MY PHILOSOPHY OF EDUCATION by DAVID LIEBMAN
Growing up in a family of New York City school teachers, I recall many conversations that took place about education between my parents and their teacher friends. These conversations didn’t interest me much because like most kids I wasn’t overly enthusiastic about school in general. Pedagogical discussions over dinner didn’t turn me on to say the least.
Lo and behold fifty years later, teaching is a major component of my professional life as a jazz artist. Little did I know when Jamey Aebersold, of whom I knew nothing at the time, called me in the late 1970s to teach at a clinic in the dead of the winter in Hays, Kansas, that education would play such a major role in my life. Of course I teach in a very specialized area and an art form to boot. My students, be it at clinics, the Manhattan School of Music where I presently teach graduate courses, the International Association of Schools of Jazz Meetings, or my annual Saxophone Master Class are hardly beginners and are by and large highly motivated as well as more mature than their contemporaries in their early to mid twenties. However the principles of what constitutes good pedagogy are universal, no matter the subject or group. This article is a collation of my thoughts on the subject, first about education overall and then to the specifics of jazz.
Education is the communication of knowledge and skills. Besides the obvious value of good education to both the individual and society as a whole, there may be the implication that the student will eventually use this information to be engaged in work of some personal and social value. On a surface level, a teacher imparts tools and techniques. But in an art form it goes deeper. The teacher is an important source of inspiration and motivation towards the student’s ability to form his own personal mode of expression. In essence a student learns in order to find himself. At the same time a good teacher provides the spark for a student’s desire to continue learning. Not every educational situation necessarily encourages this ideal model to exist, but certainly in teaching an art form providing inspiration and at the same time instilling creativity and imagination towards self knowledge is a high priority goal.
For me, process precedes content in importance for education. This implies teaching a student how to learn. How does one take a bit of information, cognize it accurately for oneself, practice the material until it becomes habit and then personalize it in one’s own unique way? If a student knows how to take fresh information and process it for use in the present and future, then he will always be able to repeat and use this model of learning. If we accept that acquisition of knowledge is a lifetime pursuit and necessary no matter the field, then learning to learn can be of great value. Content, specifics, facts et al follow when process is in place. This is not to say there is no place for memorization of raw information, only that there should be a balance between retention and how it is processed. A good teacher may have to delve deeper to impart process rather than merely repeating pieces of information to be memorized.
To be an effective teacher requires a variety of personality attributes. One must exude confidence because ambiguity is generally viewed by students as a weakness. A teacher must convince students that (s)he is sure of what is being taught whether it is presenting facts, a personal opinion or specific instructions as to what is expected of them. I don’t think that it is wrong to say that effective teaching involves a great deal of acting, dramatizing and exaggerating, a kind of “showtime”, hopefully resulting in drawing the students into the teacher’s world. Obviously, an engaging and charismatic personality is a plus.
Discrete exaggeration is an important tool to use when teaching. In a sense the teacher is trying to persuade students to see things his way, at least for the time being. By purposely building something up and putting energy and enthusiasm into the presentation, there is a higher likelihood that the student will retain at least some part of what was conveyed. Whatever the result a student should feel the strength of the teacher’s convictions.
Along with exaggeration, a teacher can at times play the role of devil’s advocate, meaning being on opposite sides of an issue for the expresses purpose of instigating discussion. This can be quite effective when not overly done. The idea is to position oneself against something, whether the teacher believes it fully or not, in order to get students to defend or argue the opposing view. As a corollary a teacher doesn’t have to unveil everything all at once about the subject. He can tell a story or follow a line of reasoning nearly to the end, but leave the conclusion open. This can be most effective for prodding students to fill in the empty blanks, challenging their imagination and initiating self discovery without them being necessarily aware of it.
A teacher must be completely clear in the presentation. It is nearly impossible to present something in language that all the students will understand equally. Therefore it is important that practice instructions be very presented directly with specifics provided. The students should at least leave a teaching experience with an exact understanding as to how to reinforce new material through some organized practice or repetitive system. Artistic concepts in particular often take time to have an effect and be put into real use. Therefore a great deal of conceptual learning is after the fact so reinforcement through practice routines need to be strongly imprinted to leave a lasting impression. Meanwhile, the selective use of handouts, not as a replacement for attentiveness in class but as an aid to reinforce the material after the presentation stage can be useful. From time to time the teacher should insist that students take notes on a particular subject, but not to bury their heads in their notebooks, writing rather than listening.
Depending upon the material, demonstration of the material is quite useful. This is especially true in an art form where visually seeing and hearing something has a dramatic effect. This doesn’t mean that a teacher must demonstrate everything, only on occasion when both the material demands it and the teacher is confident of their own demonstrational skills. Students are both the most appreciative audience of good work but also the most demanding and critical.
Instilling objectivity in students is important. It is human to have an opinion, but with artistic concepts it is only with experience that a mature judgment as to the value of something should be made. If a teacher’s presentation is non-judgmental, students get the feeling that what they are learning is not valued as good or bad, it is just information. How a student personally feels about the material is not important in the early stages. After being absorbed and practiced there is time for subjective judgments, especially when the stage of forming one’s own aesthetic begins as it should later in the artistic process.
A teacher’s ability in discerning student strengths and weaknesses is a very subtle skill, especially in large groups. If we think imagine how just one word or expression can be interpreted differently by any group of individuals, similar are the variations on how people differ in their abilities to absorb information. Some students cognize primarily by aural means, others by visual while another may be more sensitive to tactile approaches. For a teacher experience is the key. After observing and experimenting a teacher can fine tune his approach towards the most effective means of communication for the most students, but always with flexibility towards change of tact if necessary.
Finally, a teacher should encourage experimentation and creativity by promoting an atmosphere where honest mistakes and questions are encouraged. Students should feel that they themselves are a work in progress, that the process of learning is open ended and like everything in life, not perfect. To be flexible and take chances is important, possibly more so than being one hundred percent correct. This is a sensitive issue because students naturally feel that the system expects perfection which is the necessary evil of the grading system. But if a student’s work is honest and done with real integrity and effort, being “right” is not always the most important thing. Creating a time for questions is an important part of any learning schedule. Students should not be embarrassed by asking questions, even those considered elementary.
Learning proceeds at the border of order and chaos. With too much order the system becomes frozen and change or growth is difficult. With too much chaos there is difficulty in cognizing the steps along the way and organized learning becomes impossible. Balance as always is the key.
Though the student is on the receiving end of the education process, (s)he is also an active participant. It should be made clear at the outset of any educational experience that besides attending and doing the assigned work there are other responsibilities.
An extra effort has to be made by a student to not only “hear” what is said but to “understand” it. This means to take what is presented and personalize the language in a way that makes sense. This is especially true in learning an art form where language is used to describe abstract concepts or as in the case of music, sound. A student should attempt to translate what is said to his own words and way of seeing things. If there is confusion it is often just a matter of language. It is the student’s responsibility to probe further and ask the teacher to repeat or amplify what was said possibly instigating a new approach. That is the only way a teacher knows whether the material is being comprehended. Without cues from students, a teacher assumes that everything is clearly understood and then the student is responsible for knowing the material. Naturally, the teacher moves on and here is where problems can arise. Something not clearly perceived may cause a compound effect whereby new material has little chance of being comprehended because of the initial lack of clear communication. This is crucial when it comes to the exact practicing routine for reinforcing new material. A student should leave a teaching situation with a precise understanding of what he needs to practice or study and how. I know that in my early studies, at times I was completely confused by what I had heard. If and when I was brave enough to ask for further explanation, most of the time the teacher would alter the presentation enough so that for me it became clearer. Often, students wait until after class to ask questions. Though this ”private” time might alleviate embarrassment, the teacher should make it clear that if it is a question about the material it should be asked in public since it is very likely that other students have the same queries.
Of course all of the above assumes a positive and earnest attitude on the part of the student. Taking notes, observing other student’s work and interaction, staying alert and having an open mind are personal keys to success. Hopefully as described in the teacher’s responsibilities, creativity, experimentation and openness have been encouraged, all geared towards imagining what is possible rather than only what is known. Learning how to learn is a challenge and a student has to sincerely desire this to obtain the most from it.
Education can be compared to a stone thrown in the water. The stone makes waves whose ends are not visible, but go on in perpetuity. Education can truly change lives.
When we enter the world of learning art as compared to other more factual subjects one must be ready to appreciate ambiguity. Surely there are facts to be learned and memorized, but in this realm conceptual thinking reigns supreme. All the elements described of flexibility, openness, an attitude of trial and error, questioning, etc., are even more important when it comes to learning art. After all, the goal is to encourage creativity and the use of the imagination rather than mere repetition of information. We are trying to enter the realm of feelings and emotions through music, painting, writing, etc. We are asking a young person to arrive at a point where their body responds to their will, meaning in music that the fingers go where the ear dictates, that the embouchure assumes the proper placement to get a certain sound and onward depending upon the mechanics of each instrument. This is physical training on a very subtle level. There are many facets to learning an art form. So much so that I propose the following conceptualization of the artistic process in an attempt to have a coherent and unified vision of what teaching and learning an art form concerns.
Serious artists, no matter the area of endeavor go through common stages. The first is imitation which means obtaining a working understanding of what came before. It is the ability to duplicate information in a convincing fashion that shows true grasp of the historic antecedents one is dealing with. This is completely an objective area involving analysis, memorization and organized study. Creativity per se is not called upon. However, a creative approach to practicing and learning is of course valued. Imitation means what it implies: personality and subjectivity are minimized during this first stage in order to truly absorb the fundamentals and legacy of an art form. Towards the end of this initial period, integration with the personality of the student is encouraged setting the stage for stylization.
The stylization stage implies several aspects. One has learned what came before to such a degree that the information inevitably becomes integrated with a student’s personality and the present time he is living in meaning the current styles of the day. Along with the beginnings of some degree of a personal approach to the language, the student has hopefully had some outside reinforcement and encouragement in the real world. In other words, the young musician is performing in public and entered the particular scene of his immediate milieu. Stylization can be and often is the end game, meaning an artist may remain in this stage perpetually with wonderful results and some sense of contribution to the immediate artistic world.
But on rare occasions, an artist goes beyond style to evolve into innovation. This means a contribution, small or large, which is of such a unique character that it stands by itself, affects others in the field and will endure the test of time. Innovation can be on the instrument itself, in a way of playing or performing, composing, etc. It doesn’t only mean dramatic developments. Innovation can be as subtle as a new way of fingering a note for example to achieve a different color.
These three stages do not necessarily follow in a neat sequential order. In fact many innovations have been accomplished by artists of such youth that they either skipped or had not yet contemplated the imitation stage. And a stylist, no matter how individual (s)he may be will often look backwards to either reinterpret or search for inspiration in the past, in a certain sense re-entering the imitation phase. The main point here is for teachers to recognize these stages and deal with students accordingly since a student may not be conscious of these developments as they are occurring.
Equally important is to have a framework for understanding the ways in which one learns. Because we are dealing with more than mere recollection and recitation of facts and figures, but also with human feelings as portrayed in art, we have to consider how mind, body and spirit interact when learning an art form.
The mind is where we consider the information on an objective level. The intellectual part of our brain figures things out and comes to conclusions. All the material gleaned from books and teachers goes through this processing center. It is the body which initiates the “how to” aspect of the art. The purely physical aspects of playing an instrument or writing or painting and using the acquired language are concerns of the body and how well it is trained to respond to one’s impulses and in the case of music, imagined sound. This is where years of practice are necessary to coordinate the flow of the body movement within the specific area of expertise. Finally the emotional aspect of who we are places the mind and body information into a meaningful context. It is the
spirit where one’s feelings, thoughts, ethics, moral principles and beliefs are all combined with mind and body for final communication to the world at large. It is the sum of our experiences, both learned and felt which puts the frame around all the facts and practice we have done up to that point.
The relationship of these three stages of learning is important for a teacher to recognize. Though a perfect balance between mind, body and spirit would be ideal, the reality is that human beings don’t work according to neat formulas or timetables. We all learn at different rates in different ways depending upon a myriad of circumstances, some beyond our control. In a given area for a particular individual, the mind might be stronger, meaning the body has to catch up. Or one might “feel” something but not be able to articulate it physically or mentally.
Artistic work of merit should strive for a balance between content, mode of presentation and feeling. It excites the passion while making one think and at the same time the audience or listener is in awe of the technique being displayed. In the same way the learning process attempts to balance head (mind), hand (body) and heart (spirit). A good teacher should be aware of these ways of learning and adjust accordingly to the student and material.
I have found that different situations demand a flexible approach as to what would be the most effective tact to take for best results. There are four general teaching situations which a teacher may confront in the arts.
These quite similar situations can range from one hour to several days in length. What they all have in common is that one is presenting or demonstrating to a group, large or small. The master class is slightly different for if done in the standard manner, the teacher comments on student or ensemble playing, but the dynamics are similar since points are being made via one student to all who are present. Most of these situations are formatted in such a way that the lecturer is free to speak or do whatever they wish. We are past the time when you could walk into this type of setting and rely on students asking questions to get the ball rolling, a situation that existed when such clinics were novel. For a variety of reasons (mostly overexposure to guest speakers), most students will not ask questions at the beginning of a session unless they are “fan” type, meaning about somebody famous or something notable you did. In my case these are the Miles Davis questions concerning the period I worked with him in the early 1970s. Hopefully at the end of the session there will be genuine questions about the material covered.
As in any public presentation a lecture should have all the same elements one would expect in a musical performance such as a good beginning, a summarized and strong ending, changes of pace and mood, a varied language style (from formal to slang to technical), the use of visual and of course aural aids, humor, levity and more. Style of presentation is important related to sitting, standing, pacing, facial and body language, the modulating of one’s voice, specific eye contact with one person from time to time as well as general vision scanning the entire audience. After all here is a group of people who may be only slightly familiar with you if at all and they need to be entertained along with educated. (Referred to as “edutainment”.) It is theater of sorts, pure and simple, but with an underlying lesson. I have found that making one major point with several lesser ones is most effective to getting this type of job done well. Personal stories whenever possible help to lighten the atmosphere and punctuate the deeper, more philosophical thoughts under the surface. Since it is music, one must demonstrate and/or play examples as points are made. This reinforces and validates the verbalized material. Depending upon the presentation it can be very effective to begin with the aural demonstration or example and work backwards towards explanation.
This is the most demanding teaching situation as far as sheer work goes. Audience boredom and apathy are the enemy. I encourage questions be asked at any time and make it clear that though they may be embarrassed to ask something in public, they are actually doing a service since it is highly likely that others in the class have the same thought. Silly or challenging questions should be reinterpreted so that they appear in a positive light.
This is a different situation because of the direct interaction with the students. Usually this takes the form of coaching small ensembles and/or big bands on specific musical and technical points related to the music being played. The biggest factor affecting the style and content of this teaching has to do with the level of the student’s abilities. Because there is a definite time lag between instruction and its implementation there cannot be great expectations that something taught in the moment will be successfully demonstrated during the present workshop period. Learning new or improved musical activity takes months to bring to fruition assuming that the students practices the material at all, let alone diligently. The length of time is determined by the difficulty of the material combined with the student’s level of expertise and desire for change. My experience demonstrates that three to six months is an average window for measuring the lag time between cognition and implementation of something new to take root in one’s playing. On the other hand small points of arranging, soloing sequence and such matters can be manifested more or less on the spot.
Through teacher demonstration, which is the key to good hands on coaching, students can be inspired to do their best immediately and into the future. What is most important is the potential inspirational power of positive interaction with students. The time worn master/apprentice system in which elder musicians indirectly trained younger ones on the bandstand speaks for the power of experience and personal interaction. The more possible scenarios that a teacher can address, be it towards various instruments or styles being played, etc., the more successful this teaching experience is for the students. Being a horn player and having to explain a rhythmic point to a drummer constitutes a positive learning experience for everyone. Good teaching usually implies good learning in some way for the observant and dedicated teacher. It offers a chance for a teacher to frame his thoughts verbally towards specific musical points.
In some ways the classroom situation is the most difficult, because you have to spread the information over weeks which means above all good organization. Keeping the motivation of the students is a major challenge. On the positive side in the slowly evolving class situation you can present things in a cumulative fashion, meaning more in-depth and detailed analysis. You can also afford to repeat material and try several approaches over a period of time. And of course you do have ways of monitoring how well the student is doing through tests, papers, etc. The problem with this kind of teaching when it is done semester after semester is that one’s enthusiasm can drop causing the presentation to become mechanical.
This is the situation that most musicians will be involved at one time or another even those who do no other form of teaching. Nothing can replace one to one instruction and for the really experienced teacher, this is where a major effect on a student can be observed most readily. Sizing up a student’s strengths and weaknesses in order to find the best approach is basic.The aforementioned triumvirate of mind-body–spirit is really applicable in the private lesson, since it is easier to focus on a student’s particular learning mode.
Some students respond more to the intellectual approach, while others do better by ear and so on. The variations are countless. The important thing here is to respect and encourage the uniqueness and potential of each student rather than putting them all together for the sake of convenience. Depending upon the level, as I have alluded to several times above, it is crucial to be organized in the lesson itself as well as when stating what you expect of the student, explicitly describing the most beneficial practice routine. Being completely honest and straightforward, courteous but firm and open to the student’s responses in order to promote what is best in the long run are some traits the teacher should possess. These aspects can make or break the effectiveness of the private lesson program. After all, the teacher is a direct link to the whole undertaking which a student enters. It can have a life-long effect even beyond the subject matter itself, because of the very sensitive and personal dynamics of trust and respect brought up in any one to one, mentor-student relationship.
As mentioned in the introduction, most of my teaching is to interested students who are serious about jazz at this time of their life. I have the utmost respect for teachers of beginners, no matter whether it is in the arts or humanities. To face the uninitiated is daunting, but as those who teach youngsters realize there is great satisfaction when witnessing extremely rapid growth and comprehension as only the young so readily exhibit.
From several decades of teaching I have by now created my own personal thoughts about teaching. Obviously they reflect many experiences during my apprenticeship years in the early 1970s with drummers Pete LaRoca, Elvin Jones and of course Miles Davis since I did not have any formal jazz education at any time. These “lessons” were learned on the bandstand but I have made an effort to transfer them to the standard teaching situation. Because I teach mostly mature and motivated students, I can afford to be highly conceptual. They are already serious about playing and have passed through the basics. Of course I may delve into topics such as transcription, rhythmic feel and tone production but usually this is more for remedial purposes rather than as new material. I am in a sense “preaching to the converted” but even at this level the essential task of inspiring students remains paramount. My job with the majority of students is to help them discover who they are. In the next section I will describe some general teaching axioms applicable to whatever subject I may be teaching, be it saxophone, ensemble, harmony or composition.
One of the major points is that a musician should have a variety of approaches in any given area. This is especially important in jazz because if one is truly improvising as compared to playing written or practiced music, then the improviser must be ready to change approach or direction at any moment. The essence of the improvisational process in real time is constant adjustment. For example in the area of tone, a musician should be able to portray several different timbral approaches in order to best communicate his ideas at any given moment. (Sound and texture help to delineate mood and ambiance).On another level, an improviser should be able to conceive of a chord or scale from different vantage points, besides the obvious root position. Rhythmically, the ability to change one’s placement of the pulse (ahead, behind or in the middle of the beat) is crucial to interacting with a rhythm section. Further examples abound. Basically it means that a musician has a variety of approaches and the necessary flexibility to use them at will. Possessing these skills on a level where they are second nature and can be used in a spontaneous situation takes a good deal of practice, discipline and trial and error.
When I ask a question about what was just listened to I urge my students to speak in specific, non-general terms. I am not satisfied with responses such as “it sounds good” or “exciting” and so on. I demand that they use language that is more exact and technical. I offer the metaphor of a brain surgeon operating and saying to the nurse: “Give me one of those scalpels over there and we’ll cut somewhere in this area.” I wouldn’t want to be on the operating table with a doctor giving such directions! Of course music is not a life and death situation. Nonetheless I tell the students that they are experts, scientists of the trade and should use exact, non-judgmental, objective language to describe what they are hearing when it comes to music. This is not only for the sake of their achieving more clarity in their own thinking but also to communicate with other “scientists” in the field. To the layman music is enjoyment and pleasure, but to those involved in a daily level besides being an abstract art it is also a science. A student should learn the habit of being able to communicate about the subject with exactitude when called upon. There are ample opportunities to be more general approach when describing music, a tact which by the way can help to achieve other purposes when directing musicians. I have been in many situations where less said, the better. I don’t think Miles Davis said more than twenty words about music to anyone in the time I was with him!!
Though I have the utmost respect for my students as human beings, they are as of yet relatively inexperienced in life and music overall. Without being condescending, authoritative or pretentious, I try to make it clear that teaching is not a popularity contest or debating club. I encourage serious questions and will always restate something to clarify a point, but what I am teaching is not up for argument. I expect a student to fulfill his part of the job which is to make an attempt to comprehend the material and if need be practice it till learned. Judgments as to the relative value of the information or its use should be reserved for later stages when comprehension has been accomplished and allowed to ripen over time. The metaphor of a sponge, absorbing water, then being wrung out to further absorb is an appropriate one.
Students, especially serious ones should understand the difference between being an artist and a craftsman. Craft implies technical mastery of the subject and the ability to execute in that field with sureness and skill. It implies that a craftsman can reproduce at least several manifestations of the art on demand. The artist goes beyond craft into realms of feeling and expression. He uses the craft to express his deepest thought and emotions. I want students to understand the challenge ahead of them if they decide to be artists. There’s nothing wrong with being an excellent craftsman who are necessary in any walk of life. But to those that entertain the goal of being an artist, unique and singular, it is a commitment of a different sort. A student has no way of knowing where they will end up in the future but they should be aware of what might be ahead.
Similar to the craftsman-artist comparison, there should be an understanding of what the line is between art and entertainment. We as teachers are not only providing information but inadvertently we are forming the student’s world view. As stated they are not yet in a position to deal with future issues but I want it understood that at some point those who will be performers will have to decide where to draw the line between art and entertainment or it will be done for them.
If one performs, they are entertaining, pure and simple. But the sophistication of the content and its presentation has a great deal to do with the relative acceptance one will receive. This is a fact that has precedence throughout the history of art. Although there have been exceptions like Beethoven or Picasso, two of the deepest artists of all time who were acknowledged contemporaneously, we all must recognize that the
public is for the most part not ready to deal with expression and content which demands repeated and concentrated exposure and at least some degree of education to appreciate. Without going into an indictment of our modern culture, suffice to say it has always been more or less true that the audience is not present to be lectured or educated. They are there to be entertained. This maybe true of a Baroque music audience as well as pop. This dichotomy works across all idioms. High art in any field is a risky endeavor.
In any case the aspiring performer/composer/bandleader will have to face these issues when they begin to make a living and form the parameters of their own aesthetic and lifestyle. Trying not to be dogmatic, I feel it is my responsibility to clearly distinguish between the various aspects of the art versus entertainment question.
Questions of creativity and imagination are very important concepts to be cognizant of. For the sake of clarity I distinguish between the two. Creativity is something that can be accomplished more easily than one might think. To be creative is in some ways simply a matter of putting facts A and B together to make a new C. If the information is at hand and understood, then realizing different combinations is not so far beyond a disciplined student. The process involves examination and trial and error of different scenarios. Not being afraid to be wrong and a strong desire to achieve are the most important behavioral parts of creativity. Mistakes are not irretrievable and can be turned to advantage.
Imagination on the other hand goes beyond merely reassembling information. Using one’s imagination means to dream about what is not seen or heard in front of you in any way. It is about using feelings and the intuition to establish a picture of what might be possible. Imaginative journeys are abstract, rare and transitory in nature, but they are what real change of any sort is about. It is through one’s imagination when cultivated and encouraged that the greatest rewards and discoveries occur. A teacher should inspire students to begin the journey into their imagination without knowing where it will lead. Instilling curiosity towards where the imagination can lead is an important function of teaching an art form. In some ways a vivid imagination is a gift, but even a slight talent for it can be developed, trained and at the least greatly encouraged.
Finally I want my students to be aware of the spiritual and mystical nature of music and jazz in particular. The world they are entering is populated with people of great talent and wisdom who have dedicated their life to an art form without in many cases tangible material rewards. Why someone writes or paints or plays music is a mystery beyond comprehension. Where does it come from and what does it achieve? Especially in music where the sound is in the air and can’t be touched or held, these types of mysteries permeate what we do. I want students to realize they are entering a kind of holy space. Music has mystical powers as attested to by so many ancient cultures and religions. If you hear Coltrane or Bach at the right point in your life it can change one’s future. Great music is a very powerful and positive force for good. Students should realize the depth of the world they are entering.
The two main components of a personal musical language are sound and rhythm. These are the areas where one’s musical personality can be most easily discerned. An instrument should feel like an extension of the musician’s body. Tone production, no matter the instrument has several common elements whether it is through the breath and embouchure as in horn playing, or the fingers and hands in percussive instruments. There is the central aspect of touch which is almost inexplicable. This is concerned with the appropriate balance between tension and release, exertion and relaxation. These are all matters of motion and how an individual’s physical characteristics combined with aural and mental images result in the sound being produced. One guiding principle is that we all wish to achieve maximum results with a minimum amount of tension and exertion, leaving the body and mind free to be involved with more subtle matters of creativity, nuance and expression. Using the proper physical principles which work with the body, rather than against is the aim. For example on saxophone, the emphasis should be on the vocal cords and how they feel when vocalizing, to be extended to blowing, rather than putting too much attention on movements in the embouchure and mouthpiece area. Usually it is at the beginning of instrumental training when these principles can be most effectively taught. Unfortunately, one often sees students who have internalized counter productive habits and need remedial instruction to change course for better results and rehabitualization.
After the initial tone of one’s voice, it is body and facial nuances which differentiate one person from another. On an instrument we are also dealing with similar musical characteristics which distinguish musicians from each other even if they are given the same material to play (therefore equalizing content). These are matters of “how” one plays rather than “what”. Some of the factors that go into the expressive mix are dynamics, articulation, attack and decay of notes, vibrato, grace notes, grupettos, trills, glissandos, vocalizations (in the case of horn players) and other subtle combinations of effects. Whatever the means, expression, after tone color is the main component of what separates one artist’s musical personality from another and results in an experienced listener’s ability to immediately recognize one instrumentalist from another within hearing a few notes.
Because jazz is primarily a rhythmic music, this element gets high priority on the agenda of what is necessary and basic to playing. What I refer to as “time feel” means the manner in which one plays the basic division of jazz which is the eighth note. Eighth notes in jazz, though written evenly as equally placed divisions of the beat, are interpreted with a slight lengthening of the downbeat followed by a shorter upbeat. It sounds more like a dotted eighth followed by a sixteenth or written in a slightly different way as a triplet with the first two parts of the division on the downbeat and the last third on the upbeat. However, the duration of these divisions, the intensity of each division’s onset (attack), the weight of each note, dynamics and of course expressive nuance, all determine the ultimate sound or “feel” of the rhythm. Within these parameters there is a lot of room for individual interpretation. Mastering these basics in an accurate flowing manner is mandatory in jazz. With years of playing a great deal of eighth note lines, the next stage is to use more syncopation, rests and broken up rhythms. For the most part this is a later development after the basics of eighth notes have been mastered. In practicing, the metronome can be of great help to establish a sense of sureness of the beat. After a student is comfortable with the metronome on the second and fourth beat (essential to jazz), (s)he should move the clicker to different parts of the measure. For example, using the click on the upbeats of one and three or just on the upbeat of four, etc. Being creative with the metronome is very useful towards establishing rhythmic independence meaning the ability to hold one’s own pulse no matter what complexities are going on in the background.
With the eighth note flow mastered, the next step is to achieve flexibility with the pulse meaning stating the time as either slightly behind or ahead of the beat and its many variations. This is often referred to as playing “on top” or “on the bottom” of the beat and is comparable to having available a variety of tone colors for expressing nuances of mood and feeling. With a loose and flexible sense of pulse placement an improviser keeps the listener and the other musicians alert because of the unpredictability, yet necessary accuracy of the beat. The illusion of relaxation and excitement is amplified. On a more sophisticated level some artists become adept at playing in counter rhythms against or over the pulse, subdividing the beat and even implying other meters (metric modulation).Perceiving time as an area in space, like a measure of distance rather than as a specific point can help an artist develop these skills conceptually, conceiving of the metronomically measurably beat as the middle of that space.
Ordered surprise is one of the most important aspects of good improvisation meaning that the listener/accompanist who naturally expects a predictable response is instead inspired by something unexpected, even a seemingly subtle point such as beat placement. Their involvement level rises. In my years of listening to jazz one of the most fascinating moments is when the improviser transitions to a different part of the beat midstream. This elasticity or plasticity of the pulse is not acquired overnight, but through listening, conceptualizing and most of all, trial and error. The goal is the ability to play on any part of the beat in any idiom with any musicians at will.
A good sense of basic rhythm is to a degree acquired by environment meaning what one hears as they grow from childhood. Being surrounded by “groove” oriented music naturally permeates a youngster’s rhythmic milieu. However, regardless of background, through study and imitation of good models a strong foundation can be developed. The model for an organized study of the imitation process is the transcribing process as described in a separate article.
Usually this is the kind of list you see on recordings. The truth is I have never mentioned many of the people with whom I have been involved with one way or the other from nearly the beginning of my musical life. I can recall something I learned from most of the people on this list.
Without my parents, Frances and Leo, my wife Caris and daughter Lydia, in-laws Natalie and Harold none of this would be possible for their patience with my intense workaholic hours and of course their feedback. And then are the incredible amount of musicians I have played with. I am grateful to all the artists I have played with over the years in countless situations all over the world. I learn from most musicians I play with, if not what to do, then definitely what NOT to do. The great masters, Pete LaRoca, Chick Corea, Miles Davis and Elvin Jones whom I played and lived with on the road had immeasurable influence on my music and more importantly, philosophy of jazz and living the life of an artist in general.
Joe Allard, the great saxophone guru was a fundamental force not only for the saxophone but for principles of learning and teaching. My first teachers, Luba Galprin on piano and at Bromley Studios in Brooklyn, Faye, Buster and Eric Bromley along with saxophone-clarinet instructor Nat Shapiro taught me every Saturday morning for years and introduced me to jazz and playing with other musicians, for which I will be eternally grateful. Even a high school teacher, Marvin Feldman had a big influence on me intellectually and I remember him fondly. The first real playing (bar mitzvahs and the Catskill Mountain resorts) and thinking about music I did was with friends Mike Garson, Steve Satten, Mitch Kerper, Gary Zehner and Bob Katz in our teenage years while the great nights listening to Trane live in the Apple were with Steve Lipman-an experience still vivid in my mind and instrumental for everything I have done musically and spiritually. It goes without saying that without the experience of hearing Coltrane live, I wouldn’t have gone so deeply into this music. Also valuable were my experiences with drummer Bob Moses who was my first guide to the jazz world in more ways than I could mention. It is with the greatest respect that I mention my time spent taking lessons with Lennie Tristano and Charles Lloyd, two wonderful artists who made me realize the seriousness of the subject at hand as well as pianist Art Murphy, who was among the first to verbalize what to practice.
I owe a considerable debt to Richie Beirach for years of companionship and hard work in playing, teaching and formulating ideas. And brothers Steve Grossman, Gene Perla and Don Alias for the great playing and hanging we did together in the Elvin Jones Group. Other notables in my learning process have been artist Eugene Gregan and his wife Beverly from Lookout Farm for principles of art and all the drummers I have played with since they are a wealth of spiritual power of a different sort than others: Bob Moses, Jeff Williams, Badal Roy, Al Foster, Jack DeJonette, Adam Nussbaum, Billy Hart, Jamey Haddad. My deepest appreciation for the loyalty from former band mates in my groups, recordings and other projects: Pee Wee Ellis, Link Chamberlain, Jimmy Strassburg, Tony Saunders, Chris Hayes, Sky Ford, Frank Tusa, Randy Brecker, Terumasa Hino, Ron McLure, Rufus Reid, Cecil McBee, Pat Metheny, Jim McNeely, Hal Galper, John Abercrombie, Eddie Gomez, Dave Holland, George Mraz, Bill Dobbins and John Scofield. My present band members since 1991, Vic Juris, Tony Marino and Marko Marcinko have been as loyal as the day is long and have inspired me to continue the quest.
I am blessed to have pianists Phil Markowitz and more recently Marc Copland as accompanists through the years: my gratitude for their support and incredible musicianship. I could never express enough thanks to Brother Gunnar Mossblad who has collaborated on more projects with me than anyone else. My appreciation to a great educator and friend, Pat Dorian with whom I have been working with in many ways for the past decade near my home in the Pocono Mountains of Pennsylvania. Thanks to reed maker and saxophone adviser Tom Alexander, mouthpiece producer Gary Sugal, microphone man Les Silver and Kent and Lois Heckman at whose studio, Red Rock, I have recorded most of my music since the late 1980s. In the States I have over the years established relationships with some great musicians from New Orleans:Steve Masakowski, James Singleton, John Vidakovich and in Chicago with Kelly Sills, Jim Trompeter and Joel Spencer-I appreciate our good times together. My appreciation to Mike Brecker for years of friendship and in the early days countless learning jam sessions and recently as well to Joe Lovano and the positive energy received through the Saxophone Summit performances. Personal friends Jed Luchow, Arthur Barron, Leon Segal, Jonathan Rome, Miku Narunsky, Ernst and Trudie Bucher and Jean Jacques Quesada have supported me for years in countless ways and are dearly loved. Mike Cherigo, a friend and associate who has booked me wherever we could find it for years and Walter Turkenburg who helped me form the International Association of Schools of Jazz, probably my proudest achievement in the musical world, are two indispensable people in my professional life. Also the support of Thomas and Anna Stowsand, Kurt Renker, Hans and Veronica Gruber and Jean Jacques Pussiau for my European endeavors and recordings. And my appreciation to the other great musicians in Europe who have supported me through the years: Lars Daniellsen, Bobo Stenson, Jon Christensen, Daniel Humair, Michel Portal, J.F.Jenny Clarke, Jean Paul Celea, Wolfgang Reisinger, Joachim Kuhn, Ronan and Conor Guilfoyle, Mike Nielsen, Maurizio Giammarco, Marc Van Roon and Michel Portal. Finally there are the original inspirations and models for jazz teaching whom I have gotten to know and work with: Jamey Aebersold (also as publisher of many of my works), David Baker, Jerry Coker, Dan Haerle and Ed Soph. To all my students everywhere I appreciate the opportunity and respect you have given allowing me to work all these ideas through.
Thank you all for your love, respect, knowledge and wisdom.