Musical wisdom from Thelonious Monk and Keith Richards

Everywhere you look, someone is giving advice to music students. Learn this, play that, try this, go slowly, go fast, listen to advice, don’t listen to advice, etc. As a teacher, of course I do this too. After all, it’s what people want from me. If I don’t suggest things for them to try, they don’t feel like I’ve done my job. And yes, I have some experience to share that others find helpful. I also try to pass along what I have learned from my own teachers.

On the other hand, I am aware that ‘teaching’ is a coin with two sides. On one side is the fact that students progress faster when there is a clear, step-by-step path outlined for them to take. It’s like learning a foreign language: first you learn the basic vocabulary, then you start to put words together to form phrases, then you learn to conjugate verbs, etc. It’s a proven fact that you will learn a language by following these steps.

As someone who was initially self-taught in music, however, a little voice inside me is crying out: “Wait a minute! Let the student find her own way! Every time you insist they learn a certain chord voicing, you may be preventing them from finding 5 unique voicings, and the satisfaction of discovering it all themselves!” The great jazz pianist Bill Evans refused to teach his brother how to play cool chord voicings. When the brother asked why, Bill replied, “Because I don’t want to deprive you of the joy in discovering them for yourself.” Of course the other side of THIS coin is that not everyone has the motivation to discover these things themselves.

As music education is becoming more institutionalized and codified, what should a teacher do?

I remember hearing a story about when the great jazz pianist Thelonious Monk gave a workshop to a group of young jazz students. After hearing them play a tune, Monk thought hard, and asked them to play it again. He thought hard again, and finally said,” Well, I guess just keep trying!” This episode is sometimes given to show that Monk was not a very articulate teacher. But maybe he had a point. There’s a video on YouTube where guitarist Keith Richards is asked for his advice to young musicians. He basically says the same thing. But then he elaborates. He says that you should “just keep on keepin’ on” because when you get interested in one thing, it will then spark an interest in the next thing. And so on and so on. You’ll discover your own unique journey. For yourself. What greater joy could there be than that?

So when I teach music now, I try to balance these two aspects: How can I guide the student in acquiring the basic, necessary skills they need, without hampering their natural curiosity and initiative? How’s that for a challenge!

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