Learning How To Fish (#5)

Greg ChakoI love eating fish! I love cooking fish! But I do not necessarily like fishing for fish. I imagine an analogy here to learning jazz music. 

I can’t tell you how often I encounter a student enthusiastically asking me for TABS or transcriptions of my playing. I don’t teach Tablature (that’s the subject of another article!), and my students cannot afford to pay me enough money for me to focus on transcribing and then notating my own playing. Furthermore, I tell them that instead of simply giving them a cooked fish to eat for one meal, I teach my students HOW to fish, so that metaphorically speaking, they can eat for lifetime. 

Very early in my learning-to-play stage, I was given a book of transcriptions for Joe Pass’s entire Virtuoso album. I love me some Joe Pass, but I ended up giving the book away to a fellow player who was far more enamored of books than I was. He thought I was crazy not to learn all of Joe’s playing and I thought he was crazy to think that the book of transcriptions was going to help him become the player he wanted to be. 

Years later, I met Joe Pass in NYC and we chatted for a few moments. He told me that he didn’t really practice, but instead played . . . His playing was his practice. If you’ve read my earlier articles, like “You Are What You Eat,” you’ll know how much I agree with the way Joe looked at things. 

Well, back to eating fish . . . somebody giving me that book of Pass transcriptions was like giving me a huge fish to eat . . . but I knew instinctively at the time (which is why I gave the book away) that learning them note-for-note would not teach me anything about how Joe learned to play like that, or about what was going on in his brain while he was playing like that, and if I didn’t know his learning process and what went through his mind, then the notes, in-and-of-themselves, were basically worthless to me. Having said that, for the record let me say that I do believe transcriptions are good to analyze, and of course, transcribing is great ear-training. But copying someone else’s playing note-for-note is not the best use of your time and energies, IMO. 

When I teach my students, I make every effort to teach them how I got to where I am as a player, what my processes were, and how I view and compartmentalize the various musical languages that I ‘speak.’ In other words, I do not tell them what to play, but rather how to play. I am also constantly seeking to simplify methods and to maximize effectiveness. 

I have no problem showing a student exactly how I play some songs, and of course, one must have an adequate set of musical ‘tools’ (chord forms, scales, fingerings, etc.) in order to play competently. I must inform the student what those vital tools are, but as quickly as possible, those tools should be utilized to help the student create music on their own. 

Simply learning to play exactly what I play is not, in and of itself, adequate to teach someone how to develop their own style. I believe that a vital and valid tip for those seeking a teacher of jazz guitar, is to find those teachers who are willing and able to give you, the student, thorough insight as to how they (the teacher) learned to play: what were their processes? How can you develop your own style the way they developed theirs? 

Avoid those teachers who don’t really teach you how to fish, but simply demonstrate what they do without providing you the proper contextual information to do it for yourself. Find teachers who teach you how to play . . . not what to play!

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