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a pedagog's lament

Thoughts about learner's impatience
© All Rights Reserved: William R. Cumpiano, 1988


It’s a pity, isn’t it? Nowadays, nobody wants to pay the dues for their art. 

Everyone wants to BE but nobody wants to BECOME. 

Everyone wants to be an expert but no one wants to become one. But you must become before you can be.

It's noble to be a student, a beginner. Whatever happened to the fine old tradition of the "amateur"? The word comes from the French: "lover of.” If you love something, you want to know it deeply. However, that takes time, and effort. And it seems people just don’t want to give things the effort it takes to know something deeply. 

I often find myself telling my students: "Drop your illusions. You cannot become a luthier after taking a course. You may pick up some mental tools and some knowledge about the assembly process—but not experience. You can only acquire experience, like you do age. Experience occurs as the result of making many guitars, after creating a body of work or opus. Experience comes from studying the masters: Martin, Torres, Macaferri, Aguado, Velazquez--after trying to dissect their decisions, after studying how they solved the great problems. Be prepared to repeatedly fail, to throw up your hands, then to pull yourself together and start yet again. You need to suffer sleepless nights wondering why things failed and now what to do next. You must devour information: Information about tools, finishes, machinery, abrasives, adhesives--old ways, new ways, and odd ways. Then, somewhere between your fiftieth and hundredth guitar you start to hear it -- because you've been straining to listen for so long: the peculiar song of the soundbox."


But as I look into the eyes of some aspirants of the craft, and I see so many eyes, looking back with, "Not me! I'm a special case. Waiting is for idiots. Life is too short." But mastery comes from giving your obsession all the time it needs, all the time it takes, whatever that may be.

One student asked me if he could build two guitars in the same course. He had already sold one and wanted to display the other in the new shop he was going to open up! Another student disapproved of my choice of Spanish method slotted-neck construction for his first guitar. He was paying dearly for the course and felt entitled to build a more "advanced" instrument. Could he pearl it and sunburst it besides? He, too, was anxious to make a living as a luthier right after the course. Another young fellow told me he had built two guitars which had come out "pretty good". He could get financing, so if I would agree to be his partner we could both open up this school and... One student had gotten a job as a repairman after showing off the guitar he had made in the course to his employer. Now he wondered, could I tell him how to get this bridge off? The production manager of a guitar company called: "One of your students is applying for a job. He's got his guitar here and his calling card that says 'expert luthier, fine handcrafted instruments, skilled repairs and restorations'. Is he for real?" My answer: "He's pretty good with his hands but has precious little humility. Which of the two qualities are you looking for?" 

Some time ago, one student's third guitar came into the shop. It had a fancy three-color printed label. The action was up in the air, but the guitar had to be rebuilt before it could be adjusted. When the owner returned it to the builder, all he got was a scolding. The owner showed me the builder’s expensive brochure where he said the luthier had been "apprenticed" to me. He called me responsible for his dilemma. 

Later, I was feeling badly about all this and I asked someone whom I knew to be a good luthier if I wasn’t creating a batch of mini Frankensteins and loosing them upon the world. Had these people just never learned how to be students, or were they just simply cynical frauds? His advice was that Guitarmaking would surely take care of them in time: there are no old dilettantes or fakers in this business. It is too complex and too elusive a thing to do. It rewards only the pure in heart, the ones that give themselves completely to it, and ask nothing from it, except the privilege to be allowed to continue. Guitarmaking weeds out the faint of heart, the poseurs, the ego trippers. Just like the making of a guitar itself, the making of a guitarmaker takes its own sweet time. Those who are too impatient to sit and wait at the door soon get up, leave, and become insurance trainees, dental technicians, or surfers or something. 

Alas, guitarmaking evokes an aura of seductive mystery, one with a great appeal to the sentimental and illusion-prone. But after the third set of expensive rosewood breaks on the iron or curls up in the mold, or the fourth center seam opens up, or when the finish starts to fisheye on your tenth guitar, the illusion ends. You have to pay your guitarmaking dues. No one can shield you from those dues.

He continued, reminding me that it is impossible to teach anybody anything. The learner must first learn to be a patient student and then teach himself. Above all, students must supply their own will to persevere through the frustrating obstacles and all the disinformation out there masquerading as the real thing. 

A master is someone who has made more mistakes than you, has made mistakes you haven’t made yet, and has learned how to embrace them--thus learning to see them coming before they happen. So you go towards mastery one mistake at a time. How many mistakes can you stand? As many as it takes to be a master. The master has persevered past the errors until he's made all of them. 

Although it's cynical to award somebody a "diploma" in Guitarmaking after a single course, as some schools do, students must decide whether to put it on the wall or stash it in a bag with other memorabilia. 

And to conclude, and with my apologies to Shakespeare: The evil you do lives on while the good is oft interred with your bones. So don’t sell your first guitars. Or they’ll come back to haunt you. 

William Cumpiano 


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