This guest post comes from Nashville-based guitarist and bassist Sam Frazee. Enjoy!
I’ve taken a lot of lessons. I’ve had private lessons on saxophone, guitar (acoustic, electric, jazz, and classical) snare drum, piano, electric bass, voice, Double Bass and Euphonium. I’ve had some really good teachers, and some that were not quite as good. I learned something from each of them.
Through my own music studies and experience teaching I have tried to identify what successful students do. I’ve come to the conclusion that it’s really about getting out of your own way and absorbing more of what the teacher is trying to share with you. Most of all, you have to be open to suggestions, corrections and criticisms.
Always Have Beginner Mind – Wear the White Belt
Phillip Toshio Sudo wrote a great book called Zen Guitar. It uses a lot philosophies that are taught in martial arts, and applies them to learning the music. He talks about how, when studying Karate or other forms of martial arts, you wear the white belt as a beginner. Even a master has to wear the white belt if he begins training in another discipline. As we gain skill and mastery, we must never lose sight of what it feels like to be just be starting out. A beginner has enthusiasm, and enjoys the smallest bit of progress. We must be careful to not become jaded, or discouraged by our lofty goals.
In order to be a good music student, you have to accept that you don’t know everything. You have to humble yourself in order to be willing to accept knowledge and wisdom from someone else.
There is an old Japanese koan that talks about a master pouring a cup of tea for the student. He keeps pouring and pouring until the cup runs over. The student jumps and says “What are you doing?” and the teacher says “That is like your mind. You are full with your own ideas. How can I teach you until you empty your cup? “
“From here on out, drink and keep an empty cup. The moment you think you know everything there is to know, you will have lost the way. The beginner’s mind is the mind of wisdom.”
Zen Guitar, Phillip Toshio Sudo
As a sports fan, I believe there are many parallels between sports and the performing arts. I like to pay attention to what athletic trainers say about developing the mind, training the body and developing good practice habits. One thing you hear over and over is the importance of being “Coachable” That means having discipline, patience, and being open to critique. All of this applies to studying music, or anything really. The NFL has a great blog on what it means to be coachable.
Be Willing to Try New Things
You have to be open to the new ideas the teacher is trying to share with you. That may mean letting go of your old ways. A teacher will want you to use good technique. You may have developed bad habits over the years. While this may be okay for some stuff, you will not reach your full potential with subpar technique. You have to put in effort and get outside of your comfort zone. That is the only way that growth takes place.
Be Willing to Work to Improve
Everyone wants to get better. But not everyone is willing to Work. We have to love the work, if we want to become proficient at our instruments. There are no short-cuts. One must put in the necessary practice hours and we must establish a daily routine.
In an interview with Bass Player magazine, Esperanza Spalding said:
“Schedule time every day for the elements you want to improve. And then—I don’t know how else to say this—do it!”
Have a Goal
Esperanza is alluding to is having a goal. A purpose for practice. You must spend time working on the things that you want to get better at. It can be useful to keep a notebook of goals. You can have yearly goals, monthly, weekly and even daily.
Good Music Students Work Hard Between Lessons
Usually lessons happen on the same day each week, but the real learning takes place in the seven days between the lesson. If possible, review the lesson material the same day you see your teacher. You’ve got to reinforce the information from the lesson as soon as possible. So many things are said and talked about that it’s hard to remember everything. Having a practice session a few hours later ensures that some of that good stuff will sink in.
And, you’ve got to work on the material each and everyday. It’s better to study in smaller chunks more often, than to try and learn it all at once in a long cram session.
It can be tempting to skip a day. We are all so busy, and some of us have simply too much going on. It’s easy to procrastinate. You skip a day, then you skip the next, and the next. By day 6 you can’t even remember what you were supposed to work on. Before you know it, it’s time to go back to the lesson. Finally an hour before you’re supposed to leave you frantically try to cram a week’s worth of practice into one sitting.
Stop. It’s too stressful. We should practice with a relaxed frame of mind. Trying to rush and learn a lot of material in a small amount of time is unproductive. It’s much more beneficial to play and practice in smaller chunks throughout the day and throughout the week.
Use a Recorder
Taping your lessons is a great idea. You’ll pick up new stuff every time that you listen back. Your brain can only absorb a little bit at a time. Often the teacher is explaining new concepts while we’re trying to wrap our fingers and ears around the last thing that was said. It is helpful to listen back to the lesson and hear what else they were saying, and playing. A unit like the Zoom H1 is also handy for taping your practice sessions so you can hear your progress.
Listen–Don’t Talk too Much
It’s a music lesson, not a therapy session. You must suppress your urge to tell a story relating a personal experience to everything your teacher mentions. When the teacher floats a new idea it’s natural to want to respond in a way that shows you understand, but, as a student you must be careful that it doesn’t turn into story time.
The instructor is trying to explain something to you. You should be listening, really trying to absorb what they are saying. Even if an idea seems familiar, the teacher may be going somewhere else with their train of thought. Only by shutting down your need to talk can you really hear what they’re saying.
Finding a Teacher
If you are new in town or just a beginner, the idea of finding a teacher can seem daunting. Places like music stores and performance venues can be a good place to meet teachers. Local universities often have bulletin boards where graduate students offer lessons. I’ve even found good teachers off Craigslist.
You need to look for someone who knows the material as well as the technique and also meshes well with you personality-wise. The instructor must have the heart of a teacher. There are a lot of good players out there, but there are a lot fewer good teachers. It’s hard to find people who are good communicators. The best teachers can take a complicated subject and make it seem simple. Gifted teachers can inspire us and encourage us.
You Have to Teach Yourself
A good teacher is like a guide. They have been down the road before and will show you where to go next. They can save you a lot of time and trial and error. They know the most efficient way to achieve your goals, But, eventually the student is the one that has to absorb the material and internalize it. They have to do the work and integrate the material into their playing.
In his novel The music Lesson, Victor Wooten tells the story of an eccentric music teacher who tells his reluctant student:
“I cannot teach you because no one can teach another person anything … You can only teach yourself. Until we live in a day where I can physically implant knowledge into your head, I can teach you nothing. I can only show you things.”
It’s important to use the tips and guidelines that the teacher gives as a starting point, but then it’s up to you to apply those concepts. Since the teacher won’t be present during your practice session you will have to monitor your own progress. You will have to watch your technique and make sure that you are doing all the things little things right.
Practicing in front of a mirror is a good way to actually see what you’re doing; both right and wrong. Taping yourself and listening back is a great way to analyze your playing. And, as they say, the tape don’t lie. We can actually hear ourselves more critically when we listen back. It’s important to not be too judgmental when listening to yourself. Just try to hear everything that’s happening, good and bad.
Some say we study music to teach ourselves patience. Too often students get frustrated because they’re not progressing quickly enough. They are focused too much on the end result. We have to enjoy the process. It really is a journey. And, we never reach the end. The path has many peaks and plateaus. Sometimes we will feel that we are progressing quickly and sometimes we will feel that we’re stuck in a rut and spinning our wheels.
I like this quote by Dizzy Gillespie :
“Some days you get up and put the horn to your chops and it sounds pretty good and you win. Some days you try and nothing works and the horn wins. This goes on and on and then you die and the horn wins.”
It’s all part of the process, another step on the journey. Wherever your journey takes you, make sure to enjoy trip. We only pass this way once.
It can be easy to get discouraged. Sometimes it seems that others are progressing more quickly. And sometimes the amount of info we’re expected to absorb can seem daunting. It’s important to remember why we started playing in the first place. Just because we love the sound. Remember to really enjoy the noise that you’re making. Try not to compare yourself to those around you. Just do what you do. And do it with passion. Progress will come on it’s own. Your job is to just be you, and inspire those around you.
If you really want to be a good student, tell your teacher thanks. They’re giving a little bit of themselves every time they sit down to teach. The best part of our musical journey is when we pass on the joy that music brings. Soon you will be sharing your knowledge with someone else.