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Pauline Lerner

P words

January 23, 2006 at 6:16 AM

To all the parents who take their kids to concerts that they don’t necessarily like and then wait for the kids to get autographs, lessons, and whatever else

So begins the book To a Young jazz Musician. Letters from the Road by Wynton Marsalis. The book takes the form of letters that Marsalis writes from the road between the bus ride, the sound check, and the gig to an aspiring jazz trumpeter named Anthony, who is the age of a college student. Marsalis tells him We have to talk about music and life, because, ultimately, they end up as one and the same. So true. There are so many life lessons for us as we study and teach music.

Someone once asked John Coltrane when he practiced, and Coltrane replied, “I only practice when I’m working on something.” Marsalis advocates practicing “something” whenever you practice. It could be your sound, a deeper swing, or just hearing bass lines. When I practice or teach, I concentrate on several things at the same time. I like the idea of practicing “something” when it helps us focus and set goals. When I assign a student a new piece, I scan it for things that are new or may be difficult. Today I was teaching a second year student (fourth grader) the music she got from her teacher at school for the spring concert. She wanted to start with something that was not too hard because it had a lot of repetition. However, it had three flats, and she hasn’t played anything with flats yet. There’s a goal. I try to get my adult students to articulate their own goals. I ask, “What aspect of your playing do you most want to improve now?” It gives us both direction.

Besides practice, Marsalis talks about some other “p words.” One is patience. Obviously, you need to be patient with yourself as you try to learn new things and remember or improve things you’ve already learned. My students often tell me that I’m very patient, but I think that they’re the ones who are patient. I hear them try something over and over until they get it right. Two of my students whom I teach together told me that there was a specific song that they wanted to learn to play. I thought it was really too advanced for them and suggested some alternatives. Incidentally, I didn’t particularly like this song. They worked on it and worked on it over a period of several weeks, and now they can play it reasonably well. I’ve started teaching them bowing variations and other ornaments with this piece, since they can play the melody well. They must have consolidated a lot of their skills while learning this song because they are now learning new songs and techniques much more quickly than they used to. So we need to be patient with ourselves and with other people. We also need to be patient with a piece of music which we don’t particularly like but can’t avoid playing. I really like almost all the pieces my orchestra conductor chooses for us, but, once in a while, he gives us one that I can’t stand. I have to be patient with these pieces and remind myself that I’m learning new things with the music. This also demonstrates the importance of good relationships between the conductor and the players.

Another of Marsalis’s “p words” is persistence, which is very closely related to patience in my mind. He talks about other aspects of persistence. No matter how much you learn, there is always more to learn. I remind my students from time to time that when I show them new aspects of a piece of music that they’ve learned, this does not mean that they’re not playing well. On the contrary, they’re playing so well that I’m teaching them more challenging things. Marsalis also says that we need to persist because playing music means a life replete with self-doubt and difficulties that never go away – they just change. If that is true for Marsalis, a very successful musician, it is true a thousand times over for me. Just keep going.

I have some problems with contemporary music which Marsalis shares. He says that most music today is neither melodic nor romantic. We need to hear some music with these qualities, even if we have to search for it. The Internet gives us opportunities to hear things we are not accustomed to hearing, but we may have to do a purposeful search for them. In other places and times, melodic and romantic music thrived, and they can thrive again. We just have to make it happen.

Another p word is Pauline. Pauline will write more later.

[To be continued]

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