Passing The Torch - My Intro To Teaching
Updated: Sep 15, 2020
My friend John plays in the big Broadway-style shows that come to town and when The Lion King hit San Francisco he was hired as the drummer. Because of the show's demanding schedule John decided to scale back on his student load and drop a couple days a week. He wanted to retain his nights at the store though, in case the show closed early, so he asked me if I'd sub for him during the shows run. I would be walking into a schedule of 20 students paying $25 each for weekly half hour lessons and he would get his spot back when the show was over. I considered an extra $500 a week for 10 hours work - with a built in escape hatch when he came back - and agreed to become the Tuesday and Wednesday drum instructor at "Ingram and Braun's Musik" in Pleasanton, CA.
I had a few weeks to prepare myself before starting the job but it ended up being too much time, because as my takeover day grew closer, I started wondering if I'd made a mistake. John was a great drum instructor and I hadn't taught much. What if I got some 15 year old kid who was burning through be-bop charts? What if the parents noticed my lack of experience and started asked questions?
Kid: "Mr. Bowman? Can we work on playing a left foot clave?"
Me: "Sorry. I don't know how to do that."
Kid: "JOHN does!"
Dad: "How much do you charge again?"
Creeping doubt... What if I forgot to show a student something really important? Or taught them something incorrectly - something they would hate me for later. I imagined a man walking up to me in ten years as I'm putting groceries in the car.
Man: "Remember me? I studied with you when John was doing the Lion King."
Me: "Oh yeah. You still playing?"
Man: "No. Actually, I can't. Doc says that grip you showed me was THE CAUSE OF MY CARPAL TUNNEL!! YOU SONAFA-"
Me: "Roll em' up, kids!"
My biggest fear, though, was that I'd have a student that just couldn't do anything I asked and that I'd be lost on how to proceed... and they'd be bored... and I'd be stuck... and have to accept money without making progress for thirty long minutes a week, until John got back and found no improvement in their drumming at all. And what if they were ALL like that??? What if I was "stuck" with every one of them? Being a "lousy" drum teacher was a possibility I was staring at and I wasn't sure how my ego would handle it.
When the first day came I was pleased to find the students weren't as threatening as I'd feared. Their skill levels ranged from beginner to low intermediate and they were all young enough to see me as an authority figure. The students were polite for the most part and the only thing I had to overcome was the shyness of some of the younger ones and the apathy some of the teenagers. The first few weeks went pretty well. I was still nervous but found I could overcome it by physically shaking my head into a positive attitude and hitting it every lesson with full energy.
The first problem I discovered was my own fear of teaching. Despite the fact that I was being paid to instruct I had a hard time telling people when they were doing something wrong. I was reluctant to point out a student holding their stick in a weird way or misreading the notes for fear it would hurt their feelings and cause tension between us. I was scared to teach! My desire for acceptance also made me too lenient on students who hadn't practiced and too easy on last minute cancellations. I didn't want to seem hard so I let stuff go. But once the students realized they didn't have to practice many chose not to. And when they discovered that they could cancel at the last minute to avoid any embarrassment I found myself sitting alone in the practice room I was renting from the store. Big mistake.
The run of John's show was extended and I agreed to stay on for a few more months. As I kept at it I began to see progress in my student's drumming and progress in my teaching as well. I was slowly developing a collection of concepts and ideas that seemed to work. I was recognizing problems easier and figuring out better ways to explain things. Many of the students and their parents were becoming friends that I looked forward to seeing.
I came to the store week after week, working as hard as I could to be a great teacher, but eventually my self imposed standards started to wear me down. To make up for my lack of experience I had tried to give the student their money's worth and then some. I wanted them to have best half hour of their week when they came to see me. I wanted them to emerge from the drum room bursting with inspiration, bobbing their heads with their fists in the air. Aspiring to teach the "perfect lesson" was hard to do twenty times a week and the pressure was tiring me out. Eventually I started to resent going to the store and began dreading my teaching days. And then something happened that changed my perspective.
A kid I really liked came in for his regular lesson and I could tell he hadn't practiced. He wasn't concentrating either. I started to feel that familiar heat that swelled up in my chest whenever I was afraid of getting "stuck", and as we sat there getting nowhere my phone buzzed and I saw it was his Dad calling. I figured this would be a perfect time to have a little three-way chat about practice habits so I took the call.
The father was speaking softly and I could hardly hear him at first but as his words came into focus I realized he was drunk. He said something about being kicked out of their house and a restraining order against contacting the kids. I didn't know what to say. He called me because he knew it was his son's lesson time. He asked me how the boy looked. The kid stared straight ahead. The father got louder as the call went on and there was no way to hide what was happening and I had to interrupt him to say I was hanging up.
The kid was embarrassed and sat, staring at the wall in front of him. I asked if he wanted to talk about anything and he said "No." so I let it go. As I sat there wondering what to do next he began to talk. "I'm living with my Grandma for a while and I can't practice there." I told him that I understood and tried to give him some ideas on how to practice without a drum set. He wasn't listening and I could tell the lesson was over. I told him to call me if he ever wanted to talk and thanked me over his shoulder as he left the room. He didn't come the next two weeks and when I called his Mom she said they were getting too busy and would have to stop drum lessons for a while.
After a long, successful run the Lion King ended, John returned to the store full time, and I went back to hustling sessions and tours. I'd taught for over a year at the music store and only when it was over did I realize how much I'd learned during the process. Teaching was great for my reading and rudiments, and helped with my communication and organizational skills. It also taught me a lot about other peoples lives. I used to tell my students that all I could ask was that they tried to do their best. Eventually I saw the same was true for me. I don't have to be perfect. I just have to do try to do my best. In reality, people have bigger issues in their lives than how good or bad my drumming/teaching is anyway. Teaching taught me that I'm not as important as I thought, which was a great relief. There's much less pressure. Much less heat in my chest.