13. Finding a good teacher

There is a question though for all of us as aspiring musicians: how do we know whether what we’re playing is any good? Are we playing in tune and in time? Are we just trotting out licks? As drummer Art Blakey used to say to his Jazz Messengers: ‘do your solos sound like they’re straight out of method books?’ Hopefully, as we play, and as we listen to other good players, we’re able to develop our ability to listen critically to our own playing, reflect on what we do and improve it accordingly. This is one place where another, keener pair of ears comes in useful, possibly as a teacher or mentor, or even peer learner. A good teacher will be an inspiring jazz musician who appreciates the fundamental differences between the ways in which classical music and jazz are learned and played. And a good musician doesn’t necessarily make a good teacher unless they can understand and empathise with the difficulties which different learners may encounter on their journey, and come up with a variety of workable solutions to their blockages, recognising that everyone learns differently. Education is not instruction, but involves helping different people learn in ways they can understand and apply.  

Finding a teacher you can work with well may take some time, lessons can be expensive and teachers may bring their own perspective or approach which you may or may not share. Moreover the 1:1 relationship involved can be quite intense so you may have to experiment a bit before you meet someone you feel you can work with successfully, who understands your strengths and weaknesses, who can relate to what you hear in music since we all hear differently, who can help you navigate your obstacles, who brings you solutions rather than just a critique, and whose own music is inspiring. Maybe commit yourself to no more than a few lessons at a time until you decide how well you work with a particular teacher and how frequently you should meet.  

Jazz teacher Conrad Cork says of jazz lessons: ‘ they should be dedicated to the development of your personal expressive powers; acquiring the requisite ‘taste’ is your priority. Progress in technical ability on the instrument has to be led by the imaginative probings of the improviser. Students make time to develop the degree of mastery they actually need for the songs they are playing; they can progressively acquire skills on a ‘need to know’ basis. (ie they master their instrument by playing songs. Or as violinist Stephane Grappelli once said: ‘I prefer that nobody teach me. I prefer to swing on my own’. Singular and distinctive Norwegian sax player Jan Garbarek, whose tone is instantly recognisable, was self-taught. You may actually progress better without a personal teacher. 

Next step: Finding a good course