Those Who Can’t… Confessions of a Private Music Tutor
Bob Leggitt | Tuesday, 31 May 2016 |
Before the market for music tuition was revolutionised by free options online, it was possible for many local and decidedly average musicians to make a good income from private teaching. Yes, just as before the invention of the toothbrush people would accept into their mouths a branch from a small tree or a medieval Brillo pad; before the invention of YouTube and tutorial software people would accept into their lives a tutor they’d met in the lavatory of a wine bar.
In this post I want to recall that scene. Not specifically the wine bar lavatory, obviously. I want to recall what private music tuition was like in the rock and pop genre, before the Internet devastated the realm of opportunity for the useless and incompetent.
If you wanted to actually BE a music tutor, you’d ideally first need to teach yourself to teach. Some musos skipped this stage, and in truth it didn’t seem to matter a great deal. But I didn’t realise how staggeringly incompetent tutors were allowed to be when I started out, so I thought it would make sense to observe the professionals in action. I opted to purchase a range of VHS tuition videos, made by professional musicians, and spearheaded by one Arlen Roth, who developed the highly successful Hot Licks series of instruction tapes. You can see some of my old tapes at the top of the post. These would usually cost somewhere between £20 and £40 each.
Unfortunately, not all artists shared Roth’s aptitude for tuition. Many of the videos (and I’m not just talking about Hot Licks here) combined the tutorial and training skills of David Brent, with the production standards of an Alan Partridge travel tavern talk show. So useless were some of the artists as teachers, that special ‘interviewers’ were hauled in to interject at regular intervals, basically translating, or prompting the musician to properly explain the gibberish he’d just mumbled into the belly of his instrument.
But I found all of this encouraging. All I had to do was adopt the style of a tutor whose video didn’t make me want to throw the television out of the window, and I was, surely, ahead. I mean, how hard could it be?…
As a private music tutor in the mid ‘90s, finding customers was easy. I put one ad in a local newspaper, got a very good response, and just kept repeating the ad until people began to approach me by recommendation. And the stream of recommendations would not take long to start. Part of the reason these recommendations were so quick to flow in was that the standard of service across the scene was roughly in keeping with that of an empty water dispenser. It was all people could do to find a tutor who’d remembered to get out of bed, let alone one who'd developed the ability to relate complex information.
There just weren’t any realistic alternatives. The Internet couldn’t stream video, and most people didn’t have connections anyway in ’95 or before. The really good teachers were always booked up solid and very expensive. The rest of the market was seized by characters people had met in pubs – or had found lying on the pavement outside pubs.
It was desperate. A saxophone player could literally fall off a stage in a drunken stupor, but the guy could play, and no one could find a sax teacher. So if he managed to drag a business card out of his pocket at the right moment – even if he was flat on his back being fanned back to full consciousness with wet jumpers at the time – he could secure himself a new pupil.
One of the joys of teaching was hearing how atrocious people’s previous tutors had been. By all accounts, some tutors would spend entire ‘lessons’ trying to sell items of gear to their pupils. Some taught in their pyjamas, some couldn’t play, one sometimes had to teach in a shed because his wife was ready to punch him... One invariably parked his Range Rover precisely in the middle of the road, causing all lessons to conclude early, to an irate chorus of car horns. Allegedly, of course. I wasn’t there. This was all gossip – but judging by the way people would source their tutors, it was easy to accept this stuff as true.
When you’re working for yourself (and particularly if you’re trying to hold down a ‘day job’ with an employer at the same time), you tend to cut important corners. Neglecting to log the more obvious bits of your timetable, for example. You don’t think it’s possible to forget that someone is scheduled to turn up at your house – especially when it’s a youngish and rather nice-sounding lady…
I’d scheduled an initial meeting with the woman in question, but I HAD forgotten – completely. Assuming I had a free evening, I’d begun cooking a truly eye-watering curry, the smell of which was probably evident from at least the end of the street… Then I’d decided to sort out all my underpants by laying them down across the floor in the lounge. Then, simultaneously with all of the above, I’d chosen to play an audio tape, featuring me, attempting comedy. This entailed a series of demented-sounding groaning noises. Highly amusing to me. Probably more in 'disturbing' territory for the uninitiated.
The doorbell rang, but not even that jogged my memory. I assumed it was a sales call and I opened the door ready to shoo away the perpetrator. The fumes from the curry appeared to impact quite heavily on my guest. I should have been saying: “Please go away”, but on reflex, the words: “Hi, come in!” had already blabbed themselves out.
So there I was showing a young woman I didn’t know (a woman who was, it should be said, now showing clear signs of curry-fume disorientation), into my lounge. A lounge in which numerous pairs of my underpants were liberally spread and carefully arranged across the floor. A lounge in which the stereo was playing an audio tape of me making loud groaning sounds.
The woman turned to me and asked: “Did you forget?”… The correct answer was of course: “YES!!! I’M SO SORRY!”, but I thought that might sound a trifle unprofessional. Yes, I know that presenting your entire collection of underpants to a female stranger is more than a trifle unprofessional, but I’m very quickly gathering them up the underwear and hiding it all. I’ve wrenched the stereo’s plug out of the wall, and I think I can limit the damage. I’ve gone with the very incorrect answer: “Umm, no…”.
Whether it was the deep, mind-altering power of the curry fumes I don’t know, but believe it or not I did get away with it. I ultimately claimed that I hadn’t forgotten, but had made a big mistake when noting down the time of the meeting, and that, apparently, was an acceptable excuse. The lady did look more than a little relieved the following week, not to be greeted with fumes, groaning and a layout of literally ALL my underpants.
Never underestimate the ways in which YouTube has saved the world.
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