As a guitar teacher, it’s very gratifying to see when music really takes hold in a student, growing into a huge part of their life. Any beginning student who prepares a piece and executes a successful recital performance is transformed by the accomplishment of that experience—building confidence and poise by performing in front of a live audience.
However, the creative act of composing music can also generate an emotional transformation.
I witnessed this transformation in an adult student a few years ago. He was in his mid 60s and a successful lawyer at a law firm in downtown Boston. After many years of not playing, he had recently purchased an electric guitar and wanted help in focusing his study in a new direction.
In our first few months of lessons, we covered basic theory and musicianship relating to the guitar. But it soon became clear that my student wanted to chart his own course, and my role was to be his advisor.
Soon, he began writing his own music and our lessons evolved into discussing his new compositions. He had a very good sense of melody, and with the help of digital recorders, he would layer multiple melodic ideas to create a framework and musical structure—similar to the vocal orchestrations that Brian Wilson used on the early Beach Boys recordings.
Writing music was a huge emotional outlet for my student. He began taking days off from work to play and also considered retiring so he would have more time to devote to practice. His wife also had some health problems, and I think that his composing was great therapy for him.
Around this time, my student’s daughter (who lived out-of-state) came for a visit. He was very excited to play her some of his new music. However, her reaction was not what he hoped for.
He came to the next lesson rather depressed.
I reassured him that his compositions were quite good; they had musical value. I also told him that composing music comes with the risk of others not liking it, given people’s strong opinions of music. You will not always connect with every listener.
However, he was not convinced. As this situation continued for many weeks, there was a danger he could give up playing.
Indian Hill was also having their Guitar Festival at this time. We guitar teachers were asked to suggest students to play during the intermission of the Eliot Fiske concert with the orchestra. Since this performance would be mainly background music in the school lobby, I thought this would be a good opportunity for my student to perform in a low-stress environment. He agreed, and worked very hard preparing and rehearsing for the event.
The performance went very well and my student was very well received by several of my advanced jazz students, who were also playing at the event. This praise from his peers meant more to my student than anything that I had told him, and he slowly began to get his courage back to compose.
Often composing can offer great solace and emotional release, but a new composer can sometimes be in a fragile state when exposed to criticism. My student was transformed by the struggle of building his courage back to perform—underscoring the fact that transformation can sometimes be arrived at only after great difficulty.
Many months later, my student decided to retire and relocate, so that he could be closer to his daughter. In the process of building the home in which they would live, my student consulted me on the construction of a “music room” for recording and practice. I still hear from him and he continues to compose and perform.
Each student’s path to transformation is unique, but it is always gratifying to see the many ways that music can impact an individual’s life. Music has the power to help us all grow and transform, no matter what stage of life we are in.
Greg Passler is a guitar instructor at Indian Hill Music.