By John Hamil | From the July-August 2022 issue of Strings magazine
I love telling this inspirational story to everyone so they see how important a great teacher can be in shaping the lives of the students they teach. I take this story with me to every lesson and never undervalue the student’s time and effort.
My Studio is a space for teachers to discuss their influences, profound teaching moments, daily quandaries, and the experiences that helped define their approach to teaching.
George Vance was my mentor, who encouraged me to create my own private studio for young bassists as my life’s work. I started working closely with him to learn my craft, and he guided my first steps as a teacher. One day in George’s studio, the first student of the day was a middle schooler who played better than most adults—a true virtuoso who has since become one of the leading bass players in the world. The lesson started with the student performing their current piece, then working to improve their playing. During this lesson, I was amazed at George’s ability to make the playing better by coaching the student’s self-awareness on how to improve, not by dictating or directing. I was also excited that I had chosen this as my career route and daydreamed about teaching a studio full of such amazing talent.
The next student was younger, playing on a 1/10th-size bass, and cute as can be. He proceeded to play “Go Tell Aunt Rhody” (roughly halfway through Book 1 in George’s method). The song was the worst thing I’ve ever heard come out of a human being, let alone an adorable one. I went through all the stages of grief/disbelief. I was mad at the student for being unprepared for this great teacher and thought about going home and teaching public school instead.
It was a long three minutes.
George happily listened to the student as though he was playing like the student before him. After he finished playing, George exclaimed how great the student’s bowing was, and the student beamed with pride. I was confused. For the next 15 to 20 minutes as they worked together, not one negative statement came out of George, and they both seemed to be enjoying themselves.
Again, I was confused, dumbfounded.
George then calmly asked him, “When you played at the beginning of the lesson, it didn’t really sound like the song, did it?”
“Nope,” replied the student.
George said, “Why don’t you try it again but only think about making it sound like the recording.”
The student smiled and proceeded to play the most beautiful performance I’ve ever heard of that song. George smiled at me as the lesson ended and knew something had happened inside of me.
I realize now that the student was not unprepared but focused on the wrong thing for performance. Performance and practice are two separate things. So, the student practiced the very thing George asked him to practice, which was focusing on the bow rather than putting the correct fingers down. So, in fact, he did a tremendous job that week.
From George, I learned how to analyze exactly what students are doing and help them make progress, respecting what they are doing on every level. I learned to always lift students up and make them better every time I interact with them, never prejudging them or assuming they didn’t practice or don’t have the talent. It is my main goal to make lessons inspirational. This goes very deeply into the concept of how every child can learn, no matter how naturally talented they present themselves to be. It is our job to take away the technical and mental barriers to each achievement without squashing the student’s self-confidence and uniqueness.
The story reminds me what it takes to be a great teacher. It’s much like being a great bass player in that it’s something that just keeps getting better as long as we don’t talk ourselves out of it. George never told me any specifics—just general things to help me solve my own issues (in teaching and my own playing). It’s important to learn all the tricks and styes of learning to become as great as George, or George’s personal hero, Dr. Suzuki himself. It takes a lot to be a great teacher (possibly more work than being a great performer), but there’s also a simple way to get there: working toward it every lesson. The world needs all of us to be better teachers, regardless of our profession.