This week marked the halfway point of the semester at the Global Music Institute. The students wrote their midterm exams and played in the midterm recital. I was floored by their performances. It has been such a pleasure to watch these young musicians come out of their shell and evolve as artists.
I have taken the chance to evaluate myself as a teacher at this juncture. As I mark the exams and critique the performances of my students I am also assessing myself as an educator. As expected, there have been some concepts that I have succeeded in instilling and others that I did not present so clearly. For instance, I was overjoyed to hear my students playing solos with clarity and intention. However, on some of the theory tests I have found some inconsistency in their understanding of musical analysis. I have already started to think of new methods to deepen my pupils’ comprehension of this area of study.
Many of the exercises I have utilized to get my students to play more simply and logically have involved restriction. For example, I will ask a guitarist to play a solo on a given song in which he can only use a set of six notes, even if the song has many different chords. Another task could be to compose an improvisation only using the notes of the chord that is currently sounding. In other words, if the first chord of a piece is C major, when that chord is played, the student can only use the notes C, E and G. When the song reaches the next chord, say a G major chord they will only be allowed to use the notes G, B and D. This forces them to create something coherent and melodic with limited resources. The idea is that once the restrictions are lifted, the freedom will allow the student to explore more experimental techniques while still being grounded in reason and rationality. These constraints are inspired by the styles of improvising of my favourite early jazz players like Louis Armstrong and Lester Young. Many of Armstrong and Young's solos use elements of the exercises I have mentioned.
Music students often fail to see the value in the limitations that their teachers impose. In jazz specifically, students often believe that these restrictions stunt their creativity and are only meant for those who wish to play “traditionally”. Jazz education is rooted in the Bebop era (1940s) in which the musical language invented by Charlie Parker and Dizzy Gillespie was most prominent. If one were to analyze the solos of the musicians in this time period they would be hard pressed to find a single note that could not be explained theoretically. That was the beauty of Parker and Gillespie’s dialect. It was impeccably logical but at the same time innovative, passionate and powerful. Professors who exclusively teach this style of improvisation are often labeled as “jazz snobs.” This title implies a lack of adventurousness and an aversion toward the evolution of the genre. It also suggests that these teachers only play in the Bebop style because they are not proficient in any other method.
The aforementioned pupils are often fans of modern jazz musicians who push the boundaries of jazz and break the “rules” that instrumentalists like Charlie Parker and Dizzy Gillespie indirectly constructed. Artists like Vijay Iyer, Ben Monder and Brad Mehldau have been essential in the evolution of jazz music. They have created ground-breaking art by constantly pushing the boundaries. I admire and am grateful that these musicians have done so. They are essential in keeping this music alive and allowing it to progress. However, some students fail to realize that the reason these artists are able to make such innovative music is because they learned the rules before they broke them. If you listen to early recordings of Mehldau, he shows that he is influenced by Bebop legend Bud Powell. Students of jazz must realize that in order to be inventive in anything, whether it is music, visual art or science one must be knowledgeable of the history in their respective area of expertise.
I am supportive of the exploration of new possibilities in jazz music. However, being rooted in the tradition of the style is essential. Without studying the artists who established the foundations of improvisation, we will not have the tools to find our own voice.