A couple of years ago, we had the basement finished in our house. One of the main reasons for the renovation was to create a more professional workspace for me – a combination recording and guitar studio. We painted the walls in what I seem to remember was called “Grecian Marble”, a cool, gray-green that just begged for a strong color in contrast. My wife suggested the red family, with the promise that it would really “pop” against the neutral background. So we found some deep red vases and some red silk pillows for the couch. We created some red, black and gold striped sound panels to absorb echoes and give the room some flair. And we found two red chairs – two bright red chairs – for my student and me to sit and play guitar.
Not long after, I set out to look for some art for the walls. I was adamant that not everything in the studio is “music themed”; it was important for the room to look sharp but elegant, with a groovy vibe that was apparent as soon as you walked in. I wasn’t sure what I was looking for, but I’d know it when I found it. And then I found it.
“Two Red Chairs” was perched on a shelf in the local Barnes and Noble. It was a small print of a photo by Jeffrey Becom, a photo of, well, two red chairs. I knew immediately that it was special. First of all, there was the obvious match to the two red chairs in my studio. But there was something more. In Becom’s photo, one chair is taller than the other. They are wooden and weathered a bit, and they sit side by side against a green plaster wall. The photo spoke to me and to the cashier we went.
My wife was a little bewildered. She realized that the chairs in the photo were red like my studio chairs, but beyond that, her take on the whole deal was, “Are you really gonna buy a print of two chairs?” My answer was, “Absolutely.” After all, this piece of art expressed everything about my teaching philosophy – indeed, everything about my life philosophy – and said it without words. Just furniture.
From time to time I’ll ask a student to look at the print and tell me what they see.
“Two red chairs.”
“Beyond that, what do you notice about the photo, the chairs? Do you get a sense of anything more?”
The most popular answer, after the realization that we are, in fact, sitting in two red chairs ourselves, is that the bigger chair symbolizes the teacher – me – and the smaller chair symbolizes the student. They are always a little taken aback when I ask them the million dollar question: “Why do you assume that I am in the big chair and you are in the little one?”
Of course, I know why they assume that the little chair is theirs – it’s a natural notion on a student’s part. But I take the opportunity to let them know that we are exchanging information and that I am just as likely to receive it as they are. Every guitar lesson is a learning opportunity for both of us. We can both assume the role of student – or teacher. We can both sit in the little chair.
I often wonder how many teachers feel the same way I do. My instinct is that most do not. I’ve got no actual data to back that up; it’s just a hunch on my part. But I think the title “teacher” encourages said teacher to assume that information passes only one way: from them down to the “student”, big chair to little chair. And it’s easy to go through the motions of instruction, dropping knowledge and moving on to the next recipient. It’s more difficult to maintain the optimum teaching balance, where you’re dropping knowledge and, like the Zen master, carrying an empty cup. In my humble view, the very best teachers are the very best students first. And the very best teaching takes place when the teacher remembers what it’s like to be the student.
And so I strive to sit in the little chair just as well as I sit in the big chair. It requires you to subjugate your ego – after all, you’re the “teacher”. It requires generosity of spirit, not in sharing your knowledge (the easy part), but in encouraging your students to share theirs and helping them to feel that they have something of value to offer. It requires you to carry your empty cup.
Every guitar lesson has its own challenges and the proper balance can be tough to achieve, but I’m reminded of the goal every time my students and I sit in the two red chairs.
A huge thanks to Jeffrey Becom for his generosity in allowing me to use his work on my website, and to Sally Aberg of Becom Fine Art for making it happen. I encourage you to visit www.jeffreybecom.com and witness some truly beautiful art inspired by the seemingly simple and mundane. There is a world of possibilities in doorways and staircases, windows and chairs.
Image Credit: “Two Red Chairs”, San Cristóbal de las Casas, Chiapas, Mexico 1995 © Jeffrey Becom, from Maya Color: The Painted Villages of Mesoamerica (Abbeville Press, NY, 1997)