Learning jazz – an amateur view


Some personal reflections on informal learning and everyday creativity, based on my own experience of learning jazz


As well as being a media educator, I’m also a keen jazz musician – albeit strictly an amateur one. I prefer to keep these two worlds separate, although they do sometimes overlap. Several years ago, I led a research project about amateur video-making (you can find a short summary of some of the key findings here); and I continue to be struck by the parallels between my own experiences of music-making and the worlds of amateur media producers. There’s a good deal of talk in media education about ‘everyday creativity’ – and many educators argue that digital technology in particular can promote less formal styles of learning. So what might we learn about this from looking at other areas of amateur cultural production?

e034b90628f01c3e81584d04ee44408be272e3d410b4164497f3_640_jazzI play the saxophone, and over the years I’ve been in various bands, including an Afrobeat band, a Latin (salsa) band, a ‘World Music’ band, and (currently) a jazz quintet. I wasn’t lucky enough to learn music as a child: I played a little in my late teens, but this is mainly something I’ve come to later in life. I’ve had one-to-one lessons, and attended a great many courses and workshops. I have an embarrassingly large collection of tuition books and play-along CDs, and I make use of the vast range of learning resources that are available online. I spend a lot of time and money on my hobby, and in this respect I’m probably pretty typical. As a former teacher and teacher educator, I’m now experiencing the educational process from the other end, as an amateur adult learner.

The term ‘amateur’ obviously derives from the Latin for ‘lover’: its opposite, ‘professional’, is harder to pin down, although in everyday talk it generally refers to people who get paid for what they do. In practice, the distinction is sometimes harder to maintain, which is partly why we have hybrid categories like ‘semi-professional’. More significantly, a great many professional musicians (in the field of jazz, probably most of them) also make part of their living by teaching – and they don’t just teach those who are aiming at a professional career, but often amateurs as well. Professionals depend on amateurs, just as amateurs depend on professionals to teach them.

16097122917_8e1579aef7_bFar from being a field populated merely by ‘lovers’, amateur music-making is a complex social world, with its own networks, structures and hierarchies. Finding a class or a workshop that’s at the right level, not to mention finding other musicians whom you feel comfortable playing with, really isn’t easy. This amateur world also has its own economy: people like me spend large amounts of money on lessons and courses, and on books and learning materials. In the past decade, there’s been a massive proliferation of summer schools and other intensive courses aimed particularly at adult learners, many of which are far from cheap. With the demise of public subsidy for adult education in the UK, these opportunities are bound to be much less accessible for those on low incomes, despite all the rhetoric about popular creativity.

In my experience, there’s a distinct demographic here: like me, most amateur learners are older men. It’s rare to encounter younger people in amateur workshops and classes. This may just be because we have more time on our hands, though it is also partly about the genre: although jazz is currently undergoing one of its periodic renaissances, the audience still tends to be predominantly elderly. The same is true of amateur musicians, who are often approaching, or well into, their ‘third age’. Relatively few of them are women: in the many classes I’ve attended, I’d say it was 20% at most – although the opposite is predictably the case when it comes to singers.

There are several different kinds of teaching and learning going on here. Amateurs often teach themselves and each other, as well as being taught by experts; they learn on their own, through practicing, but they frequently learn together in groups, which are sometimes very ad hoc; they are often very serious and assiduous, but they are rarely interested in gaining recognized qualifications. Their learning is generally self-motivated, and can be fairly arbitrary and idiosyncratic. This is the kind of activity that educational researchers tend to describe as ‘informal learning’ or ‘non-formal learning’ (which are not quite the same thing).

imagesHowever, the distinction between ‘informal’ and ‘formal’ isn’t necessarily very useful. It’s not always clear whether ‘formality’ is a dimension of the context, the social relationships between teachers and students, or the style of teaching and learning. I have certainly encountered very ‘formal’ approaches to teaching in ‘informal’ settings (that is, outside established educational institutions), and in situations where the teachers and students behave in pretty ‘informal’ ways. There is a continuum here, rather than a clear distinction. In the classes and workshops I’ve attended, some of the teaching is very tightly structured, with explicit goals and a fixed sequence of activities; while some of it is just a matter of learning by doing – playing one piece after another, with little evaluation or discussion.

I’ve had some good experiences here, and some bad. People who set themselves up as music teachers will often sell their services on the basis of their experience as players; but there’s no necessity for them to gain any teaching qualifications. There have been some notable exceptions, but I have sat through too many classes and courses that are woefully underprepared. There’s no quality control here, beyond word of mouth. If I had more time, I would set up an independent ‘Trip Advisor’ or a ‘Rate My Teacher’ site for these kinds of classes; but it might be more constructive if such teachers were at least encouraged to follow some training.

As an educator myself, I’m probably a little over-sensitive about these things; but it’s fairly obvious that being a good musician doesn’t necessarily make you a good music teacher. I have been ‘taught’ by some exceptionally skilled musicians who don’t seem to have the faintest idea about teaching. I sometimes get the feeling that they regard it as rather beneath them, or as a necessary chore – something they do just to get paid, before they get back to the real thing. For them, teaching seems to consist primarily in showing off how good they are – which is precisely the kind of thing that is bound to intimidate and demoralize those who are just starting out.

There are some absolute basics of good teaching that such people tend to ignore. For example, most teachers know that a little praise can go a long way. Indiscriminate praise is worthless, but everybody is entitled to some positive feedback: a good teacher will be able to identify good points in what every student is doing, and help them to move on. Humiliation and sarcasm are not good teaching techniques (except perhaps with army recruits). At the most basic level, teachers need to be interested in what students are doing. They need to build on what students can do, rather than constantly making them aware of what they can’t.

3e065e001b260b031a873418c78bb381Playing jazz is a very complex task. People who think they don’t like the music (and hence rarely listen to it) often imagine that improvisation is a matter of making things up on the spur of the moment – or indeed, of arbitrary, unstructured ‘noodling’. Mostly, this is very far from being the case – although my life as an amateur would probably be much easier if it was. On the contrary, playing jazz is a multi-dimensional activity. You need to hear and feel melody and rhythm, and you need to sound good; but you also need to understand the complexities of harmony. You need to have ‘good ears’, and respond to what other musicians are doing; but you also need to develop an individual sound and style, rather than just copying or running through pre-rehearsed phrases. It helps if you can read musical notation, although it’s not completely essential. Some amateurs are good at some of these things, and not others; but few are good at all of them.

This level of ‘mixed ability’ can make teaching adults much more complex than teaching children. If you’re teaching Suzuki violin to six-year-olds, you can probably assume that they’re all going to be at more or less the same level – although you’ll quickly discover that they learn at different rates. Adults will come to a class or a workshop with a much more diverse range of prior experience, both as players and as listeners. Trying to work out where students are at, and what they might need, is unlikely to be straightforward. It’s easy to underestimate how insecure and lacking in confidence adult learners can be. This all suggests a need for much more systematic (and sympathetic) evaluation of students’ prior learning – and by that I don’t mean an audition where they are expected to play an improvised solo without any advance warning.

It’s possible that one could simply learn by doing – or indeed by trial and error – without spending too much time on preparation or analysis. However, most younger musicians now have jazz degrees, and contemporary jazz education has been heavily influenced by a conservatoire approach – which is to say that it places a central emphasis on theory. (It’s worth adding that the existing literature on jazz education – which is a growing field, especially in the US – seems to be almost wholly concerned with this kind of professional training.) The question is how far this approach is relevant or useful for those who are – and wish to remain – ‘mere’ amateurs.

760086f626a4a2d274aa01046897cff2As a student, I’ve been in situations where the emphasis is very much on theory (especially harmonic theory); and the class comes to resemble an improvised lecture, with occasional breaks where the teacher invites you to guess what’s in their mind. The assumption seems to be that we have to know all this complicated stuff before we can really begin to play – or at least that if we don’t know it, then what we are playing is going to be pretty much arbitrary. Yet this begs the question of how theory might feed into practice: even if we ‘understand’ something in theory, how does it find its way into our playing?

I think it was the great literacy educator Margaret Spencer who once said that the ways teachers break things down doesn’t necessarily correspond to the way learners build them up. In the case of reading, we can analyse what a competent reader does, but we should be wary of then attempting to teach those things in what might seem to be the most logical sequence. The same might be true of teaching music, perhaps especially a more expressive and partly improvised form like jazz.

This conservatoire approach doesn’t just inform the pedagogy, but also the curriculum of jazz education. Much of the teaching I’ve encountered in this area focuses on standards – that is, tunes from the ‘great American songbook’, or by well-known jazz composers. These tunes are contained in ‘real books’, telephone-directory-sized compilations or the equivalent software. Almost all of them are more than sixty years old, and some are significantly older: this week I attended a workshop where we played a version of a tune first written in 1933, long before most of us old guys were born. These tunes are still commonly played by contemporary musicians; but most current jazz (and most of what I listen to myself) is based on original compositions, which are often very different in style – and generally much more diverse – than the familiar standards.

811997_3e45a9fcaca64e3280cb2c5c7033d194~mv2_d_1936_1936_s_2Of course, it could be argued that the standards are a kind of canon, or a necessary discipline, that everybody should be familiar with; but I’m not sure that this necessarily applies to amateurs. Perhaps professional jazz musicians should master the intricacies and ferocious demands of bebop (a style that originated in the mid-1940s); but I’m not entirely convinced that amateurs should have to submit themselves to it. (This conservative view of jazz as somehow frozen in time – or as something that stopped developing in the early 1960s – is very prevalent in jazz criticism, and in a good deal of jazz performance, these days.) Everybody is entitled to their own preferences, of course; but in my experience, there are very few opportunities for amateurs who want to play more contemporary styles of music – which often fuse elements of jazz with other genres.

In addition, even amateur students are frequently encouraged to transcribe solos by established players – or at least to play such solos note-for-note from published transcriptions (which are mostly of players from the 1940s and 1950s). Once again, this seems to reinforce a quasi-academic ‘repertory’ view of the music, which (apart from anything else) is very different from the idea of it being a living, oral tradition. While I can see the value of this for professionals, I’m not convinced that it’s appropriate for amateurs, unless their aim is to play pre-rehearsed party pieces.

Some of my points here are probably specific to jazz, but there are implications for educators in other fields. The idea of ‘informal learning’ certainly seems appealing – not least in relation to media, where most of young people’s learning happens with very little direct instruction. Teachers in formal institutions like schools can undoubtedly learn from approaches that are developed in more informal settings. But the social world of amateur creativity isn’t a wholly free space: it has its own structures and imperatives, not least economic ones. While informal (or non-formal) learning can be pleasurable and even exhilarating, it presents difficulties and frustrations of its own. Paying closer attention to the experiences of amateur learners might help to generate a more realistic dialogue about these broader issues.