

Pretty blunt words huh?  That’s why I remember them so well. Randy always told it like it was.  I went on to tell him that I had to feel the lessons were either going to benefit me immediately (or in the very near future) or else I was going to quit. He replied something to the effect of,

“Learning guitar and music is a long-term challenge.  No great guitarist became great by thinking in the way you are thinking right now Tom.  These players understood, and committed themselves to, the long-term learning process.  If you don’t adopt that outlook, no teacher can really help you. You need to give this an honest effort.  You won’t get the results you want without a serious commitment.  It’s that simple.”

After the lesson, I went home to ponder what he said.  I still thought Randy was a little nuts, but somewhere deep down, I knew the guy really was looking out for my best interest.  I know he said what he did for my benefit. Randy had a thriving teaching business with a waiting list of people wanting to take lessons from him, so it seemed clear he wasn’t concerned about losing any money if I quit.  Believing his words were sincere, I took his advice to seriously.  He convinced me to keep trying, stay motivated, believe in myself, trust in my own potential and in his teaching abilities. 

I have achieved a lot since 1989.  Randy inspired and guided me at a critical time in my learning.   Certainly my life would be very different today if he hadn't found a way to keep me motivated, teach me and inspire me to continue as his student.  In hindsight, I can see that my lessons with Randy were going well. I just couldn't see that at the time. 

Looking back on my experience I could have learned some of the same things he taught me from other sources such as books.  I did own many good instructional books and videos, but there was no substitute for having regular lessons from an expert player and teacher. The valuable thing for me was not what Randy taught me, but the way he taught it and the order in which he presented the right information at the right time.  That alone was more than worth the price of the lessons my parents were paying for.  

More wasted years…self taught again.

After 2 years of taking some truly great guitar lessons, Randy moved away and I was forced to either find another guitar instructor or go back to learning on my own.  I did both and failed at miserably at both for the next three years.  I went through a series of mediocre teachers (and a couple of bad ones).  I learned a few things here and there, but failed to make the type of real progress I had made with Randy.  So I quit.  For awhile, I was determined to teach myself and told my friends, “I’m teaching myself, I don’t need to invest money into a teacher, I can do it as good on my own.”   Sure I improved some, but I also taught myself incorrectly and that really slowed down my progress.  Of course I didn’t realize this at first, but over time it became more and more obvious that I didn’t really know what I was doing.

Simple solution

Of course there are many things needed to reach ambitious goals, but my entire musical growth would have rapidly changed if I had done four, very simple, things:

Step 1: Found a great teacher
Step 2: Told the teacher what my long term goals were
Step 3: DO what the teacher told me to do to reach my goals.
Step 4: Continue to repeat Step 3 on an ongoing basis.

(It is in steps 1 and 4 that most people fail to follow through on.)

Critical turnaround.

I came to understand my dreams to become a great and professional musician seemed to be increasing more elusive.  The idea that I may never reach my lifelong goals affected me in a very negative way.  It became clear, I now needed more than a good teacher, I needed to re-motivate myself!  I searched all over for the very best teacher I could find using ideas I developed to weed out all the average teachers.  (I have published these effective ideas in my article: Choosing a Teacher) I found a truly great teacher, his name was Jack Wilson.  I studied under him for two years.  He was not only my teacher, but a mentor and now a good friend.  I can say with complete certainty, had I not studied with Jack, I would not be writing this to you now, or be selling records and touring around the world, or have taught countless numbers of other people to reach their goals.  Obviously I owe a lot to him. 

One important decision made all the difference

Its amazing how one decision (in my case, to study with Jack and trust his judgment), ultimately led to huge successes for me years later both as a musician on both the artistic and professional sides.  When I first met Jack, he didn’t say, “Hi Tom, nice to meet you, I’m going to show you how to change your life.”  I could see he was very knowledgeable and was an excellent teacher so I continued to study under him. As a teacher, he gave me the tools I needed and should me HOW TO USE THEM. 

After maybe a year of lessons, the mentoring side of Jack came out.  As my mentor, he saw in me something I already possessed, yet couldn’t see for myself…..potential.  True mentors don’t give you a handful of seeds.  They find the seeds that are already in you, marinate them in fertilizer. Some days the seeds need to be watered, other days time and the sun need to just do their part.  Great teachers like Jack Wilson are very rare and I was very fortunate to have studied with him.  Thanks Jack!

The Moral to the story…   

An average teacher can help a good student much further and much faster than a great teacher can help a mediocre student.  It took me a while to learn from my mistakes, my advice to you is to be smarter than that and avoid those mistakes from the start! 

About Tom Hess

Tom HessTom Hess is a touring musician, composer and the guitar player for the metal band Rhapsody Of Fire. He also teaches guitar players from around the world via online correspondence guitar lessons. Visit were you can find free video guitar lessons, free guitar playing resources and more guitar articles.

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