Dear Wannabe Sax Player ~ Greg Fishman

imageGreg Fishman has some wickedly hard and yet delightful Jazz Etude books out there. He also gives online Jazz Sax lessons, is a stellar musician in his own right, and admits to laughing as he responded to this potential saxophone student. I have copied two of my instructors and will be talking to them about some of this as I recognize myself in some of these tongue in cheek characterizations.

I love teaching, and I always look forward to helping new students. I sent an enthusiastic email, telling him that I feel that I can really help him learn to improve his saxophone playing and his ability to learn the jazz language and to im…provise.

He wrote back, stating that all of my words sounded good, but that he’s heard all these same claims from his other teachers in the past, as well. He asked why his lessons with me would be any different from those of his other teachers who tried and failed with him. I thought this was a fair and interesting question, and it prompted me to write this response below. It is a bit of a rant, but I bet that many readers will identify with a lot of it:

From: Greg Fishman
To: Fred (the sax student Fred, aka Mr. Everyman)

imageDear Fred,

As you’ve shared some skepticism with me about hearing all of these claims before, I can tell you, from my perspective, I’ve encountered many adult students in your situation over the past 25 years of teaching. Many times, adult students have been to dozens of teachers and music camps, and they own every book on the market. Yet, still they can’t play. I’m generalizing here, (just as you’ve generalized about all of your past teachers) but I’ve found that adult students often have many things in common:

1. They think there’s a single “answer,” as in “You just do THIS and then you can play great.” There is no single answer…. “I’ve always wanted to learn to speak Portuguese. Just tell me how, and I’ll start speaking fluent Portuguese right now.“

2. Misguided concepts. They cling to all of their well meaning, but horribly misguided concepts about playing from their past attempts at learning jazz. They refuse to let go of the way they’ve done things in the past, assuming that because they’ve played the same lick the same way for the past ten years, it must be right. They take this conceptual baggage to every new teacher they visit, failing each time and blaming the new teacher.

image3. Lack of trust. Many adults simply have been burned too many times in the past to trust what I’m telling them is true and will help them. They’re constantly disrupting the flow of the lessons, asking for me to justify my advice to them.

4. Ego. Their pride gets in the way of them really getting down to business with something challenging, and they can’t stand to hear themselves struggling with something new, so they keep practicing what they can already play, instead of learning something new and moving forward.

5. Patience. Adults are the most impatient people I’ve ever met. They want answers and results immediately, often sabotaging themselves with their impatience for the learning process. For example, I could read a book on how to play golf in an hour, go out to the course and be no better than I was before reading the book. It takes time and experience and patience! There’s definitely a lot of trial and error involved.

6. Fear. They’re afraid. Afraid of failing, of sounding bad, of being embarrassed, of playing wrong notes, etc. When you learn to ride a bicycle, you fall a few times at first, until you learn how to balance yourself. You don’t fall once and then walk away, defeated, never to ride again. You get back on the bicycle and keep trying until you can feel what it’s like to have balance and not fall down. If you’re only willing to ride a bicycle with a 100% guarantee you won’t fall down a few times, you’ll never learn to ride a bicycle.

7. Misplaced self-confidence. These folks are the complete opposite of those mentioned above. These students play so horribly on the changes that they’re routinely being thrown over the “harmonic handlebars” (of their imaginary bicycles), yet, they think they sounded like they just won the Tour-de-France.
These students are often playing E naturals as whole notes on C minor chords, and they think it’s just fine! I’m often amazed at the utterly unflappable confidence of some adult students. If I call them “out “ on missing the changes, they’ll argue with me like I’m an umpire who just made a bad call at home plate.

8. Enough theory knowledge to be dangerous. Knowing all the theory in the world won’t do you any good if you don’t hear the sounds in your head. Thinking intellectually about fingerings and key signatures and scales won’t help you produce a great solo any more than thinking vividly about vowels or the number of syllables in each word will help you form a meaningful sentence.

9. Lack of concentration. Many adults can’t focus their attention on the details needed to improve their playing. Often, it is necessary to break down the components to very small details in order to fix some problems, and some people lose concentration.

10. They don’t actually listen to jazz. They read books and articles about how to play it, they buy lots of gear, but they haven’t spent years listening to the greats, absorbing the sounds as styles of the top players. Parker, Miles, Bill Evans, Getz, Stitt, Coltrane, Lester Young, Cannonball, etc. You should be able to sing some of their solos right along with the recordings, or, even better, by memory. This is essential to learning the language. These students seem to like the idea of jazz more than jazz itself.

Fred, if my comments above haven’t scared you off, let’s get started with the lessons!

Greg Fishman

About Gandalfe

Just an itinerant saxophonist trying to find life between the changes. I have retired from the Corps of Engineers and Microsoft. I am an admin on the Woodwind Forum, run the Seattle Solid GOLD Big Band (formerly the Microsoft Jumpin' Jive Orchestra), and enjoy time with family and friends.
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