Perhaps a major reason music - and specifically jazz - education is so seriously undervalued in our society is that it is often not taught in practical ways or with any cultural significance. I find that instead, it usually gets trapped in traditional and esoteric realms in order to, ironically enough, be taken more seriously. Like all musicians, throughout my life as a music learner, each realization that I have made has become successively more profound. However, I still struggle to achieve a balance between what I have come to view as two disparate, yet related, paths of learning: the organic and explorative nature of learning, which ultimately brought me to music in the first place versus a more structured and disciplined nature of institutionalized learning which has, strangely enough, had a significantly stronger presence in my personal history.
At age seven I started taking private piano lessons with an older, very conservative man who, although reasonably knowledgeable, was far from inspiring. Although I dreaded experiences at the piano for this reason, when I quit six months later, I had at least learned to read music, familiarized myself with the keyboard, and came to understand basic musical structures. About a year later my father showed me a simple tune - perhaps the only one he knows - called “Bobcat Boogie.” It’s hard to say what might have done more good for me: his two minute rendition of a simple jazz tune that excited me about music, or six months of structured practice and, oftentimes, drudgery.
When I was eleven, on the first day I received my trumpet, I had an invaluable, purely organic, learning experience. I remember holding the horn, exploring its physicality and how it was made, in some ways in awe of the natural beauty the instrument possessed. Combining my music reading knowledge and newly-found, almost instinctual, relationship between lips, air and mouthpiece, I achieved new sounds ... solid trumpet tones! I can only remember the experience that afternoon as being almost blissful in nature. I would lose sight of this very quickly upon my first days in band class.
During high school I was of course part of the band program which, like most high school music departments across the country, involved rehearsing and performing standard repertoire of Western classical music. Obviously this gave me an immense skill set, too detailed to discuss, but it also helped to manifest in my impressionable young perception the subtle hierarchies of which genres were to be more “appreciated” than others. I say this because alongside my wind ensemble experience, I also played in an original funk and ska band (the Skamikazes!) where we wrote music purely by ear, and purely for fun (and maybe to impress some girls). Somewhere in the middle there, my only experiences with jazz education came purely through the All-State jazz bands, which of course, followed a set of predictable norms within musical academia (i.e. a 17 piece big band learning to play standard repertoire under traditional teaching methods).
My newly formed loves of music, coupled with my sense of duty to attend college, led me to pursue jazz in higher levels of education, where I found myself starting to “swim upstream.” I joined a “typical” undergraduate jazz studies program which focused primarily on a highly structured curriculum of “standards” and be-bop styles, giving scant, obligatory mention of earlier traditional styles and little to no introduction to ethnic musics or jazz from the 1970s to present day. And although I have slight degrees of resentment for this fact, I also know that I wouldn’t have been exposed to jazz music in such an intense way had I not been in such a program. The limited repertoire of jazz styles given to me also acted as a launching pad into less familiar stylistic territories. This manifested itself into my confrontation - that ultimately proved successful - with a curriculum that indoctrinated students onto a jazz “conveyer belt”. Due to my high levels of discipline and work-ethic, I was able to convince the faculty to let me put on a non-traditional senior recital of primarily world improvisational musics, which would in turn inspire a number of students to find their own personal voice in jazz, pushing them to work in and around the system to help personalize their education. In this way, I ultimately found the most beneficial aspect of my studies was joining a community of like-minded musicians who helped push and inspire each other, creating invaluable learning environments.
As anyone would imagine, attending graduate school in New Yor, opened me up to a much larger world of possibilities and provided a much more balanced learning environment which helped me grow profoundly as a musician in every sense of the term. Students were given much more one-on-one attention from progressively minded, highly experienced musicians with deep understanding of the ever evolving place that jazz and improvisational music had in our culture. Of course, the unfortunate realities of an institution’s bureaucracy, self-aggrandizement and pressure to uphold general academic standards are always going to limit the potential for a student to find his or her most valuable path for learning. So, once again, I found myself moving into other departments (classical, ethnomusicology, etc.) and breaking the molds that seeped around me. I know deep down, that these actions were not merely a product of rebellion or subversion, but rather an attempt at the most organic way to learn music, through curiosity, exploration, fascination and experimentation.
As I think about what encouraged me to attend graduate school, it was ultimately to continue the search for my personal voice, to find new challenges, and of course, to be surrounded with an inspiring and educational community. School was the easiest way for me to do all of that, because it gave direction, instilled discipline and provided an automatic group of fellow musicians. After moving from New York, and finding myself “on my own,” I began to ask, “Where do I go from here?” In many ways, one of the biggest holes in all of my education was how to actually teach myself.
In the years I have been out of school, I have been forced to confront serious personal issues with my musical self. The foremost seems simple but has been surprisingly complicated for me: what do I want to do with my music? In some way or another this is a question we continuously ask ourselves as musicians, but it is so crucial in order to establish an initial sense of direction. I have always had school to tell me which way to turn or in what ways to dissent. But clearly the ideal is to allow yourself to find out what you really get out of music--what your loves and passions are, and then decide what the proper tools are to achieve said goals. Interestingly enough, I find that in many ways, I have gone about this in reverse. I have been given the tools, structure and methodologies needed to achieve any level of success in music; now I must allow myself to discover my true musical passions, and more importantly, be o.k. with whatever those are. In the end, I hope that with the proper financial and cultural support, music education programs of any dimension can progress towards a healthier balance of structure and exploration, discipline and inspiration, practice and play.
(edited by Ellen Brackin Sevits)