© Tom Zappala. All rights reserved.
Often I'm asked, “You’re so booked out, why don't you train up an apprentice?" The short answer is this: quality hairdressing isn't something which can simply be taught, certainly not with a few short years of training. The road to proficiency is a long one, particularly for gaining real skill with anything other than conventional, easily managed hair types. Generally speaking, most people (including a high percentage of people actually working in the industry) know little about how to become a quality, refined and mindful hairdresser. Due to societal conditioning, many think this whole cutting hair business should be quite straight forward and they often don't understand why there are so many 'bad' hairdressers out there. Hairdressing at its highest level goes far beyond tactile skills, and this is primarily why I wouldn't simply 'take on an apprentice’.
To begin to illustrate this point, let's briefly talk about music - rather, one particular musician in this instance.
One of my favourite recording artists hands down is Oscar Peterson - if you've been to the studio I can guarantee you've been exposed to his music, repeatedly. Quoting the wiki:
"Oscar Peterson was a Canadian jazz pianist and composer. He was called the Maharaja of the keyboard" by Duke Ellington, but simply "O.P." by his friends. He released over 200 recordings, won eight Grammy Awards, and received numerous other awards and honours. He is considered one of the greatest jazz pianists, and played thousands of concerts worldwide in a career lasting more than 60 years."
[For a wonderful introduction, his 1963 album, 'Night Train' is a great place to start. It's easily his most commercially successful release. The final track, 'Hymn to Freedom' is my personal favourite. It was adopted as an anthem of the 1960's civil rights movement in North America.]
In the decades before he passed, it is highly unlikely that Oscar could have taken on some young talented player in an attempt to teach him up to play like he does, particularly over the course of 2 to 3 years. Sure, if the young talent was a keen student with natural abilities, he or she would have been able to learn from Mr. Peterson. However, as their individual talent and intentions are likely different, the process would ultimately lead them to a very different destination. It's then fair to say that there is no guarantee this individuals playing would even be appreciated or enjoyed by fans of Oscars Peterson. Aside from pure talent, desire and effort it also takes one other important thing to obtain proficiency: Time. It takes decades to reach a level of proficiency which could one day possibly be considered remarkable or masterful. There are no shortcuts, particularly when it comes to the refinement of such a craft.
Now, fortunately with musical composition there typically are recordings which can be studied and analysed by future generations. This is what directly inspires the next up and coming players. With hairdressing there is not such an opportunity. While a photograph of one’s work is indeed a reference of sorts, it is a poor representation of how it actually came to be. Video still isn’t much better, unless one would be willing to annotate and verbalise the entirety of a haircut and the thought processes involved. This would be a particularly challenging endeavour as so much of the execution is instinctive. Even then, another persons interpretation of the process is bound to resolve in a different outcome. Is there no way then to pass along the accrued knowledge of a long career? Well, this blog hopefully serves to address that issue to a certain degree.
Fully understanding and developing the tactile skills to set about successfully cutting someone’s hair takes many years. This ultimately has to be ones personal journey however they choose to go about it. I am a firm believer in autodidacticism. With this process of learning, one will avoid the bad habits and conventions the industry is known for. No matter how one chooses to pursue their development, it is will take countless repetitions of trial and error. In this way, similar to how anyone achieves: lots and lots of practice. Paired with that period of tactile, experience based refinement are supportive abilities which also take at least a decade to develop understanding of.
So what are the overall skills which can help with becoming a masterful hairdresser? A high level of dexterity of course is a start. An understanding of relative space (geometry) is another. Add in with that a highly critical, deductive personality type and one is definitely on the right track. Then things need to shift into other areas. One must have a solid understanding, ability and desire to communicate well with others. Perception and emotional intelligence are both essential here. I recommend a semester or at least considered reading in basic psychology. Also helpful, is an understanding of touch, I recommend researching and experiencing shiatsu. An overly analytical tendency is also important, if that wasn't already abundantly clear.
Probably the most important quality however is just the desire to make people happy. Positive intentions will absolutely lead one in the correct direction. It seems simple but without that driving motivation a hairdresser will regularly come up short (pun intended). Now, it could be said that so far this all sounds like one just needs to be passionate about their craft. While not incorrect, it must be stated that there are multiple layers to passion which need to be formed, guided and directed it into the proper channels. When properly aligned it will produce a type of cohesion which can result in consistent positive results.
You may be thinking, “That’s all great but you’re missing the one key ingredient - creativity.” To that, I urge caution. In fact, this is precisely where many hairdressers (and clients for that matter) have it all wrong. Indeed, most individuals who enter into the industry think the dominate quality or trait one needs to possess is creativity. They think hairdressers are artists first and foremost. As my years in this industry have ticked over, I balk at this misguided thinking more and more. Creativity as a primary focus is exactly why so many clients are unhappy after a visit to a salon. With creativity at the primarily driver a hairdresser is not capable of truly seeing the person in the chair. They see hair and what they want it to become, regardless of what may be considered sensible for someone, their lifestyle, their hair type and how it will grow out. A hairdresser will jump in with raw unprocessed creativity and never look back. Sure, there needs to be some form of creative process involved in the act of cutting someones hair but it must be entwined with critical analysis, consideration and communication for the process to become well developed enough for a clients long term happiness and satisfaction. There must be balance.
So, how and where does one find people who are both creative and intelligent critical thinkers? This is another issue entirely. Its a societal one which again, has multiple layers. What parent wants their child to become a hairdresser instead of attending a reputable university to one day obtain a masters degree? How many parents actually encourage hairdressing? In many cities, hairdressing isn’t placed on the list of highly regarded vocations for intelligent individuals. Over time, this has led to a bit of social stigma. Hairdressing tends to attract people who aren’t necessarily high achievers right? It’s for the drop-outs. The unmotivated. Consequently, the industry now attracts the wrong sort of candidates that could one day become quality practitioners. Yet, everyone woman desires and often complains about how there aren't any good ones out there. The entire situation is not an easy situation to resolve.
To be fair, the problem is not just a lack of quality candidates. Becoming a qualified hairdresser in Australia is just too easy. In order to attract and develop more intelligent mindful hairdressers there needs to be a filter of sorts. A means of getting rid of individuals who do not exhibit the type of ideals which are in a clients best interest. Even with that though, the industry itself doesn't train up in any sort of way which would yield quality individuals upon completion. Most salons have long held standards and practices which are the very definition of poor hairdressing. Education 'classes' (which are often organised by product companies) focus on products sales, profits and trends. They are directly responsible for most of the bad habits and tactics which go on to directly effect client satisfaction.
The conventional salon industry in this country (if not globally) has long history of churning out insufficient and misguided talent. This has much to do with the ‘artist’ mentality it promotes which I mentioned earlier. In contrast, my practice has been modeled after the various psychological and alternative health practitioners I’ve attended throughout my life. Their degree of consultation and care resonated soundly as a basis for working with women in the way that I do. If there is one absolute in all this it is the following: A woman’s relationship to her hair has a very strong physical, emotional and psychological impact on their daily lives. That is undeniably true. Working with them on it is absolutely warrants much more of a practitioner based approach practice than one which is primarily artistic.
At some stage there needs to be a shift. I'm not sure how that is going to happen. If there is to be one, it won't likely start at the salon level. Instead it needs to start with the public - the very individuals who go to a salon. Clients need to be better informed and insist on better. This will be difficult as clients inherently trust the hairdresser (and fashion magazine nonsense), and hairdressers typically think they know best.
So where does that leave things? I’d gladly mentor the correct candidate. That's what I tell my clients when they ask me about apprentice training. This individual would first need to make contact and prove they are a viable candidate. Does skill and experience die with a practitioner then? Often times it does. What I am striving to do is to capture my philosophy in written form best I can. Perhaps one day someone might be influenced in a way which helps them serve clients better. For the time being, I'll just keep on doing what I do best and strive to improve day by day.