I am a teacher. I have been teaching for 50 years. But I am also a coach. What’s the difference? When you’re teaching, you are giving information that your students don’t have. You’re solving problems by giving them a technique they can use: teaching them a new note, a new fingering, a new position. Introducing a new scale or scale pattern, a new cliche, a new ornament that enhances the music is still teaching. But what if they know all that? That’s when you get into coaching.
When you’re coaching, you’re working on interpretation. As a teacher, you can give your unsophisticated student your interpretation. I heard Pablo Casals, famous cellist and conductor, teaching an orchestra, in fact a really sophisticated orchestra, the interpretation of a Bach piece. It was fascinating. They will never hear that piece again without comparing it to the interpretation they got from him that rehearsal. But they didn’t come up with the interpretation, Mr. Casals did. With a well-trained orchestra or quartet or individual, the interpretation is arrived by discovery. Sometimes all it takes is a little background into the piece or the composer. Other times it requires that the student become more aware of the rhythmic and melodic elements of the piece. Still others require the student to look inward as to how the music speaks to them personally.
I am working with a new student on guitar. He is NOT a beginner. One of his previous teachers was a guitarist from a Famous Band (at least in the Midwest). Oh dear. I have never played in a famous band. But I have been teaching for 50 years. And I have started coaching although not so much in music because I deal with mostly beginners. I actually coach my son when we talk, but it’s practice. I coach club coaches in the art of saving clubs in Toastmasters, and due to COViD-19, there are a lot of clubs teetering on the brink of dissolution. But this is the first time I have coached a guitar student of this caliber.
My coaching coach had us do an experiment. We had to coach the people sitting at our particular table how to juggle. There were jugglers in the room, but not every table had a juggler as one of its members. Therefore, you had non-jugglers teaching other non-jugglers how to juggle. Blind leading the blind. Total disaster, right? And you would be correct. Then our coach helped us to ask the right questions instead of giving suggestions. Ahhhh. Different approach–coaching instead of teaching. What is the first problem we had to solve? Too many things to keep track of? Unable to think fast enough? It was different for each student. Then instead of telling the person what to do, that person was asked what they could do to solve that particular problem. They already had an idea on what could work, and just needed to refine it. Et Voila! We now had 4-5 people at each table that could now juggle. What made this a brilliant exercise is that we saw coaching in action. We were actively coaching. And now our clients were seeing results. Why now? Why not before? It was the difference between teaching and coaching. Teaching assumes the student needs information they do not currently have. Coaching assumes that the client has all the information they need to solve the problem.
So here I am, sitting with this advanced guitarist, knowing I cannot show him information he doesn’t already have. He has brought in some of his favorite music. I notice he stutters at the beginning of every measure…repeating notes he has already correctly played without changing anything in fingering or plucking. I explain that sometimes the hand is playing before the brain can catch up, or sometimes the brain races ahead and forgets that it hasn’t finished what it had started. It’s like baking cookies. You have all the ingredients laid out and you’re mentally greasing the pans and you look down and don’t remember if you put the salt in. Do you start over? Do you taste the mixture? Do you assume you haven’t added the salt? Do you check for little salt crystals on the counter top or at the top of the package? Now all that thinking ahead has you at a disadvantage. What if you worried about adding the baking soda? It looks like flour so you can’t tell by looking, and it doesn’t have a strong taste so you can’t tell by tasting…Uh oh. In the other scenario, you’re on your 12th batch of cookies, and you’re on automatic. Your hands have already added all the ingredients and your brain says, “Are you sure you added the eggs?” Do you remember getting them out of the fridge? Was that this batch or the last batch? In both cases, the brain is not in the moment. Now I have related this story to my student and ask him, “Is your brain ahead or behind your hands? How can you get them in sync?” He slows down, microscopically. Miraculously (well, it seems that way to him) he no longer stutters. He now has a practice approach that will aid him in this week’s assignment.
My Mind is Exhausted! Why? Because I had to be in the moment with him. I had to listen critically, to watch his hands, to compare it to his music. Using my extensive experience in music literature, I pointed out some patterns he may not have been aware of, and asked him to play them with a new emphasis and compare it to what he had been playing to determine which brought out the best underlying thought in the music. Then we both had to be in the moment and concentrating very hard on the feeling and interpretation of the phrases. After he went home, I had to take a nap!
Here’s the thing though. He was early in the afternoon. The rest of my students were influenced by the way I had to teach earlier. I asked them more questions. I did some more coaching in interpretation than I usually did. I explained how this approach to practice was more beneficial. “When you made that mistake during practice, did you just repeat the mistake over and over again? If so, were you practicing the act of fixing instead of eliminating the problem? You were, in effect, getting it wrong really really well. What would be a better approach to actually make this mistake go away?” At the end of the night, I was completely drained. I was very tired, but now my brain was in passing gear! I was exhilarated and exhausted at the same time. I can hardly wait until next week!