Playing, Talking, Role Models and More

Something occurred to me the other day.

If you recorded and analyzed how I spend time during lessons, you would see that most time is spent talking and discussing.  Very little time is spent playing.

When I compare this to how my university piano teachers conducted my lessons, the observations are the same: lots of talking and less playing.

I know this isn’t the norm for all teachers, but considering my own university experience, and the nature of teaching music in academic settings, I think this is also an issue outside of my own private studio too.  We should be more mindful; the consequences run deep.  They’re at the heart of every student/teacher relationship and the cultivation of healthy learning environments.

When I write “playing”, I’m referring to any time the student and/or the teacher are physically playing music.  The student could be playing what he/she has been working on, the teacher could be demonstrating, the teacher could be performing, or the student and the teacher could be playing together.

Of course, there’s nothing wrong with talking and discussing.  But sometimes students need different inputs.

It may not be enough to simply say: “A G7 is G-B-D-F.”  Students may also need to hear the sound of G7, or feel a G7 on their instrument.  The sound, sight and feel of a G7 being played can fill expressive gaps left behind from talking.  Through playing, the connection is strengthened; the metaphor is enriched.

But playing has an even more important function.

Consider this:

Last year, I lost a contest to Keith Jarrett.  We were competing to make a point with my student. I got to the student first, but she was unconvinced when I tried to pass on this lesson.  A few days later, she heard Keith say the exact same thing and “Eureka!” – she got it.

Keith convinced her because he’s the stronger role model.  She grew up listening to his records, listening to him play.

On the other hand, if my student had grown up listening to Chris Donnelly, the outcome may have been different.  In fact, I’m sure my student hadn’t even heard of Chris Donnelly until she began studies at UofT.  Our relationship began with talking, not playing.

This is a problem.

The Importance of Role Models

Having role models is important for optimal learning. I wouldn’t be a jazz pianist today if it wasn’t for my first jazz teacher, Anthony Panacci.  Anthony played for me in every lesson.  We played together in every lesson.  I was nine.  He was my hero.  He established this role model dynamic through playing, not talking.

I may have become a classical pianist, but my teachers never played for me, ever.  Lessons weren’t as much fun as jazz lessons; too much talking, not enough playing.  I didn’t have role models in the classical world.

Everyone has superstar role models like Oscar and Keith, but generally, such artists are inaccessible.   It’s not enough to listen to their records and hear them play once a year when they’re passing through town.  Students need to see and hear their role models play frequently; they need to speak with them; they need to study with them; they need to live with them.

This is important: The proliferation of artists, art and arts education is dependent on role models on every level.  Every point on a hierarchy of accessibility should be filled with role models, from teachers in pre-schools, to professional musicians, and to beacon fires like Keith Jarrett.

Maybe you’ve heard of Anthony Panacci, maybe you haven’t.  What matters is that an artist like Anthony – someone who doesn’t have Keith Jarrett’s fame – can make all the difference.

The Importance of Playing

“Chris Donnelly is a professor at the University of Toronto.” For some, this looks like quite the distinction.  But in the jazz world…*yawn*…who cares?  Can Chris Donnelly actually play!?

Playing is the best way for artists to assert their experience.  Listening is the best way to measure it.  Unless your specialty is public speaking, no amount of talking can equal the value of playing and doing.

The strongest role model relationships are developed first through playing.  Hearing them speak can be a bonus, but it can also be disappointing.  We don’t listen to our role models speak because they’re good speakers.

The Problem

As I mentioned at the beginning of this post, I’m becoming more mindful of the function and importance of playing.  The role model dynamic depends more on playing than on talking and discussing.

But here we are, students and teachers, in formal academic settings, talking and discussing!

In addition to this, not one of my students attended my CD release in March. In fact, I’ve never seen any of my students at my performances. They don’t hear me play!  This is part of the problem.

I’ll grant that it’s becoming more difficult, with the shortage of performance venues, to hear me (and other musicians) perform live – this is also part of the problem – but we cannot let this unfortunate circumstance disrupt the role model dynamic.

Then again, why would my student want to hear Chris Donnelly play?  Who’s Chris Donnelly anyway!?

I currently have a student from Regina, Saskatchewan; I’ve never performed in Regina before.  I doubt anybody in Regina even owns a Chris Donnelly record.  My student was more likely to hear Keith Jarrett’s music than Chris Donnelly’s.  So it’s unfair to put sole blame on the student; he’s never had the opportunity to hear me play and the role model dynamic hasn’t had the opportunity to take hold.

But this student has traveled across the country and is now studying with Chris Donnelly; he should, in principle, be interested in my music.  It’s a cyclical argument, with deeper issues at play.

Solutions for Students:

Hopefully you understand, I’m using my name merely as an example to demonstrate the issues; this isn’t a cynical rant.  I’m actually optimistic about the future – I believe it boils down to playing and reinforcing the role model dynamic.

For students, here’s the thing: I’m teaching at the University of Toronto. I can play.  My fellow faculty members at UofT, my faculty cousins at McGill and elsewhere can all play too.  You should be milking every last note from our music.  If you’re not enthusiastic about our music, you shouldn’t be studying with us!  You should be studying with your role models.

I can’t tell you who your role models should be, but I can tell you that you need them for every stage of your life, for everything you want to accomplish.

I can also tell you that local artists are underappreciated. But compared to the superstars, they’re equally talented, equally deserving of recognition, and equally vital to the proliferation of artists and art.

Figure out who your local heroes are and seek access to them.

Solutions for Teachers, Performers and Artists:

Play’s the thing.

Here’s another point: You’re not a messenger; you’re the message.

Sometimes during lessons, I make note to play and talk only about my music.  “This is what I’m working on, this is one of my tunes, this is how I composed it, and this is what it sounds like.”  I have not yet implemented this approach, but it would be valuable for my students to transcribe my solos, learn my tunes and perform them.

Ultimately, when I talk or play, I’m communicating information about me.  Of course, I’ll play/talk about Monk, Bach and John Taylor, but really, any idea I communicate and put to use at this instant is nothing but a reflection of me and a reflection on now.

A community with a solid role model dynamic doesn’t need to worry about “teaching tradition.”  That will happen naturally. Learning about tradition is inherent in studying with role models.

We’re more than a lecturer; we’re living the music as our role models were.

Be the message.

– – – –

One last point: This problem encroaches on deeper issues with art, education and society.

If students are traveling across this massive country to study with artists they’ve never heard of, the problem extends to the function and efficiency of music institutions.

It extends further: Celebrating international superstars, while neglecting or exploiting local artists, is part of the problem.  Conversely, celebrating local artists, but presenting narrow incomplete programming, is part of the problem too.

Anytime art is distributed through concerts, performance venues, festivals, radio broadcasts, magazines, newspapers, blogs, recordings, and the like, the role model dynamic between audiences and artists is initiated.  This should be done responsibly.

As I’ve said twice already, the proliferation of artists, art and arts education is dependent on role models on every level.  The distribution of art should reflect this.

The entire community should reflect this!

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