What the Roman Empire Has To Do With Learning a Musical Instrument

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No, this has nothing to do with Nero fiddling while Rome burned, though that might make a good future topic. This has to do with a sentence I stumbled across while burrowing through the two volumes of "The Decline and Fall of The Roman Empire" by Edward Gibbon.

Here is the quote: (Chapter IV, p. 34)


Ain't it the truth. I have often muttered similar, though less eloquent, versions of the same sentiment, accompanied by a heavy sigh, as various students left after their lessons.

some guy who is long dead Some long dead Roman wearing the purple.

Seriously, Gibbon hit the nail on the head here. (I'll leave it to you to read the book for its original context.) I have, over the decades, come to the conclusion that I really can't "teach" anyone anything. All I can hope to do is help someone discover that all things are self-taught. If anything, I am just running a school for teaching folks to teach themselves.

If the lessons are "superfluous" then you'll probably get a lot out of them. If you "need lessons" they may not help until you understand the concept and methods of self-instruction. (That's my main task.)

What I do in lessons, be they personal, private lessons or through videos and books, may look like I am explaining step-by-step how to do or play something or other. On one level I am. But, in the process I am demonstrating that you can read the tab on your own, or use the technique I am showing in dozens of other ways and do the same without me. Or perhaps I am using jargon and "over your head" theory explanations which might inspire you to crack open a book or two and learn some new information. It's like teasing a cat with a bit of yarn just trying to get you to play.

Or maybe I am just playing the role of that little birdie on your shoulder telling you to sit up straight, tune that 2nd string, don't grip that pick so tight, and so forth in an effort to train your own inner-birdie so you can repeat that process without me. Or maybe I am just making some wisecrack or telling some lame story.

We are all multiple persons. There is the Meat-Puppet who holds the instrument and whacks away at the strings. There is the devilish Imp who tries to get the Meat-Puppet to play faster and louder, show off at gigs and encourages them to screw around instead of practicing. And there is Mother Superior* who stands in judgement of everything the Meat-Puppet does and cracks him on the knuckles every time he gets out of time or hits a clam. You may have a few extra inner personalities.

As a teacher I am more interested in training Mother Superior and The Imp to cooperate and share their time with the hapless Meat-Puppet. If I have guided them and convinced the Meat-Puppet that he can slap around the Imp and tell Mother Superior to take a hike, politely of course, then I know I have earned my lousy twenty bucks for that half-hour which I sold to the student. It is my job to get the three of them on friendly terms.

*This character is alternately known as Mother Superior or your Little Birdie. You might even have both. Birdie is more polite and likeable but Mother Superior is pretty effective too.




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