Be Wary of Believing Your School Report
The example of Les Paul, musical inventor
by Brian Radcliffe
Suitable for Whole School (Sec)
To explore the example set by Les Paul, who followed his passion (SEAL theme: Motivation).
Preparation and materials
- You will need a leader and two readers.
- Have available the song ‘Hideaway’ by John Mayall and the Blues Breakers with Eric Clapton playing a Gibson Les Paul (1966) and the means to play it at the end of the assembly.
Leader: How do you feel when you receive your school report? Nervous? Excited? Worried?
I wonder what Lester William Polsfuss felt when he read what his music teacher had written about him.
Reader 1:Your boy, Lester, will never learn music!
Leader: In fact, Lester was passionately fond of music. He'd already learned to play the harmonica, banjo and guitar. Frustrated by the fact that he couldn't play more than one of the instruments at a time, he invented a harmonica holder, to be worn around the neck, the design of which is still in use today.
Thankfully, Lester was not discouraged at all by the words of his teacher. He went on to become one of the foremost country and jazz guitarists of his era, playing with many of the big names and chalking up numerous hits. It's for what he did as an inventor, however, that we owe him the biggest debt.
Reader 1: I've never heard of him. Is he really that famous?
Reader 2: Well, first of all, he known as Red Hot Red.
Reader 1: I'm still no wiser.
Reader 2: What about Rhubarb Red?
Reader 1: Surely now you're being ridiculous?
Reader 2: No, honestly, that's what he called himself when he played bluegrass music. How about when he called himself Les Paul?
Reader 1: I've heard of a guitar called a Gibson Les Paul. Why would he call himself after a guitar?
Leader: OK, I think we need to stop you two there. The point is that Lester – later known as Les Paul, the musical inventor – is the man who gave rock music its most important instrument.
As a performer, he became frustrated that he couldn't amplify his acoustic guitar in the same way that he could sing into a microphone to amplify his voice and his harmonica playing. So, he experimented and eventually came up with what became known as ‘the log’. It was a length of four by four wood with the neck of a guitar attached at one end and the guitar strings and two pickups fixed along its length, plus two halves of an electric guitar body attached to each side. It didn't look pretty, but it did the job.
Gibson was the big guitar manufacturer at the time. The company took Les Paul's original invention and designed the Gibson Les Paul electric guitar – one of the two most important guitars ever made.
Reader 2: The other being, of course, the Fender Telecaster.
Reader 1: I bet you didn't know it was originally called the Broadcaster?
Leader: Will you two not interrupt, please!
The Gibson Les Paul was the guitar of choice for many rock and blues players, especially Eric Clapton of Cream and Keith Richards of the Rolling Stones. It's a must-have item of kit for U2's The Edge and the Foo Fighters' Dave Grohl. Bob Marley was buried with one next to him. All this from the boy who was told at school that he had no future in music.
Your report is supposed to be a useful tool in helping to assess your achievements and development. Hopefully that's what you find in this school, but even we don't always get it right. On occasions we may fail to spot talent or underestimate the hard work you're prepared to put in so you can make the grade in a subject that really matters to you. Clearly one or other of those failures happened in the case of Lester Polsfuss. He could easily have been discouraged, but he knew better.
Discouragement can come to us in many ways. It may be in the form of an unrealistic assessment in a report, a failure to be chosen at a trial or audition, a poor performance because we were having an off day. Comments from parents and friends, particularly when secretly overheard, can be devastating. Even when we perform at our best, we can feel inadequate in comparison with those around us.
Discouragement for some simply means the end. ‘What's the point? Why put in the effort? I think I'll just coast along. I'm never going to achieve anything worthwhile.’ That's one way to respond and no one could blame you if that's what you chose to do. If Lester had reacted like that, though, then the world would have been a much duller place, which would have been a pity. Instead, he chose to follow his instincts. He knew what mattered to him and he wasn't going to let anyone else's assessment get in the way.
Time for reflection
How are you doing in your life right now? Are you encouraged, flying high, doing really well? That's good. I hope it stays that way for a long time and you achieve all you want.
I'm sure there are also plenty of you who are on a bit of a downer. You've not got confidence in yourself and your abilities. You feel like giving up. You're going to avoid the challenge, because that's what discouragement can become.
If that’s true for you, you can think of it differently. Let it motivate rather than demotivate you. It's there to be faced, to be tackled. Why? On the one hand, to prove others wrong; on the other, to prove yourself right. That's what Lester did and we're grateful to him that he did so.
Thank you for failures and discouragements.
Help us to see the challenge they represent and believe that we can beat them.
Remind us of all the resources we can tap into – people and media.
May we see ourselves emerging in triumph.
Now, let’s listen to the instrument itself, in the hands of Eric Clapton.
‘Hideaway’ by John Mayall and the Blues Breakers with Eric Clapton playing a Gibson Les Paul (1966)