The Smell of Coffee in The Silent Cacophony- What Makes a Good Music Teacher?

I have been learning the mandolin since christmas 2012. For those of you who don’t know what the mandolin is, its an instrument which is strummed like a guitar, about the size of a ukulele, tuned the same as a violin and with two strings per note. It is the first instrument I have ever actively enjoyed playing and I have now reached the point where I feel semi-competent in making bearable sounds from it (I can change chords and strum at the same time… just).

This success is largely thanks to my brilliant mandolin teachers of the past and present- both of whom happen to be called *Trevor and both predominantly use the nickname *Trev. The similarities don’t stop there as both have hefty facial hair of some kind, the ability to play the ukulele and spend vast amounts of time in rooms filled with musical instruments. All of which they are able to play- of course. Trev number one, a folk musician who lives near the sea, appears to have converted his front room into a musical man cave. Guitars hang from the walls like trophies and the occasional bell or kazoo is perched on one of the many music stands cast around the edges of the room. On top of his piano lives an impressive collection of trilby hats which seem to all possess different personas which he chooses carefully from before heading out to a gig. I only had a few sessions with Trev One, but he did a lot of work with me on how to sing and play simultaneously which I am very grateful for.

Trev number two teaches in a music school above a shop which sells cheap-but-cheerful brightly coloured guitars. In his room he has narrowed his collection down to just a few instruments of choice, some preserved in expensive looking cases like coffins whilst others sit perched on stands welcoming students in. Before moving away to college, and away from Trev number one, I’d had no idea how hard mandolin teachers are to come by. In fact it took nearly a term to find Trev number two. However since our first session, we have met up nearly every wednesday to learn chords and songs.

It has not always been the case that I have had brilliant music teachers- in fact previously I presumed that hating children was a necessary attribute of being in the school’s music service. I met my first ever music teacher when I was around seven years old: she was an ageing woman who wore a lot of hand knitted jumpers. Every thursday morning she attempted to teach myself and a small group of other girls the violin within the confines of the echoey school hall. I had signed up for violin lessons having never held the instrument before, and mistaking its sound for that of the cello. I soon discovered that the shrieking wooden devil was not for me. Plus our teacher appeared to be on a personal mission to find us the most embarrassing and childish songs to perform in front of school assemblies. After much pleading to my parents I was finally allowed to give my violin and makeshift sponge and rubber-band shoulder rest back to the council.

My next teacher was a lady called Mrs H, who was a plumpish woman with angry red cheeks. This could have possibly been caused by her spending all her working day either playing the clarinet or shouting at her students. I had gone to her with the intention of learning the flute, but after being told that I had a ‘clarinet mouth’ I was lumbered with the instrument until I finally left primary school. I hated the noise that it made and the way the texture of the reed on my lips made me shudder. Telling her I wanted to quit has to be one of the bravest moments of my school career, and though at first she appeared angry she didn’t start a vendetta against me as I had feared she might. In fact, she disappeared completely and I didn’t see her again.

It is these experiences of instrument learning which make me so grateful for the two Trevs. My current Trev is the inspiration for this blog. Last week I went to the music school for my usual wednesday afternoon lesson, mandolin in hand. When I entered his teaching room, which smells strongly of coffee and wooden instruments in their silent cacophony, I suddenly had something very different on my mind.

“Trev… would you possibly mind showing me a guitar?” I asked. I have only held acoustic guitars a few times before, their size has always been slightly intimidating compared to my mandolin and I distinctly remember breaking one’s strings in secondary school. Trev however was more than obliging, and we went on to spend the whole half an hour session looking at all the different types of guitar. He let me hold and explore each one- classical, acoustic, electroacoustic and just electric and did his best to explain the differences between them. I asked a lot of questions, all of which started with “It’s a silly question but…”, however that was ok because all of his detailed answers began with: “There is no such thing as a silly question but…”. He taught me a few basic chords and has agreed to do some lessons with me on the guitar, because I would love to be able to play a bit and apparently it is a lot less fiddly than the mandolin.

The experience reminded me that the best teachers are the ones who don’t just teach you the notes, vocabulary and rhythms. The best teachers are the ones that install in you the passion that they have for music. Even if it is not the instrument you are supposed to be learning, a different piece to the one you have been working on for weeks or just you wanting to chat about music in general- enthusiasm is the most valuable thing a student can gain from their teacher. Once you have that passion for music or a paticular instrument the notes and chords tend to fall into place because you have the motivation to practice until you get it right. That passion is the thing that makes you want to play your instrument to gain calm after a hard day, or makes you listen more carefully to songs to find ‘that chord’. It is the passing on of this enthusiasm which I think makes a really exceptional teacher.

 

Me holding the mandolin

 

 

(*Trev is a pseudonym for both mandolin teachers, however they do both share the same name.)

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