A letter to a student at a Jazz Conservatory

Here is part of a letter that I sent one of my students who recently moved out east to study at a major Jazz school in the New York area. I thought that it was worth reprinting because it contains a lot of advice that I wish that someone had given me when I was a student at Berklee.

"I'm glad you're enjoying school. It sounds pretty exciting. In fact I just had a dream last night that I was back at Berklee. In the dream I told myself- "this time I'm not going to get distracted with a girlfriend". What a huge distraction that was. :-)

Mr.X (major tenor player) sounds like a teacher that you need to be more pro-active with. There are a lot of great players out there that aren't as organized as teachers. You can still get a lot out of lessons with them if you as a student take more initiative. This means being more prepared for your lessons and not being so passive. Transcribe your teacher's solos and then ask them what they were doing, or you can ask them how they approach specific tunes or types of changes. If I were studying with X I would try to find out the what his approach to reharms is. He has some very cool harmonic devices that he uses.

In general you just need need to be more self directed and self motivated when you get to college. There just usually isn't anyone there to ride you and to make sure that you're being productive. You need to take more initiative and research things on your own with the help of what I'm sure is a great music library. I regret not copying as many arrangement as I possibly could when I was in school. Start copying or scanning whatever interesting stuff you can get your hands on- tunes, charts, transcriptions, harmony books. You'll be so glad you did after you get out of school.

It's all the things that you took the initiative to learn and weren't assigned that you'll really appreciate after you graduate. Don't make the mistake of just accepting the curriculum the school gives you as being your only option. You could go into the city and take classes with Barry Harris (only something like $15 a class at School of the Streets), or you could save up and go take a private lesson with about anyone that you may like, or you could find out when good master classes are happening at the New School, MSM or NYU, or you could go watch an open rehearsal of the Vanguard band. But whatever you do- MAKE SURE YOU GO SEE THE FRINGE WHENEVER POSSIBLE!!!! There's no better Jazz group than the Fringe and you'll regret not seeing them as much as you could once you leave NY.

Jazz isn't about grades, so don't let that mentality keep you from doing whatever is possible to get better as a player. You're not there to get good grades or even graduate ( which are of course nice things to do, but not the reason you're going to school). You are there to become BURNING. All night practice sessions should be the way you spend most nights. Try to listen to everything on that hard drive. Fall asleep with headphones and listen to X all night long every night!!

You are there to try to prepare for a music career and it's a brutal world out there right now and it's only getting worse. You simply cannot just sit back and accept that the school is going to teach you everything you'll need to have a successful career. You need to work harder than all of your peers and when they're partying you should be shedding. What you're doing there (going to college for Jazz) is a fairly insane proposition to begin with and the percentage of students there that will actually end up as full-time professional musicians is abysmally low. You seriously do not want to get out of school and have to take a shit job because you don't have a gig and absolutely no marketable skills.

"Would you like fries with that?"

The music business is on the verge of a total collapse. This is something that they probably don't tell you in school. The colleges are churning out more and more young players with Jazz degrees every year and the number of gigs is drastically declining. This formula is not promising to say the least. If you want to make this happen then you're going to have to work harder than 99% of your peers, because only the top 1% achieve any measure of success at this thing. Even if you end up having a good Jazz career you will most likely end up working at something other than performing, so you've got to make yourself marketable in other areas as well.

Working as a musician is rewarding, but you need to understand the reality of the situation that you're going to find yourself when you get out of school. Don't fall into the trap of assuming that everything will just work itself out once you get out of school. You have four (or more) years to start working on your career before you'll have to support yourself. Don't wait until you get out before you start working on your website, putting your book together, making connections, thinking about making a CD, writing original music, and presenting yourself as a professional. Hit the ground running or you stand a good chance of falling flat on your face and into a job in the wonderful field of food service.

I hope this letter has motivated you and not discouraged you. You just need to make yourself better than everybody else and you will be fine. This is completely possible, but it will take discipline, motivation, focus, and a little luck.

Good luck! DCV"


Luís said...

Harsh, but true, and most of all, inspiring.

Greg Sinibaldi said...

Sound advice David. I would add that being in NY allows you to go check out a lot of different music, poetry, dance and art.

I think very few have the temperament to practice all day and all night. When everyone else is partying go see a play, attend a gallery opening, go to a spoken word show.

My biggest complaint about "big jazz schools" is that they dont teach kids to be artists. Being an artist means finding who you are through art. Dont get me wrong. Its important to practice, a lot. But stretching and experiencing other art forms brings fresh eyes to your own work. And theres no better place to see whats out there than NY (except maybe berlin!)

I dig your blog man...


mambokings said...

Thanks for posting this,

Patricia Walker said...

Great advice! If only...... If only we all could have had the wisdom of a forty year old at eighteen..... That is rare. What, me worry? At eighteen, life stretches out with endless possibilities. At forty, we see more clearly. Then is when we wish we had studied more and paid less attention to the opposite sex. But I wonder, on our death beds if we will again change our minds and appreciate our love affairs and all the fun we had when we were young.

Anonymous said...

Great advice David. Any student that lives in NYC and doesn't spend every Tuesday night in the presence of Barry Harris is making a huge mistake.

Alexa Weber Morales said...

Really great, David, and noble, I think. I wish someone had told me something like this years ago. But I didn't go to music school -- in fact, the reason I left college is that I went to just about the worst place you could go to learn about music, institutionally speaking, and I couldn't stomach sitting in a jazz appreciation class without actually playing any jazz once you were inspired by those great sounds. (However, I saved all those amazing recordings and still listen to them!)

I second what Greg said in the comments, however. I would love to see a second draft of this that has just one paragraph about becoming an artist and finding your unique sound. Or perhaps as a teacher you're sick of kids who forego discipline for a misplaced confidence in their youthful genius?


Adam said...

The advice I most remember was: "if you want to keep doing this then don't get married and/or have kids." =;-D

Anonymous said...

Some good advice indeed, but I am opposed to making excuses for big name teachers like X. Yes, there are a pile of amazing performers who are terrible teachers, but that is never the fault of the student. Though we don't get the full background from this letter, I'm left with the impression that the recipient of this letter is unhappy with the organizational skills of the teacher. Why make excuses for that?

Self-motivation is critical, and often unteachable. But tuition being what it is, and
it is unacceptable for big name teachers to be so lax and unorganized. I think it happens all over the world all of the time and it sickens me.

Josh Rager said...

I totally agree with your advice on juicing the "city" for its inspiration. However I disagree with your prediction that the music business is on the verge of collapse based on a gluttony of young jazz school graduates. Personally I have only observed that institutionalized jazz education has served more to train teachers and audience members than jazz musicians. Degrees are a pretty poor indicator of career success in this field. Jazz education and being a jazz musician will always be separate (but perhaps slightly overlapping) fields.

chicken little said...

Being an artist is not what practicing is about. Practicing is about proficiency on one's instrument. Artistry comes from a deep exploration of the internal and external components of life and expression of the individuals experience through a medium, in this case and musical instrument. Confusing or conflating the two is frequently done. They aren't the same thing, however. They are overlapping and complementary of and to each other.
Most people who play instruments who think that they are artists are not.
Furthermore, it is unarguable that their are fewer gigs around the world and more qualified performers than there were even twenty years ago. These are not areas of opinion these are facts. Fewer clubs + more players = fewer playing opportunities for all. Individual experiences aside this is a macroeconomic problem. There are more music programs teaching modern, popular, and jazz music than there were twenty years ago, ten years ago and five years ago. Though this may be slowing up these programs aren't going away and the students in these programs aren't well qualified for more than playing music. This is only a problem for the student (and their parents, if they choose to pay for this kind of schooling). For what its worth I say more power to them.