Why Sometimes You Don’t Need A Second Opinion

This is a big topic, and one I’ve thought about quite a bit. In many ways it comes down to two different ideas of learning. Either you learn best by hearing lots of different points of view and choosing the best one, or you learn best by trusting one source and committing to that. As with so many things, however, it’s probably not so simple, but in the end I think it comes down to commitment.

Over on our Discord server, one of the members was lamenting the fact that he couldn’t figure out how to improve his picado technique. Part of the problem is that everyone has a different take on what exactly he should fix. His nails are too short. They’re too long. He needs to move from the big knuckle, From the second knuckle. Move the hand closer to the bridge. Further from the bridge. And on and on.

By “everyone” he meant the two different teachers he is studying with, along with all of the assorted online information there is on every topic known to man.

What’s the answer here? How do we choose who to listen to?

If there’s one thing I feel very confident about as a teacher, it’s that there’s no One Way to do things. As soon as I decide that the only way to play better is to do X, I find an example of someone playing gorgeously by doing Y. And if I tell someone that there’s no way to play well if you do Z, then I can be sure to find someone killing it and doing exactly that all over the place.

One way to see this is to say that if that’s true, then nothing really matters, and there’s no point in listening to anyone. Another way is to acknowledge that the biggest part of this problem is that if you hear lots of opposing opinions on how to do things, it makes it that much harder to choose to commit to any one way of doing this. This issue has always existed, but with the internet and gobs of information at hand at any hour, it’s clearly just gotten worse. 

An example from personal experience…

Here’s a little story that illustrates this problem: In 1997 when I was applying to Berklee I had to record myself for the scholarship application. Since I had no idea who I was up against I decided I’d better play as fast and clean as I possibly could, so I spent a month playing about five hours a night as hard and fast as I could. During the day I had a crap job doing data entry, which isn’t great for the hands. When I finished that tape (yes – it was recorded to cassette tape!) my right forearm just quit on me. I got the scholarship, but I had done damage to my right forearm and would play with pain for the next 10 years.

I went to every doctor and every ‘legit’ flamenco and classical guitar teacher I could find to solve the problem. I flew to Texas to see a hand specialist. I spent a week in Denver studying with Ricardo Iznaloa with the goal of completely revamping my technique, and saw a bunch of other teachers as well. I saw Chinese, Japanese and American acupuncturists. I talked to massage people and Rolfing people and chiropractors. I even tried the regular Western Medicine approach. Nothing.

10 Years and No Change

One problem, as I saw it then, was that the guitar teachers weren’t doctors, so of course they couldn’t really understand the damage I had done. And the doctors weren’t players, so they couldn’t possibly understand what playing flamenco guitar really involved. How could I trust any of them? I always had a good reason not to commit to any solution that was proposed to me. 

Eventually, a friend in Los Angeles told me to go see Viejin in Madrid. Kind of like saying “my Ford Focus is acting up” and having someone tell you “go talk to my friend Mario Andretti.” But Viejin – one of the greatest flamenco guitarists ever – was obsessed with hand injuries that happen to guitarists. He had studied the topic exhaustively. And there was no way I could argue that he didn’t know what playing flamenco entailed. 

So I went to Madrid and Viejin told me that my injury wasn’t a big deal. He said yes, I had hurt myself at one point, but if I had done real lasting damage it would hurt when I wasn’t playing. He said that I was a bit traumatized by the injury, so when I played I literally went looking for the pain, and I always found it. He told me to let it go. So I did, and the pain disappeared. Just like that, in less than a week.

Finding the solution…

In retrospect I feel pretty dumb telling this story. I talked myself into ten years of pain. But I also talked myself out of it by trusting someone and committing to a solution – even if the solution in this case was to ignore the problem. I trusted that Viejin knew what he was talking about, so I actually took his advice and got better.

While I see how this could also be a story about the placebo effect or the power of positive thinking, I see it as story about trust. I had refused to trust anyone before Viejin, and I had found smart sounding reasons to convince myself that I was right not to trust them. As a result I didn’t commit to any of the solutions offered to me. 

Trust + Commitment = Results

Of course, this doesn’t mean that you’ll play faster picado by just trusting me or anyone else. But it does mean that you’re unlikely to commit to any one way of doing things if you don’t trust your teacher. And if you don’t commit, you’re unlikely to see any real improvement. It’s easy to get discouraged when you don’t make progress immediately, so when someone says that maybe what you’re committing to isn’t The Way, it’s tempting to jump ship and try the new thing. But will you commit long enough to see any improvement?

And finally, how do you know whose methods to commit to? Here’s the rub – you can’t necessarily know before trying. But if you refuse to commit to anything, I can almost guarantee you won’t see the improvement you’re looking for. 

You’ll notice I’m not telling you to commit to My One True Method. I don’t have that, and neither does anyone. So you have to choose someone to trust. You can go by the referral of a friend, by online reviews, or by anything that feels right in your gut. Ask us over on the Flamenco Explained Discord what we know or think about so and so’s method. Whatever feels right to you. But once you decide to trust a teacher you’ll need to be willing to commit to what they tell you long enough to see if there’s any specific reasons that those methods won’t work for you. Only then, I’d argue, does it make sense to go and look for a second opinion.