In which I am a bad student (pt. 1 of 2)


Lemme put the tl;dr right at the beginning: I had a ukulele lesson yesterday, it didn’t go well, and I’ve turned it into an exemplar for everything that’s wrong with teacher training and evaluation nowadays.

I am not musically talented.  I am an at-least passable singer; I believe this is true because I have been complimented on my singing by people who had no reason to lie to me about it.  But that’s it.  I have, in my life, attempted to play the violin, the French horn, the trombone, the recorder, the harmonica, and the ukulele, with scattered examples of sitting in front of a piano and tapping at keys until I figure out how to play whatever song is in my head.  I can play none of those instruments.

Important secondary fact: I am an autodidact.  The way I learn best is by trying to figure out shit by myself, and I never learn anything unless I am interested enough in it to work on it on my own.  My ideal circumstance for learning (and this, incidentally, is precisely how I have “learned to cook” over the course of 2013) is to muddle through on my own but to have a clear set of guidelines for what to do and– and this part’s important– to have access to an expert (generally, my wife) nearby who can either answer my questions (“does this look done to you?”) or occasionally check on me and note terrible mistakes in progress or provide advice for things I have missed.  Everything, and I mean everything, that I am good at doing or know a lot about, I taught myself to do.  It’s how I learn.  I know this about myself.

But back to the lack of musical talent thing: I know nothing about music theory; talks of diminished chords and As and flats and sharps and such goes right the hell over my head.  I also, and this is super important for learning a stringed instrument, have very little dexterity in my left hand.  My fingers, even when I’m at my thinnest, tend toward the short, chubby, and clumsy.  I am also the most right-handed person I have ever known; my left hand is basically useless for most tasks.  How the hell I’m such a good typist I’ll never understand (honestly: this fact– I type faster than you, and that person you’re thinking about right now who types really fast? I’m faster than them too) and, in fact, typing may be evidence that this whole “can’t get my left hand to cooperate” thing may be wrong.  But anyway.  My point is that being able to fluidly and quickly move the fingers on your left hand to precise spots along the neck and the frets of a stringed instrument is, obviously, critical to being able to play.  I can’t do that.  I used to be really into Guitar Hero and Rock Band, right?  I topped out at Medium difficulty.  I could 100% basically any song I wanted on Medium, because I didn’t have to move my left hand– but as soon as I moved into Hard and that blue fret came into play, meaning that I’d have to move my hand and remember where it was if I wanted to keep playing, I failed completely.  The jump was too big.  And I tried really, really hard to master that difficulty level, or at least get decent enough at it that it was playable.  Never happened.

For these and other reasons, I am a poor student for anyone trying to teach me the ukulele.  This is a fact.  It is undeniable.  I am also busy and, at least lately, not terribly prone to use free minutes to pull out my uke and practice.  This is also an undeniable fact.

Now let’s talk about my teacher, and I’m going to try very hard to be fair, because despite everything, I actually quite like the guy.  I’m gonna call him Dale.  That’s not his name, but it’ll do.

Dale is clearly impressively musically talented.  He plays five or six different instruments and appears to have working knowledge of many more.  He has perfect pitch; he’s had me retune my uke a few times based on something that he heard and has then pronounced satisfactory a change in tone that I couldn’t even hear.

He’s also, at best, incredibly socially awkward.  He’s a giant of a man, probably a few inches over six feet tall, and bulky even at that height, he’s got a lazy eye, and it’s clear within a moment or two of talking to him that this is a guy who has always felt like he’s stuck out.  He doesn’t like to touch people; he was clearly uncomfortable when I tried to shake hands with him when we first met, and did not have a confident man’s handshake.  I did not repeat the experiment for our second meeting.  I wouldn’t be surprised– no, let me rephrase that; I would be surprised if he were not on the autism spectrum.

Now, again, I want to make absolutely sure I’m being clear here:  none of these things make Dale a bad person.  Okay?  Is that obvious?  On top of everything else, he’s nineteen at most, and heading off for college this fall, and I am willing to cut alllll sorts of slack to high school students for being gawky and awkward.  It’s entirely possible that I’m completely off on the autism thing and the kid’s just been the oversized music nerd his entire life and is socially withdrawn as a result, and a few years in the music school he’s headed toward will turn him around.  I wasn’t exactly a fuckin’ butterfly at nineteen either, y’know?

Unfortunately, this combination of high amounts of technical and practical knowledge combined with little to no skill at communicating them mean that Dale is a bad teacher.  He can show me how to play the ukulele and the mandolin and the guitar and hell probably the aquaggaswack all day long; he cannot teach me.  It may be that if he had a student who had similar levels of musical talent to his, who knew how to play other instruments but didn’t know the uke specifically, that he could teach that student.  He cannot teach me how to do it.  His method is to sit there with his uke– which, complicating things, is about 2/3 the size of mine, constantly out of tune (so he claims) and lacking many of the frets that mine has, which makes it impossible for me to follow what he’s doing– play something in some way, then say “or you could do this,” and play it another way, then spend a minute talking about what he just did, using vocabulary that loses me so instantly and completely that I can’t actually give you an example, then do it again, then do another thing.  It hit me about halfway through my lesson yesterday that I couldn’t come up with a way that Dale might do things differently if I hadn’t brought my ukulele with me at all.  He never actually asks me to do anything.  He’ll show me something, I’ll try to replicate it (poorly) on my own, he’ll tell me what I did was right, most of the time, even if it’s wildly apparent to me that it wasn’t, then he’s off to some other thing.

It is a sign of my own utter confusion and his lack of teaching skill that I don’t even feel like I can complain adequately about how this lesson went.  I don’t have the vocabulary; I can’t even tell you what he was trying to show me.  I can’t tell you what he was doing.  He would play, look at me for a second, I would strum something, then he would go right back to what he was doing.  Both of us checked our watches a lot.  I think both of us felt like we were wasting each other’s time.  It was awful.  Ugh.  I literally can’t tell you the last time I was in a situation where I was supposed to be learning something and been so completely in the dark as to what the hell was going on around me or what I was supposed to be doing.  Complete, total failure.

(That’s as critical of Dale as I’m going to get, by the way.  Again, I like the guy.  He’s very very talented.  But he’s not a teacher.)

..actually, you know what?  This is already too long.  I’m going to break it into two parts.  We’ll talk about how this is relevant to the state of education in Indiana tomorrow, I think.

(Click here for part two.)

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Luther M. Siler

The author of SKYLIGHTS, THE BENEVOLENCE ARCHIVES and several other books.

3 thoughts on “In which I am a bad student (pt. 1 of 2)

  1. You’re right he’s not a good teacher, but there are good ones out there. They may not be the one you think – may not have perfect pitch and play scads of instruments. But they know how to communicate, they are focused on you not themselves, they know people learn differently, and they know to try multiple approaches


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