“Your best playing will be during your college years.”
That’s what one of my cooperating teachers told me during student teaching, and boy, did it hit me like a brick. Whether or not he intended for this effect, I felt a sudden sense of dread: I am not where I want to be as a musician yet. This cannot be as good as it gets! Good golly, is it really all downhill from here?
Short answer: no.
The importance of learning new instruments
What my cooperating teacher had meant, of course, was that priorities change once you are teaching. As a jazz guitar major, I had to spend a lot of time practicing other instruments to diversify myself as a teacher. When I was teaching band, free time was devoted to playing through method books on trumpet, clarinet, and flute. Was it music to my neighbors’ ears? No. Was it concert-worthy? Probably not. Did it ensure that I could show my students what they needed to know? Yes.
As a teacher, you will be busy with lesson plans, rehearsals, grading, and, of course, being in the classroom. Time to practice your instrument? It’s certainly hard to find the time in and amongst everything else. However, I didn’t want my skills as a guitarist to wilt away after college. Besides, I felt morally wrong teaching music without practicing it. How could I encourage participating in music without doing it myself? I sure hope that as you are reading this, you are reflecting on the reasons you decided to become a music teacher. I also hope one of those reasons is the inherent joy music gives you. That previous sentence reads super corny, but come on—you know what I’m talking about.
Making time for your instrument
Needless to say, I am happy to say that the guitar has not turned into a foreign instrument in my life. I’ll grace this page with another quote from college that stuck with me, this time from an ear training professor: “Playing an instrument is one of the few things that don’t decline as you get older.” I like to think that this is true. Here are a few things that help:
- Set gigs for yourself. Whether you play in a band, an orchestra pit, or for formal events such as weddings, make sure it happens. There are days when I am exhausted and would really rather binge watch TV shows mindlessly when I come home. Having set dates where quality performances have to happen ensures that I practice. It’s motivation even on the toughest, most jam-packed days. “I would really like a sloppy performance from the musician I hired,” said no person ever.
- Continue to teach your instrument. Find ways to teach your own instrument of choice, even if you’re a flute player who spends most of your time banging out chords on the piano for a choir. Teaching private guitar lessons or starting guitar clubs in schools keeps me rooted to the instrument. You may find yourself figuring out how to play songs that you never would have wanted to learn (you know what I’m talking about), but it’s great for diversifying your skill as both a teacher and musician.
- Find people to jam with. A friend and I set a day of the week to get together and run through jazz pieces. I can honestly say that I think my jazz skills have improved since college, thus leaving me feeling vindicated against any idea that my guitar playing would disintegrate after college! While I had great teachers and band leaders in my undergraduate studies, running through charts with a friend takes the pressure off. It’s ok if I mess up, and I can try new things without worrying about running a practice session off of the tracks. Though we are both insanely busy, we’ve been sticking with this schedule pretty much weekly for the past few years. Usually a practice session ends with take-out, so that’s a plus, too. I highly recommend pizza or Thai food. Great motivation.
Sure, there are weeks when I feel like I haven’t touched my guitar outside of teaching a lesson. I’m not practicing two hours a day anymore like I was in college. However, I’m still playing, and I can honestly say that I’m developing new skills. After all, if you’re teaching, you’re always learning too (corny anecdote #2). So find gigs that interest you, and find like-minded people to jam with. It can be a fellow college classmate, another musician in the area looking for a band, or a coworker! You’d be surprised how many teachers used to be in a band or play an instrument and would just love to jam with other people. And goodness, your students will be in awe of this. Their teachers? In a band? Impossible. Teachers live in a box at school that closes at the end of the day! It will blow their minds, regardless of what you perform.
As you get older, you may forget things more often or have a more difficult time running that mile (or, in my case, power walking that mile), but your musicianship will be one thing that won’t lessen with age.