Valentines Day, but we’re talking about a lot of death instead. Phil Levine, David Carr. Richard Schurr. We pay tribute to a great teacher. Why music teachers matter. What makes a great teacher.
Roger CortonHappy Valentine’s Day
JCHIt doesn’t feel particularly Valentine-y today. In fact it’s been kind of weird this week. It’s been the week where a lot of vaguely related people passed away.
JCHYeah you know that six degrees of separation thing? Well this is like a bunch of people at the fifth degree. For example, Richard Schurr, you know the NPR radio “Says You”. I was in the band a couple of times. He died. And so did Gerry Ríann.
JCHHe was one of the last great Se´n Nós singers (ed. note: Se´n Nós is traditional solo singing in the Irish. Many of the songs go back hundreds of years. The term literally means ‘old song’.) Gerry was like the Ralph Stanley of Ireland. I worked with him a few times. Then Phil Levine.
RCPhilip Levine. The poet from Detroit.
JCHAbsolutely. He went to high school with my uncle. What Work Is is fantastic. I can’t tell you how much that poem means to me. That’s the basis of Detroit The Opera. I get choked up thinking about that poem. And you know by now that I’m not someone who usually gets all gushy about poetry.
JCHSeriously. And David Carr.
RCYou knew David Carr? New York Times David Carr?
JCHNo I didn’t know him per se. I met him a couple of times when I was in school and he was just some guy. Again, he and I are… er… ‘were’ about the same age.
JCHAnd rounding out the list was the guy I took bass lessons with for a couple of years back in Detroit.
RCFive guys. OK, but isn’t this just a statistical anomaly? I mean we all know a lot of people and a few of them are going to die in the same week, right?
JCHYeah, but you reach an age where… and I don’t know if you feel this way… but these are things that one just expects to be there. In other words I expect a certain sameness to life, Sunrises. Certain shows will be on the radio. The guy you took lessons with will still be there. The guy you met a couple of times when you were a kid and became famous. Maybe that’s bourgeois and American.
RCI suppose you’re right. Now that you mention it, one thing that all old people say is that all of their friends are gone. Maybe what it means to get old is not that your friends are gone, but that all the things that were reliable and comfortable are no longer there. Maybe that’s why old people value tradition.
JCHThat’s an excellent point. Maybe young people do not value tradition because when you’re young it’s not a scarce commodity. I mean everything when you’re young is ongoing. And that’s kind of why I wanted to talk about the teacher who passed away, Mr. P.
RCOkay, you said that he was a really great teacher. What made him so great for you? Mentoring? Fabulous technique?
JCHNo he wasn’t what I would call a ‘mentor’, or even a ‘friend’ per se. I hadn’t even spoken with him in decades. But he was a truly great teacher. And that’s exactly what I wanted to talk about because he was not the kind of great teacher that I think can exist today. It’s something I’ve wanted to talk about for a long time, but I’ve frankly been afraid.
JCHI always worried that it would sound disrespectful or self-serving.
RCYou usually don’t give a damn about such things. So you must have cared. So go for the gold.
JCHWell first of all, apparently he taught some pretty famous bassists. But more importantly, I’ve found over the years that he was loved by a zillion people. I mean, his students just looooved the guy. But… he was not what I would call a great technician by any stretch of the imagination.
RCHe was a great teacher who was not a great technician. And you think that’s a big deal.
JCHOf course it’s a big deal. Look, it’s difficult to put into words why Mr. P. was a great teacher. Or rather, it’s difficult to put it into words that seem to matter. Most of the people who I have taught would not be my students unless I could impress technically. Basically, I had to audition for them. The ability to ‘shred’ is, what most people of all ages seem to see as a criteria for teaching. It’s like on-line dating.
JCHYeah. Women will say that they want ‘humour’ and ‘personality’ all that shite. But if you look at the real stats, almost all of us just choose based on the piccie; that first impression. But a relationship with a teacher is like a therapist. It takes time to get anywhere. You can’t know from that first impression.
RCWhat is that phrase that everyone uses, ‘those who can’t, teach’?
JCHSee, that’s it. I never would’ve chosen Mr. P. had I known his technical skill. I was assigned him by the school I was going to. I already had learned how to twiddle my fingers (‘technique’), but I knew absolutely nothing about how to play ‘jazz’. And so we got started on jazz concepts but not ‘technique’. It just didn’t come up for quite some time.
RCAnd then one day?
JCHAnd then one day, Mr. P. was asking me to re-play some exercise I was not doing very well. I don’t remember what I said exactly but I must have been frustrated and I said something snotty; something to the effect, “well how would you play that?” And he looked at me very calmly and friendly and simply said, “I can’t play that. Frankly, I’ve never had a student who could play these exercises at that tempo.” And then he didn’t say anything else. And that’s the part that stuck with me. He didn’t explain and for some reason I didn’t reply. We just went back to the lesson. That was it.
RCHe just ‘stopped’ you. Like Carlos Castaneda (laughs).
JCHExactly. I’m usually not at a loss for words, but he was just so matter of fact; I think that is what impressed me. It was like, ‘this is who I am. It sounds high-falootin’ but the word ‘serene’ comes to mind. At that point, I certainly would not have admitted any limitation so freely.
RCI get it. So many people in the music biz are constantly putting on airs if not outright dissembling. It’s a bit shocking when you work with anyone who is one hundred percent straightforward about who they are. That’s a lesson right there.
JCHExactly! That was one of the best lessons (no metaphor) I ever got from anyone. And there was another lesson where he was trying to get me to play a particular walking baseline at some ungodly tempo that no one plays in real life.
RCLike in that movie Whiplash?
JCHYeah but without the psychos. In this case I think the point was that he wanted me to try to have a good jazz feel regardless of tempo–like Oscar Peterson could do. Oscar was one of his heroes. And, of course, I couldn’t do it. At a certain tempo I just started playing ‘straight’ no swinging. Again, frustration set in and I snapped. “All this time I’ve been coming here and I just realized: you only play with one finger. How can you play this with one finger?” Do you always play with one finger?” And he again simply said, “Yeah”. “So if you don’t mind my asking, what do you do when you need to play something that requires two fingers?” And he took a drag on his cigarette and said, “I don’t.” But this time I had the presence of mind to follow up! “So what do you do?” “I play something else.”
JCHAnd again, I was stopped. We just went on with the lesson. Never spoke of it again.
RCIt sounds like you really respected him.
JCHYa think? He was just so decent and relaxed about the process. In fact, at a certain point, our lessons consisted mostly of listening to Bill Evans records. Giving me records to borrow. He seemed to feel like Niels Henning was ‘the guy’ I should model my playing on; which was weird because, again, Mr. P. had about as much to do with NHOP as I do with Desi Arnaz.
RCLucy! You got some ‘splainin’ to do! So it sounds like he was more of a model as a man than anything else.
JCHI think that’s right. See Mr. P’s lesson book was always filled. He always seemed to have more students than he could handle. Out of the blue one day he said that he hoped that at some point I would teach. And I laughed and as I so often did (and do) said something “unfiltered” like, “You gotta be kidding. I don’t know how anyone puts up with all these kids who don’t even try to practice. You gotta be nuts to do that!”
And again he looked at me and said, “So why do you think I do it? You’re the reason I teach. Out of 100 students I get maybe two, like you, who truly care. And that makes it all worth it for me.” And again, I was left speechless. Although inside…
RCInside you still thought he was nuts.
RCMeaning that he had to be nuts to be able to teach so many half-assed students?
JCHMeaning that he had to be nuts to think that I would ever want to do that.
See it took me a long time to recognise what makes a great teacher. And I think that is because I didn’t value certain things properly. And I’m so cynical now that I fear that this will come off as weak. But this is the highest compliment I can pay Mr. P.: He had this catch-phrase, “I’ll get you where you want to go.” Said that all the time.
Now I’ve tried saying that to people more times than I can count and it –never works. When I say it, it has all the credibility of a used car salesman saying, “trust me, pal”. But when he said it, he not only meant it but he made you believe it. And that is what makes a great teacher. It’s not about his skill as a player. All that matters is his ability to get you where you want to go. He has to have a plan for you. And it probably helps if he has great chops. But mostly, he has to be able to evaluate the student, figure out what they need and keep them motivated. And most important of all, he has to keep the focus on you. That was why it was never an issue about Mr. P.’s chops… he kept the focus on me and what I needed to do. I think it never occurred to me about his ‘chops’ because he kept me so busy with all the things that I needed to work on.
RCSo once you figured all this out, did you ever let him know?
JCHSee the thing is I never contacted him.
JCHI always thought that was self-serving.
RCGratitude is self-serving? Is this more Carlos Castaneda bs?
JCHI mean, the times I’ve tried to show gratitude it never seems to go well. The thing I’ve noticed is that people like Mr. P… really great teachers/people don’t need it. Certainly not from me. So it’s just awkward. It’s like what people say after someone dies…
RCYou’re not being ironic.
JCHNot at all. This is a ‘thank you’ and it’s awkward. Whenever you’re at a funeral everyone says awkward things because you’re saying it to the wrong person.
RCAnd too late.
JCHMaybe it would be different if I were more (cough)’famous’… you know. Then he could show Famous Person X Photo on the wall. But even then I don’t think so. It’s just awkward. The thing about teaching is that, if you’re in the right frame of mind, it really is it’s own reward. Thank God.
RCWhy “Thank God”?
JCHWell, teaching is like parenting. I mean who would do it if it required ‘gratitude’? You just do it because it’s in yer DNA. In fact, in some ways, it’s more praise-worthy than parenting because parenting has that in-built evolutionary chemistry to want to help your progeny. Great teachers are doing it as a true calling.
RCNo biology involved.
JCHBut I just want to be clear that Mr. P. and I were not ‘friends’. This wasn’t like The Karate Kid. I come back to the analogy of therapy because you go, it can be transformative, but then it’s most often over. But the conundrum is that it’s hard for someone to explain what exactly all that therapy (or lessons) did for you. And I think that’s the troubling thing in the age of Youtube.
RCBecause people can just go to Youtube and look up a video on ‘how to play like Jimi Hendrix’.
JCHExactly. When I was a kid, you had to be nuts to want to see a therapist.
JCHIronically, now most people see the value in that sort of transaction. But with music, Youtube has become like taking pills. We no longer value working with a human to develop certain skills like music. And I think that tends towards a much more shallow understanding of music.
RCBut in the case of Mr. P., he didn’t have great chops. So in that case, Youtube would’ve been better to learn from if you wanted to ‘shred’.
JCHIt seems that way. But I assure you that if the things I had needed to work on with Mr. P. had involved shredding, he would’ve found a way to get me there; either by his own hand or by connecting me with other people and resources to make it happen. And that would’ve been a much more efficient way to go than watching a bunch of Youtube videos in my bedroom.
RCYou sound pretty certain.
JCHI am certain.
RCBut how do you know that? Let’s get back to raw statistics. Maybe he was just a good fit for you.
JCHIt all comes back to that trust thing. He made me trust him, almost implicitly because he was constantly working with me not on his agenda or my agenda, but rather on what was best for me; which is a touchy subject these days.
But if you want proof I’ll give you this ’empirical evidence’. It is completely true that Mr. P. and I never and I mean never worked on a single piece of music that I was interested in. I alluded to Bill Evans? I hated Bill Evans at the time. In fact, I had kind of ‘Crow Jim’ attitude about jazz.
JCHSorry, that’s a Lenny Bruce idea… reverse racism. If it ain’t ‘black’ it can’t be ‘good’ jazz. That viewpoint was extremely popular in various circles of Detroit at the time.
RCI won’t even comment on the irony.
RCGood, we’ve already gone off on even more tangents than usual. But my point is that Bill Evans stuff is an order of magnitude more harmonically sophisticated than the ‘bop’ I was enjoying. And learning that harmony was what was I needed. By slogging through all his ‘pretty white jazz’, the early stuff that I walked in wanting to do was child’s play. He gave me what I needed to know in order to do what I wanted to do. If we had taken a more direct approach, I would not have gotten where I needed to go.
RCSo what you’re saying is that a great teacher knows what you need, not what he wants to teach you or what you want to learn. Because you don’t know what you don’t know.
JCHYes. In my view, above all, a great teacher is what we would call today a ‘process engineer’ or a ‘data analyst’. They see what needs to happen to get the job done.
RCWell since you made a ‘corporate’ analogy, I hate to say this, but he could’ve been a bullshitter. It could’ve still been coincidence that it worked out well.
JCHMaybe. We all know ‘consultants’ who are fronting. And they can do a lot of damage. Just like the wrong teacher can set one off on a track that you may not recover from. But that’s where the integrity comes in. And like I said, he could use a phrase like “I’ll get you where you want to go” and I went for it.
Although, it just occurred to me, if he had told me up front what he really meant, it probably would not have gone over so well.
RC“I’ll get you where you need to go.” Yeah, I really can’t imagine anyone openly saying that kind of thing these days to a pupil. First of all, with kids, most parents would freak.
JCHAnd yet, because of how he was, it didn’t hurt a bit.