There is a glimmer of hope for me, an adult who wants to pick up his six-string again. The months that this vintage piece of handcrafted wood has been cased and un-played are more than I care to admit to Jamie Timm, lead guitarist for indie-folk band The Devil Whale, as he patiently watches me fumble through various fingerpicking patterns—our first lesson.
We hear time and time again that learning foreign languages or musical instruments is easier for children, but there’s more to it than neurotransmitters and an absence of self-consciousness—and it might even be untrue.
“I think there are, maybe, more distractions as an adult, which makes it harder. Honestly, though, the learning can be done whenever—it just takes practice,” Timm says, speaking from 12 years of teaching lessons. “But I think it’s equally fulfilling to start whenever.”
For Timm, it’s all about getting folks interested in making music—even simple little ditties—and not about technique or theory. Before creating a dynamic lesson plan, he finds himself connecting with a student—from 5 years old to 75—first and foremost, which is, after all, why many musicians take to a stage.
He’s one example of a rock star who can’t get by on rock alone—truth is, hardly anyone brings home the bacon just with melody and rhythm. For example, just this month, critically acclaimed Billboard chart-topper Cat Power, who sells out shows nationwide, filed for bankruptcy.
To scrape by, musicians become nannies, dog walkers, house cleaners, salespeople—the list goes on and on—so they can make their art. And a good many teach what they know best.
This even extends to signed musicians. Atlantic Records signee Fictionist’s frontman, Stuart Maxfield, began teaching while in high school with one guitar student; now, he teaches violin, guitar, electric bass and songwriting—mostly utilizing the Suzuki Method—to upward of a dozen students.
“In high school, I had no idea what I was doing. There were quite a few lessons where kids just sat there and scratched their heads,” Maxfield says. “It took a while to learn how to speak the language of music to another human being.”
Maxfield currently teaches one day a week—all that he can handle with playing gigs and writing new songs. He wouldn’t have it any other way, though. “I really, truly enjoy teaching. I get a charge out of it,” he says.
“There’s nothing like being onstage and sharing the music you’ve made [with an audience]. ... But there’s also nothing like watching someone learn how to make music,” he continues, adding an anecdote about becoming “dad proud” of one longtime student.
And this 8-year-old—or her parents—didn’t hire Maxfield because of his status in the Utah County music scene. “I’ve heard about people seeking me out because they’ve heard I’m in an almost-professional band,” he says. “But it’s more rare than you’d think.”
The students seeking out a “rock star” teacher usually don’t last long, Maxfield says. Maybe they’re intimidated. “I’m kind of intense when I teach, so I think I’ve scared some little kids,” he continues. “It’s really important to me that someone practice. We’re either going to do this, or we’re not going to do this. I don’t want to participate in stagnation.”
While most of Maxwell’s clientele come from referrals, other Utah musicians, like Columbia Records recording artist Isaac Russell or drummer Cathy Foy (The Future of the Ghost, The Awful Truth and more), use Facebook or posters at hip enclaves and coffee shops to attract clientele.
“The fliers have surprisingly worked,” Foy says. “Generally speaking, I don’t have any students know who I am through any of my bands.” Most of her students are children—although she gets some adults—so teaching drum lessons has little to do with the music scene and much more to do with the instrument.
“I really enjoy the idea that every week you have objectives to work on. At the end of the week, you have something to show for it. It’s a real, tangible way of seeing how you get better,” Foy says. Her students begin with basic rock beats and learn fundamentals of reading music and how notes function. They build upon that so if they were to get in a room with their friends, they could play along—maybe also one day becoming a struggling, but happy, musician.
“It was a total natural progression for me [to teach]. It lends itself to my personality,” Foy says. “Plus, it’s a way to make a living as a musician.
“It’s not like you walk away from a gig at a local club with a bunch of cash; actually, it’s the opposite—sometimes I lose money,” she says with a laugh.