The perfect music teacher – you barely need him/her


The perfect music teacher – you barely need him/her

The “system”

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The “traditional” school system does not apply well to music

The whole western traditional education involves a teaching-learning cyclic routine in which information is incrementally increased. It is a system that is made for the masses from a bureaucratic and statistical point of view : easy to quantify results and thus progression. While not perfect for individualistic results (some learn in spurs or utilizing non traditional methods, environment pays a big role in results etc) it is quite adequate in tracking results by the masses. However that might fall greatly in areas where the tradition has been based by a master-apprentice relationship such as craftsmanship and arts.

In recent decades this master-apprentice bond has been somewhat replaced with a system that better suits progress tracking for the masses. Essentially this mean that education in all forms is pretty much standardized. This has happened in all forms of art, also music. This helps with tracking quantifiable skill sets needed for a certain skill set certificate (music degree for example) and also serves as a quantifiable return of investment of (state) investment in arts.

Let’s put some meat on the bone. This blog is mostly about jazz piano so in context a top level “professional” jazz pianist should by the evaluation standard have mastered among other things: rootless voicings, drop 2 voicings, block chord voicings and voice leading, walking bass technique, the bebop improvisation language, jazz phrasing, know at least 120 jazz standards by heart and have countless hours of solo, duo, trio and ensemble work. By simplifying things we can say that that is the end product and these are the skill sets needed for that skill set degree.

So what is the problem?

The problem here lies in the fact that these skill sets are not linear but are taught in a linear way because that is the way education is taught in our modern western society. You go to school and learn information incrementally ,usually once a week. A piano student will attend one lesson every week and if all goes well will learn new things each time. However there is little correction and supervision during the actual learning process – something that has been crucial during past master-apprentice relationships. What usually happens is the student shows a ready product that is re-evaluated every time but rarely is the process and the so called “silent information” surrounding that product dwelled upon.

I have noticed the biggest hurdle for new jazz piano students is not having the ability to know exactly what they want to achieve, how they want to sound or what they want to learn. Jazz sounding so free but being restrictive is a dilema that is hard to understand. There is no plan and no general idea of where one should start. Schools, institutions and cultural ministries do set skillsets requirenments as a form of evaluation methods. And that is a good starting point but I think teachers should go pedagogically one step further – they should show students not only what the information is but how the student can find it himself.

In other words I think teachers should teach concepts and how to hear and find answers in tangent with specific voicings, chords or scales. Teaching how to hear things like phrasing, register choices, timing and development of storytelling (improvisation) and band/instrument and audience awareness should be concepts to focus on more. The art of deep learning something should be engraved and thought. The skill of recording and listening and evaluating oneself is extremely important. Great players and composers were lucky to have a critical ear around them at all times. Most beginning students don’t know what mistakes sound like, especially concerning time and phrasing. Also being able to build a strong communication skill set both with other musicians and audiences is just as important as what you need to play.

There are some drawbacks naturally. Large concepts , although giving better results in the future, take much much more time to conceptualize. To become proficient in them is a lengthy process. Also I think a more flexible guidance system is needed than the once-a-week evaluation lesson. More time means less “actual lesson” time and more “guidance time”. The ultimate goal is to make the student aware of when he is in need of a physical lesson either because of a technical (or other) plateau or he/she feels he/she is in need of a physical evaluation. But I think the time given as guidance “between” the actual lessons is the crucial turning point. In that sense a return to the master-apprentice relationship can be seen as a stepping stone for greater progression in the long term although it might sound distant and very outside the box.

The modern master-apprentice relationship

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How to create a modern master-apprentice relationship

Luckily with modern technology this is possible. It is possible to keep in touch with the student when he needs guidance and let him/her progress at her own speed and most importantly make as many mistakes as possible on the way that can be corrected quickly as guidance is more direct and individual-specific. It is only when a technical hurdle arises that a physical lesson is needed. But it is important to teach students to know when they are in need of physical lessons and when they are in need of just guidance. This of course changes the role of the teacher into a mentor and poses a dilemma for non-private teachers.

There is one problem, though. Teachers are usually teaching in institutions and schools that have a fixed salary and workload. Therefore they have to teach a certain amount of students at certain times (usually) once a week per student. I have had countless friends that teach music that say that they are having practically the same lesson for many months because the student does not practice or advance. Some find it funny, some are frustrated while others enjoy the fact they enjoy the same salary for just repeating the same thing over and over. I think scraping over tests and regular (for example annual) evaluation is a bit too chaotic but the means to an end do not have to be so linear. Sometimes students need to really dwell on something for weeks or even months but the end result will be they will learn it deeply and it will help them progress even more. That should be taken into consideration since forcing a student through will only make him a superficial player. If institutions offered off-lesson guidance and the possibility of skipping lessons results would in my opinion sky-rocket. If only we are not focused on short term goals and more on long term. But systems and institutions, no matter how modern they are ,have quite a lot of stones to trip over regarding acting “outside the box” and I guess most has to do with the law and that teachers’ value is harder to measure if it not as tangible as a weekly lesson.

My philosophy and ideology regarding teaching and learning

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I think less is more is the best way to go. Less quantity , more quality.

I think a lesson plan should be very individualistic but also the support and guidance should be very individualistic as well. All should revolve around what the student wants and needs and a good teacher will translate what the student wants into what he/she needs. Certain technical and theoretical guidelines are important but so are the other “musical” concepts stated above. I would also like to make use of technology more, especially midi based teaching (where the pressed keys are colored and shown on a digital keyboard) where you can change the speed and tempo of the file as well as isolate different parts.

Being able to be connected with your teacher and resolving minor issues fast is an asset that is underused and I think it is unfair to wait until next physical lesson for it. Now that said I think all work should be paid for, just the way time is spread and utilized is more important then the physical time used per student. What I have noticed with students is that the issues they have are very small and easily fixable (for them ,of course, they seem impossible). I think the biggest thing I can tell anybody trying to learn jazz piano is to learn to listen properly. Both externally and internally. That means both to recordings and other people and to oneself being recorded. Sometimes it is hard to hear oneself outside one’s own self perception.

Personally recording myself has helped me heaps in finding what works and not. Then there comes the issue of time management. Large concepts take time so it is important to macro-manage the way you learn. Always prioritise actual playing over everything else. Record yourself, try to utilise every public playing opportunity and just get to play a lot (record yourself on the way). I , and I believe so many others, have fallen for the trap of never being good enough to perform. Ask any professional musician if they are good enough (maybe not rock musicians) to perform and most of the best ones will tell you no. Most will tell you that technical mastery is only a relatively small part of being an artist involved with music. Being able to convey emotion and expression through soundwaves is not simple. They are always learning – performing and iterating is part of the process. So if you want to learn to play you have to learn to perform as well, and it is a skill like all others.

Setting big goals for many years to come gives my playing and learning a sense of direction. I would recommend having large but reasonable goals. If you break them down into smaller goals you will realize how reasonable your long-term goal is. I wanted to become better at comping in duo settings, especially with singers. So the most time I spend is working on rootless voicings with voice-leading, learning melodies (knowing the singers register) and working on walking bass. I am still far away from the goal I have but have started planning concerts with singers to start evaluating the process. I also have a long term goal to learn all the melodies in the iRealPro Jazz 1300+ playlist and have given myself a 10 year projection for that.

Accepting being imperfect is an important part of any learning process. And it is something that took me a while to understand. You can still play and teach while learning at the same time. The performing you and the practicing you can both exist at the same time.

How could a new approach to teaching be made?

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Can a complementing mentoring support system give better results?

How I envision this type of teaching/mentoring is to have a set number of physical lessons and being available for guidance (perhaps through chat) about anything involving lessons or musicality in general. Knowing what to listen to when listening to others and oneself, knowing how to build your own lessons, how to know if you are making mistakes, tips about composing, performing, knowing what to learn systematically.

Basically all the things I wish I had when learning piano at school. I am self taught so I didn’t know a lot of things that others had learned earlier. The problem is that I didn’t know what I needed to know. So I got sheets on different skill exercises but I never got the picture how they all fit together. I would have needed guidance on my specific weaknesses – timekeeping and sight reading. I wish I had more guidance on those but instead had to learn scales and voicings for the exam level each year.

My point is that even though the end goal for all of us is the same the steps are all different and might need more of smaller “lessons” or tips than long lessons. Also recalibrating the efficiency of actual physical lessons is easier when the teacher is in touch with the student more regularly.

I might try out this new type with my current students and perhaps make it an option for new ones in a few months. Need to see how it works out.

Final words

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A good teacher teaches you how to teach yourself.

So we get back to the opening statement. How come the best teacher is the one that you never need. Well he is teaching you large concepts and how to teach yourself. So he goes to you only when he feels he needs you but also has your support throughout the whole learning period. The larger the concept the more time one needs to master it. And the better you become the more concepts you learn. This progress can be seen the higher up you go in the jazz education system. The “better” you become the more you start noticing that teaching becomes more and more abstract and teachers become mentors and give guidance rather than concrete concepts to you. At some point you will become your own master and apprentice, making your teacher just a friend that shares your goals, and you will be restricted only by the unlimited amount of knowledge available and time. Your teacher slowly becomes your guiding friend – your own personal jazz Yoda. While you try not to join the dark side that is jazz (piano)!

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© 2018 Sibil Yanev

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