Saturday, August 10, 2013

New Strings

I got a new guitar about three years ago. Quite an expensive guitar, as it happens, and one I enjoy playing. I don't make any claim to be a particularly good guitarist but I know my way round the chords well enough. Hell, on better days I can even fingerpick.

Anyway, today I changed the strings on the guitar. For the first time. The first time in over three years. Three and a half, come to think of it.

Now if you're not up to speed on guitar maintenance, I should explain that you're meant to change strings reasonably regularly, maybe every six months or so (or even more often if you're really keen). Otherwise your strings get old and tired, and sound "dead" - the sound quickly dies off, whereas with newer strings the noise resonates longer. Basically, put a new set of strings on your guitar, and it'll automatically sound a whole lot better next time you play it. Brighter, more vibrant, more resonant.

You'll see where I'm going with this, I'm sure.

So why the hell did it take me so long to change the strings? It wasn't lack of money - you can get a new set for six quid easily enough (pay more if you want, but six quid will do fine). And it wasn't really for lack of time either. It's been a while since I changed a set of strings (obviously) but even then I managed to change them, and clean the guitar up a bit too, in the space of an hour or so. (Experienced professionals will, I hasten to add, be able to do this in a quarter of the time, but that's not entirely off the point.)

I've known for ages that the strings were well past it, but that didn't stop me from playing the guitar anyway. And it's not as if it sounded that bad... until of course I put the new strings on, and bloody hell, what a difference. There are many ways in which you can improve your guitar playing, but I'm not looking for a Lemovian "Practice Perfect" rant here. All I'm saying is, I'd avoided doing the simplest, most obvious thing for a long time. It wasn't lack of money, or lack of time. It was lack of effort, or perhaps willingness to be distracted. To miss the most obvious thing.

A final observation to make is that I do enjoy playing the guitar. Changing strings is not an enjoyable task, and of course when you're doing it, you're not playing the guitar. It would have been easy this morning to just say, och, it'll wait, and play the guitar for an hour, instead of stepping back, getting all they right gear together, and changing the strings.

And so I got to thinking about my teaching. I don't think I'm stretching too far for a metaphor here if I say that there are definite parallels between my teaching and my guitar playing. I'm not bad at teaching, and I've been doing it for years. I get by more or less just fine.

But what if I got some new strings?
(Don't worry, we're really not going to go there, honest.)

At this point you might be expecting me to launch my grand new idea: the Learning Guitar, incorporating the Fretboard of Discovery, upon which sit the Six Strings of Effective Engagement (complete with vomit-inducing infographic)... but please, rest assured, that's not what this is about. I'm simply struck by this business of the new strings, and I can't help but wonder if it's a useful metaphor for teaching - in particular, for the notion of renewing oneself periodically as a teacher. There's no better time to do this than over the holidays, after all.

I'd love to be able to reveal what I think the equivalent of new stings is for a teacher, but truth be told I'm not at all sure. It could be that it's different for each of us. I do know that I am NOT talking about trying out new ideas or methods: that's not what putting on new strings is about. Most guitarists will find a set and make of strings that they are happy with, and stick pretty loyally to them. But they will buy new sets regularly.

Maybe for us teachers, we need our subject knowledge renewed or refreshed? Or maybe our room displays (though that seems a tad trite)? Hell, maybe it's our voices that need renewed? It just strikes me that there must be something which is, I dunno, the sort of engine room of a teacher (to reach for another metaphor entirely), and I wonder if we give that the care and attention it deserves. Given that no-one really enjoys fitting new strings, maybe the equivalent is taking a fresh look at our planning for lessons and/or topics weve taught over and over again? I mean, who enjoys planning lessons, for goodness sake? (Or maybe thats just me.)

I don't know, but I'm going to think about this for a bit. I'd welcome any suggestions too.

In the meantime, in this holiday season (about to end for us Scots), I hope you manage to somehow find renewal and revival. Good luck!


  1. I could see my guitar (that I have not played n a while!) across the room as I read and enjoyed your post. Such an important point you raise. Funnily enough my own post this morning mentioned how I want to completely change my emphasis on expectations at the start of the new school year!
    Wishing you and all teachers and students a great year ahead!

  2. Good point Colleen. At the start of the year it would be so easy to say, och, do I really have to do all the setting the ground rules stuff... But it's so important to do this.