Learning by Asking Questions

Once, at a school where I was teaching piano, someone asked all the teachers to write down something they were good at doing. After thinking this over for a few minutes, I wrote down “I know how to learn.”

This is true. I know how to learn. And a big part of learning is asking questions to those who have already learned how to do what we ourselves seek to do.

I’ve always asked a lot of questions. In fact, when I was in college, my composition teacher, Hale Smith, used to generously come in to his office an hour early once a week so I could ask him questions. I’d ask him questions about how to practice the music I was practicing. I’d ask him questions about how to think about music in general. And I’d ask him questions about the famous musicians he knew, like Dizzy Gillespie, Eric Dolphy, and Ahmad Jamal. I asked him so many questions that years after he had retired, he jokingly introduced me to the great drummer Chico Hamilton as “one of the reasons why he retired!” In truth, Hale encouraged my questioning at every step, because he knew that’s how we learn the most.

I used to ask my jazz piano teacher Billy Taylor lots of questions as well. Billy welcomed this as well, and years later I found out why this was so. In an interview, Taylor told the story of how, as a teenager, he went backstage after a Fats Waller concert to meet the great pianist in person. When Fats came near him, however, Billy became timid and didn’t say anything. Afterwards, he vowed never to let an opportunity to ask a questions like that pass by again. He stayed true to his word, and asked many questions to his musical idols whenever he met them. He would ask pianists like Art Tatum and Willie “The Lion” Smith about their approach to music, and also about specific techniques and ways to approach improvising.

I now realize that Billy Taylor saw a little bit of himself in me, and I get a little emotional with gratitude even now, as I type this.

Ask questions. Seek out the people who can help you learn about music and ask them how to go about learning. Ask them about how they do what they do, and how you can learn to do this for yourself.

Take the plunge and ask questions. Just like I did with my teachers Hale Smith, Billy Taylor, and many others. You’ll wonder why you waited so long!


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