Over the past 20 years or so, I have had the privilege of being a self employed freelance jazz musician and educator. I have seen a multitude of students from the beginning level and their progress to the professional level, both through private instruction and mentoring in my home studio and in university settings, regional and international masterclass settings etc. One of the things that seemingly never ceases to amaze me is that the students, some of whom can read and play anything you put in front of them don’t always seem to impress me as much when I hear them in a live performance setting. There are perhaps a number of criteria that could contribute to this phenomenon, i.e. who they are playing with, whether or not they really know the tune they are playing, whether they are distracted etc.
It seems that there are numerous educators out there writing book after book and teachers using these materials as a means to guide the student to proficiency in a given area of study, yet what seems to be the missing link is bridging the gap between etude and performance– particularly in the improvisational realm of performing jazz. I am not suggesting that jazz books and educational materials are bad. Quite the contrary in fact. I think there are enumerable valuable resources within the idiom, but I also think there needs to be a healthy balance of the student and teacher relationship and their roles together. By this I mean that the student must be interested and curious enough to be self driven and be willing enough to go completely nuts trying to figure out the ins and outs of live performing. The danger with jazz etude and instructional books is that it is similar studying someone else’s transcriptions. I have always said and believed that the transcribing process is one of the most valuable skills to develop for reasons that are too lengthy to get into for this article. But in many cases, transcribed ideas come from educators who may not even have the performance background to know what musical ideas and statements actually sound good. It would not be unlike learning to speak a language from a source that doesn’t use proper grammar and or pronunciation.
I have heard it said, and I cannot remember where, “you cannot be taught to play jazz, however, you can learn to play jazz.” It takes a lot of passion, determination, frustration and mistakes to get there. I am no where near there yet. I do not intend to suggest in any way that those out there teaching should stop, or that any student should discontinue studying with this one or that one or to suggest using jazz ed materials, rather, suggesting that students and teacher identify a goal and work toward it together. Some of my (and hopefully my students) most rewarding moments have been a combination of my personal struggle and triumph of a particular musical issue (technical or conceptual) in combination with a great question from the student that opened the door.
How do we bridge the gap between etude and performance? Simple… Keep your practice focused and goal oriented and in balance with how much time you spend playing with other musicians. I can always easily identify the guy that practices too much and doesn’t play with real musicians enough. I think that working with a metronome is always good, but try as an alternative (particularly for a drummer), playing along with recordings and working out your time and solo vocabulary in the context of a classic recording. Particularly groovin’ recordings. As the tunes pass you will find the challenge of figuring out how to use your “new stuff” in many different contexts. Lastly, have fun and enjoy the process.