Summer time is a difficult time for guitar instructors. Students and their parents are always going on extended vacations and, when they’re not golfing at Pebble Beach or yachting in Tahiti, they’re forgetting about their lessons and no call/no showing. I had no students this past summer. All twenty canceled in May. It was for this reason that, when the owner of my studio called me in mid-August with a “unique offer,” I reluctantly called him back.
“I’ve got this wealthy family who’s been with me for years,” he told me. “I hope they like you. They haven’t liked the last four teachers I sent them.”
“They’ve had four different teachers?”
“Yeah, the two boys are both brats. They don’t want to do what the teachers tell them to do. They only want to have fun.” He paused for a moment, as if waiting for me to respond. Having nothing constructive to say, I let him continue. “Look, just teach them whatever they want. Oh, and by the way, it’s an in-home lesson.”
An in-home lesson is where, instead of the parent bringing the student to the studio where there are amps, keyboards, and CD players, I have to lug all of my crap to their house, setup in the child’s bedroom where I’m surrounded by dirty laundry, video games, and countless other distractions. I’d made the mistake of teaching in-home lessons in the past. They’re always for families who have the money to pay extra to have you come to them. This was the last job I wanted to take. But, like Orson Welles, I needed a paycheck.
I pulled up to the house and immediately knew I must have made a mistake. I passed a massive fountain surrounded by elaborate landscaping and a five-car garage. When I unloaded my gear, I looked down at the flawless cobblestone driveway and couldn’t help but notice how out of place and dirty my truck looked. The cracked windshield, the sun-faded paintjob that had once been white, the garbage in the bed of the truck all seemed to warn me. We don’t belong here.
I approached an intimidating front door which was black, windowless, and extremely large, like a medieval dungeon. I felt more like I was rapping on someone’s chambers rather than ringing a doorbell. The feeling got worse when a small portal in the middle of the door opened and a young boy’s face appeared.
“Who is it?”
“I’m here for the guitar lesson.”
The massive door was opened by a small, preteen boy who politely invited me in. The boy offered me his hand, introduced himself as Lenny, and offered me a drink. I’m not sure what kind of intro I expected, but this certainly wasn’t it. I had been led to believe that this family was totally obnoxious. So his courteous demeanor and mild manners caught me totally off guard.
Lenny ushered me to his bedroom where I set up my gear and made small talk. So how long have you been taking piano lessons?” I asked.
“And what’s your favorite song?”
“I don’t know. I don’t really listen to a lot of music.” No wonder he’s in music lessons.
“Well, what’s the last song you learned?”
“We Are the Champions.”
“Okay. Can you play that for me?”
I expected him pull out some sheet music but he chose to play for memory instead. He hacked his way through a verse and a chorus with a few pauses and mistakes. Overall, his rendition wasn’t very good but it wasn’t excruciating either, especially considering he played it without looking at any music. “Not bad,” I told him. “Let’s work on a few things though. Where’s your music?”
“The instructor never wrote it down.”
“I don’t know how to read music.”
“So how did you learn the song?”
“I memorized his hands.”
Since I’d never taught any of my students with this kind of approach, I had to consider on the fly where to go from here. Ordinarily, I would spend a few weeks teaching him the basics to reading music and then we’d be able to move on to learning songs. But it had been made clear to me that this child was not interested in doing things my way. Up to this point, Lenny seemed pleasant enough which made me rethink new speculations as to his strategy for running off the previous teachers. I now pictured him sitting at his little keyboard, politely smiling, and complying with the teacher’s direction. Later that night, his parents would ask about the lesson. He would report that the teacher was boring or harsh. “Well, we’ll see about that,” they’d say. They’d call and complain to the owner who would promptly reassign a new teacher. I found this new form of intimidation far more effective. So I took the easy route and did the best I could to kill the rest of the lesson by having him play whatever songs he remembered and giving him little suggestions like, “If you slow down and take your time you won’t play so many wrong notes.”
His brother’s guitar playing was just as crude. Weldon knew some power chords, some basic open chords, and could hack his way through a handful of songs he had demanded his previous instructors teach him. But he didn’t even hold his pick correctly and his guitar was out of tune the whole hour and he never seemed to notice.
With three years of lessons, I concluded that these boys were terrible. The only traditional knowledge these boys had of music was what most kids learn the first month of lessons. Neither of them had any sense of rhythm or melody because they hadn’t allowed anyone to work on these things with them.
While driving home, I considered whether or not to take the lessons. On the one hand, I couldn’t afford to turn down the money. On the other hand, one lesson a week wouldn’t really make much difference. Was it worth it to drive out for ninety minutes of what really would have been nothing more than keeping them busy? At least with my other students, I reigned supreme over their progress, or lack thereof. They might be lousy, but at least they were lousy on my terms.
As I went back and forth, my ego forced me to consider that maybe I could be the one who finally got through to these boys. It would undoubtedly be a lot of work, but I pictured myself as a Mary Poppins-figure who made unpleasant things like knowing the names of the chords and reading the notes on the page fun. But then again, these things weren’t supposed to be unpleasant. And I’d never been very good at motivating people who didn’t want to be motivated. On top of that, their wealth and laid back appearance intimidated me. Ultimately, I concluded that I wasn’t the guy for the job.
Then I considered what my wife could do for the kids with $45 a week and I remembered a common fantasy I’d had from time to time while driving home from a long and draining day. My family is seated a large banquet and my son is addressing a tremendous crowd.
“Ladies and Gentlemen, What can I say about this man sitting next to me? The man we’ve come here to honor tonight, my Father.
"This is a man who worked tireless hours to feed my mother, sister, and me. This is a man who drove the same non-air-conditioned truck to two jobs for thirty years just to pay for private school. He denied himself countless luxuries and survived for years off a diet of dollar menu burgers and burritos just to pay for karate for me and dance lessons for my sister.
"And yet, despite working grueling hours, he never missed a single play, pageant, or game. He always made time for us. He helped with our schoolwork and made time to take us out for ice cream. ‘You kids enjoy your sundaes. Dad’s just fine with ice water,’ he’d tell us.
Overcome with emotion, the boy pauses for a moment. Finally, he wipes his eyes, takes a deep breath, and continues.
"It is this man who inspired me to audition and become the NBA’s youngest first Draft at the age of thirteen. It is this man who then inspired me to achieve my dream of becoming the first person ever to win Academy Awards for Best Writer, Director, Actor, and Best Picture in the same year. It is this man who then inspired me to run for office. And God willing, I will become this country’s next President of the United States of America.
[Pause for applause]
"And now, I’d like for you all to raise your glass to a man who is more to me than an inspiration and a mentor. He’s also my best friend. Ladies and Gentlemen, I’d like to present to you your candidate for Father of the Year. My Dad!”
The crowd jumps to their feet in a thunderous ovation. I attempt to stand but my cane wobbles and I can’t quite get up. The boy steps down from the podium to help his old man to his feet. Too humble to make a speech, I show my gratitude by waving and mouthing the words, “Thank you. Thank you. Thank you.”
This is the fantasy that in the past had given me the will to keep going, to persevere for the sake of my children. I had responsibilities and couldn’t just turn down a paycheck, however pathetic.
So I psyched myself up for the job. Trying to play the part of the tough-love teacher, I called Richard and agreed to teach the boys as long as they learned the songs I chose and learned them my way. It would be my way or the highway.
Richard said he’d call the parents and get back to me. A few days later he called me back and told me the parents had requested someone who could teach another day.