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Education

Dream Big - How Good Do You Want To Be?

Why ambition is important for musicians Mark Levine introduces the brilliant Jazz Theory Book with a very simple idea: that ‘ambition’ is the most important quality for becoming a good jazz musician. Not in the sense of wanting to become a star, he adds, but in ‘having the will, desire and stamina to practice’.

A student who is hungry to improve can make remarkable progress. One of the Jazzwise Summer School tutors had a motivating story about this. He described how once a returning student surprised all the tutors by jumping from the beginner group to the most advanced combo.

Of course everyone wanted to know how she did it. She explained, that she left the course with so many things to practise that she knew it would be impossible to digest everything straight away. So she decided to return the following year, and in the meantime selected 12 relevant topics and covered one topic per month.

Her desire to return as a better musician combined with the ability to focus on a few relevant practice areas meant that in just one year she went from the beginner group to improvising alongside musicians that had been studying and performing for years.

How a four year old stole the show My sister told another great story recently about how Arthur, a 4 year old beginner, made a surprise hit at his first concert at primary school. Many of the performers at the concert were reception class beginners performing simple pieces, such as locating and hitting middle C four times (‘The Bells’). A few performed more complex songs, having benefitted from a year of lessons. They invariably played with fierce concentration, furrowed brows, and tongues protruding from the corner of their mouths.

Towards the end of the show a boy stepped up to the piano and performed a different piece with unusual ease and confidence. He stepped down from the stage to a big round of applause. The head teacher congratulated Arthur saying, “Well done Arthur – I didn’t know you could play the piano”. Arthur’s mum revealed after the concert, “No one was more surprised than me. There’s no piano at home and Arthur hasn’t had a single lesson!”

It seems that Arthur saw all the other children step up to the piano and decided unprompted that he wanted to have a go too. For him that decision, without any instruction, produced one of the most positive audience responses of the concert.

Decide what you want and the rest will follow This recalls a phrase popular with motivational speakers and life coaches: ‘Decide what you want and the rest will follow’. Deciding for yourself what you want from your music can be the most powerful source of motivation in your practice and playing.

Dream Big Start by allowing yourself to dream big. Sometimes we look to teachers or parents to tell us what to do, or to grade our ability. Other times we keep a lid on what we’d secretly love to achieve. Instead of actively chasing our own dreams, we compare ourselves negatively to others, and repeat self-limiting beliefs or say “yes, but it’s never going to happen”. We imagine that we are not good enough compared to those with more talent, instruction or experience so therefore we don’t have permission to enjoy making our own music. Tommy Tedesco, one of Hollywood’s busiest session guitarists throughout the 1960s, 1970s and 1980s once described his secret for success as: “Think big, talk small and thank God”.

This chimes with Stephen Covey’s second habit from The 7 Habits of Highly Effective People:

Habit 2 is based on imagination - the ability to envision in your mind what you cannot at present see with your eyes. It is based on the principle that all things are created twice. There is a mental (first) creation, and a physical (second) creation. The physical creation follows the mental, just as a building follows a blueprint. If you don’t make a conscious effort to visualize who you are and what you want in life, then you empower other people and circumstances to shape you and your life by default.

Why children and amateurs are important Whether today is your first or your 20,000th day as a musician it is equally important that you learn to enjoy making your own music for its own sake. Don’t wait for instructions. In this vein, British composer Vaughan Williams argued passionately about encouraging “humble music makers”, with children and amateurs being the most important. After all, tomorrow’s audiences, music lovers and virtuosi can only grow from today’s children and amateurs.

References and Further Reading The Jazz Theory Book by Mark Levine (Sher Music Co. 1995) Vaughan Williams on Music by Ralph Vaughan Williams (Oxford University Press, 2008) Coda – Beneath the Pinnacle in the Musical Pyramid by Mark Small http://www.berklee.edu/bt/143/coda.html The 7 Habits of Highly Effective People by Stephen Covey (Simon & Schuster 2004)
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