The limit of your ability

Nothing more can I teach you. – Yoda


In the early part of this millenium, I spent a lot of time teaching people to play the guitar. I’m quite knowledgable and fairly technically proficient as a guitarist, so it was with delight that I would help others in their own musically dexterous journey of development. Along the way, this would introduce me to a whole host of different artists and bands, as I was always keen to ensure that my students learned the songs and tunes that they wanted to play, not just what I wanted to teach them, or worse still, what I felt they should learn.

Sometimes this was really easy to prepare for. Often, the songs had already been transcribed and posted online (yep, this was the 2000’s after all!), and if it wasn’t something I had in my own music collection, it was simple enough to find the track online to listen to.

Sometimes it was harder to prepare for. I couldn’t find the track online. A transcription of it hadn’t been shared online, and I would sit patiently beside my cd player, paper in front of me, guitar in lap and pencil between teeth, shuffling between ‘play’, ‘pause’ and ‘rewind’ to get down on paper what I needed to help my student learn the track.

Often, a track the student would suggest was complex – arguably too complex. They may not have reached the required level of dexterity or speed to emulate the exact notes played by the artist. In many cases, we split the learning up, first learning the chord accompaniment, then perhaps some of the patterns or riffs that formed the key features of the track, before building up to a detailed breakdown of the solo. Often this breakdown would be performed in sections, at slow speeds before knitting it all together and cranking up the pace. What drove them on was the desire to learn something that motivated them.

Occasionally, you’d hit a wall. There is a limit to both my dexterity and the speed at which I can pick. I remember working with a student to learn ‘Surfing with the Alien’ by Joe Satriani. Whilst I can play all the phrases and notes Satch plays when broken down into chunks, I can’t play the whole piece at the recorded speed. I vividly remember the feeling of telling my student that although I could teach him how to play it, I couldn’t actually play it myself. I was a moment of pride watching in awe this student surpass my own ability, as he was a more technically proficient guitarist than me.

How do we cope when we realise the limits of our ability? Do we strive to improve and better ourselves? Do we hide it away, and hope that no-one finds where we will fail?

Image credit: Terriko.

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