The Music Lesson (The Teacher)

by Tom Rizzo

Recently, after I played a concert in Los Angeles, an aspiring guitarist who had been there emailed me to ask how I got such a good sound out of the guitar. I wrote back saying there were two answers to his question, one long, the other short. The short answer was a description of the make and model of the guitar I used, and the brand of amplifier and speaker, and the respective settings on the amp. The long answer:

I’ve studied music most of my life, but one of the best music lessons I ever had didn’t involve music, at least not in the way I had thought about it up to that point.

I was in my early twenties, and had been seriously studying music since I was young. I was fairly accomplished, but I knew I had much further to go, and I sought out and was accepted by a well know teacher. Suffice it to say he had an intimidating presence and a strong reputation for producing students of exceptional quality. I felt very lucky to be able to study with him, even though I was petrified before and during every lesson. He had enough respect for his students to know that he served them best by being honest, and he could tell how much and how hard I had practiced. He also knew what I was capable of, and what I needed to work on to get there.

We studied harmony, repertoire, technique. We listened to and copied the great guitarists: Wes Montgomery, Joe Pass, Pat Martino, Jim Hall. And we listened to and copied other great musicians: Miles Davis, Cannonball Adderley, Sonny Rollins, Sonny Stitt, Charlie Parker. There are many others. But all of that study came after this one lesson I’m about to tell you about.

This seminal event was actually only the fourth or fifth lesson I’d had with this teacher. For the first few lessons he’d loaded me up with enough to do for at least a year, and I’d done my best that week to work on it, several hours each day. The lesson began like a religious ceremony: high priest and repentant sinner. “Ok, begin.” That’s all he said in a deep voice. So I began. I think I got about three measures in, about twelve seconds or so, when he said, “OK. Put your guitar back in the case. Get your coat.” Gulp. Like I wasn’t freaked out enough just playing in front of him. Now he’s going to take me outside to his balcony and push me off. Or something like that. “Got your car keys?” “Yes,” I said. “Good.” Silence now as we walk to my car. Now I’m really nervous. What’s going on? Where are we going? Is he mad at me? Is he turning me into the music police? Oh man, what’s going on? No expression whatsoever on the master’s face.

As I turn the ignition key he speaks slowly. “Your house,” he says, accenting the second word. I say nothing, just gently put the car in gear, carefully guiding us onto the street. Definitely not the time to have an accident. For the next twenty minutes or so not so much as one word is uttered. I have absolutely no idea what’s going on. Why are we going to my place? Why isn’t he speaking to me? Should I make small talk? I wouldn’t know what to say anyway. I just bear the weight of this very uncomfortable situation, wishing I’d practiced more.

We pull into my driveway and I turn the car off. He gets out and so do I. I take the guitar out of the trunk and we head toward the house. I walk behind him feeling like a kid who’s been caught by his mom: “Just wait til your father gets home.”

As we enter the house he begins looking around in silence, as if he were inspecting a house he was interested in buying. First in the kitchen, looking at the cabinets, the walls, the curtains, the floor, then onto the living room, then the bedrooms, giving each the same inspection. He was acting like this was his job description, to peek into a private compound and observe, the purpose of which was not apparent to me. Until he finally spoke.

“Just as I thought.” Then more silence. He walks around and observes some more. What the heck does that mean? I’m more paranoid than curious, but curious nonetheless. Is he going to say anything else? This guy can go a long time without saying anything, and that unfortunately allows me time to make up all kinds of things.

I can’t stand it any longer. I ask, “What do you mean, ‘Just as you thought’”? He pauses for a bit, looking around some more. Then he says, “Just as I suspected. The kitchen cabinets don’t match. The color of the kitchen is harsh. The drapes don’t match in the living room. No art on the walls. The bedrooms are a mess. No sense of beauty.” Then a pause. “It’s just like you play.” Pause. “OK. Lesson over. Take me home.”

It was the longest car ride of my life. Yet, I’m forever grateful to this teacher for having the wisdom to know that becoming a good musician involves a lot more than talent, dedication and countless hours of practice. He was showing me that in order to make great music, my entire life needs to be aligned with the creation of beauty, in every respect. And, he knew that the way something is taught is important, too. Imagine the difference if he’d just said, “Try to play more lyrically.”

I completely changed my approach to practicing as a result of this “lesson.”

And that’s the long answer to the question, “How do you get such a good sound out of the guitar.”

With more than 30 years of experience in music, Tom Rizzo has made a successful living as a guitarist, composer and arranger. He’s worked on a variety of projects, from motion picture soundtracks to GRAMMY Award-winning songs. He was also one of the guitarists on “The Tonight Show” band in the latter stages of the Johnny Carson era and toured with the Maynard Ferguson Band.

Tom is also founder and managing director of Plectrum Advisers, an independent financial planning resources serving the freelance community.