Principal Study

I am often asked about one-to-one lessons on your chosen instrument. This form of study is traditionally considered very important and often the main focus of many courses, with weekly lessons being a compulsory component.

 

I have taught many one-to-one lessons over the last three decades and experienced what this means to countless students... and I don’t think the conventional hour per week is the best way to learn music, particularly as a jazz musician.

 

The upside

 

Why people have weekly lessons: -

 

1) To make you practice

 

When you are very young and attending music lessons after school, these lessons are often used as a motivator to get you to practice. The teacher sets you tasks to work on and you ‘have’ to do it or you won’t be ready for the next lesson.

 

2) To have a regular opportunity to ask questions

 

When you’re in school, this may be the only contact you have with your instrumental teacher all week, so any information you are going to get has to happen in that one hour. In many cases it may be the only time you can talk to someone about music all week, as your only other musical activity is band practice, where there’s little opportunity for extensive dialogue.

 

3) To guide you in gaining technique on your instrument

 

This would be the number one reason people feel they need weekly lessons, to ‘teach’ them how to play their instrument.

 

A different view of those three points: -

 

 

1) To make you practice

 

If you have chosen to study jazz at a tertiary level, you don’t need a babysitter to make you practice – you will have a passion for music that makes you want to play a lot of the time.

 

2) To have a regular opportunity to ask questions

 

Studying at JMA (a dedicated Jazz Academy) you will spend most of your days (not one day a week) with your teachers – doing impro classes, ensemble classes, big band, aural etc etc. You have ample opportunity to ask questions about almost anything musical every day.

 

3) To guide you in gaining technique on your instrument

 

This seems like a good reason to have a ‘lesson’ every Thursday at 3pm. But is it?

 

Why is it weekly? Why not every 5 days, or every 10 days? Probably just because it’s convenient to make it the same day each week for scheduling purposes. There is nothing magical about 7 days and certainly nothing that says you will need precisely 7 days to complete whatever you are working on with your technical ability before you need to see your teacher.

 

Ok, so maybe it doesn’t need to be 7 days – but that doesn’t mean it’s a bad thing, does it?

 

Let me answer that in two parts: -

 

1) Wasting time.

 

If you spend an hour or two with me having a trumpet lesson, it’s extremely unlikely you’re going to run out of things to do by next week… it would be wasting your time to make you sit with me again so soon, when you could be playing / practicing. Of course you may have things you want to check on, or have me hear to make sure you’re headed in the right direction etc. but that doesn’t need a whole lesson, it just needs me to hear you and have a chat – maybe at ensemble class? Of course the reverse could be true, you might have an issue the day after your lesson and need another session to sort it out.

 

By being flexible at the JM Academy we can treat the technical aspects of your playing on a ‘needs’ basis. We’ll schedule sessions at intervals throughout the semester where we really get stuck into this side of your playing and then leave you to digest that  – when you're ready for more, you don’t have to wait until Thursday 3pm, you simply request a lesson. The great part about this is that you can request a lesson from ANY of our Faculty, not just 'your' teacher. This allows you to get valuable time with a number of different mentors.

 

2) This is the really important one.

 

All my years as a player and a teacher have led me to believe that weekly focus just on your technical ability is actually counter-productive for jazz musicians (maybe for all musicians). I literally mean it could slow down your musical progress rather than speed it up!

 

The reason for this is that it teaches you to regularly focus on the playing of your instrument as a ‘special’ part of being a musician, as though it’s very important as a subject unto itself – rather than just a simple means to an end. Music is not about being skilled on your instrument – if it was, then the person who could play with the most perfect technique would be the greatest musician… I don’t know a single jazz musician where this is true. Sure, some of the greatest jazz musicians have formidable technique – but that’s not what makes them great. It’s their musicality, their creativity, their ability to connect with other musicians and the audience that makes them more than just technicians.

 

So am I saying we don’t need to play our instruments well? No.

 

What I’m saying is that we must discover the musicality inside us and we must learn to connect emotionally with the song, the band and the audience. Every time you pick up your instrument and think about your technique, you are training yourself to pay attention to something that is the least important part of making music. It’s hard to be sublimely musical, to create magic that transforms people when they hear it – compared to this, knowing how to hold your mouth while you blow (or any other technical thing) is child’s play.  If it was as simple as getting the technique right, everyone would be Theolonius Monk.

 

We are creatures of habit and we learn best what we do often, by making the technical lessons spread throughout the semester and not on a short, regular schedule, we avoid pulling your focus away from the real job at hand – to make music.

 

If you are reading this and thinking “I don’t just learn technique in my one to one lessons, I need them to learn about music too” then you are obviously not attending a school like the JMA – where every class is about music, we don’t leave it for weekly lessons.

 

Of course we will look after your ability to play your instrument at the JMA but not in the way that everyone else does it just because that’s how it’s always been done – like everything else we do, it has to be about the music.

A good way to put it would be that at JMA your 'Principal Study' is not the tool you use (your instrument) your principal study is music.

 

Let me leave you with this last observation, from many, many years of touring and having the chance to play with a really wide range of amazing musicians including Dizzy Gillespie, Ray Brown, Herbie Hancock, Sweets Edison, Roy Hargrove, Quincy Jones, Buster Williams, Wynton Marsalis, The London Symphony, Lalo Schifrin and the Tonkünstler Orchestra in Vienna…

 

I’ve met many musicians with incredible technique who dearly wished they were more free musically to express themselves – I’ve never met a great musician who truly plays from the heart who wished they had more technique. When you play from the heart (not your head) you will develop all the technique you need, when you need it :-)

 

James Morrison

© 2017 by James Morrison Academy of Music.