When the Teacher is Taught by the Student

Teaching, by its very nature, implies a certain terminus. Courses are scheduled for a finite period of time and are completed. One reason being that no teacher could possibly teach someone forever. Teachers have finite information which they share; when that information has been successfully conveyed, the course of instruction has reached its goal, and that particular phase of learning has ended.

Bill Emerson Signature

So it is with banjo teaching. Even as new students sign up and I begin the process once again, it has that characteristic enthusiasm of a project just started. I love that feeling, and yet I realize that for each student one day this too will be gone. But I have learned to thoroughly enjoy it for what it is, right now. I know the day is coming when, for whatever reason, something will break the continuity of lessons. Although life-long friendships are frequently made, learning and teaching in a formal sense ceases for that student and me. It’s just the nature of the process.

No student has gone past that above-described limit of what I can teach them; except for one. I’ll call him Al. Al was my very first student when I started teaching formally, and he continued until physical factors beyond his control forced him to stop.

You might think after all those years, that he was a very advanced student; he wasn’t. Well, not in the traditional sense of being able to execute difficult techniques and improvise and knowing tons of songs and all that. No, he wasn’t at that level, but… he did have something else that, to me, was far more important. Something that spoke of being able to handle whatever life throws at you. He understood the nature of the journey. He had the big picture, more clearly that I had ever seen it before in a banjo student. My proof? How else could he have lasted longer with lessons that anyone else (by far, I might add) if he did not clearly understand that the big picture is to enjoy the process, not to simply strive to make it to some self-defined point of proficiency?

A self-defined point of proficiency? Isn’t that just a way to gauge your progress towards some goal? And if you already know your goal, and you are confident of your progress towards it, do you really need to somehow measure that progress?

So using that as a definition, I’m very glad to say that Al knocked one out of the ballpark when it came to taking banjo lessons. He knew the real process going on was one of simply enjoying the process and discovering your abilities. And I was made far more aware and appreciative of that not-so-small fact in witnessing it firsthand.

Thanks, Al for all the lessons. We both learned a lot, but we also had a great time in the process!

About Phill Gibson

I'm from Huntsville, Alabama where I work as a Software Engineer and part-time banjo instructor. My wife Miiko and I worship at Rivertree Downtown. I've been playing various instruments since my teen years. I started mandolin and dulcimer at about age 17 and banjo at 20. I love just about all kinds of music. In terms of banjo styles, I play and teach Scruggs, melodic, clawhammer, and 2-finger styles. I'm also very keen on theology, being a Trail Care Partner with the Land Trust of North Alabama, photography, urban planning, architecture, astronomy, ATM (amateur telescope making), birding, martial arts, and about 30 other distracting hobbies to a (mercifully) lesser extent.
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