Young People Making Good

Once more, with feeling.

Once more, with feeling.

In the last few weeks, I have been seeing news of some of my former students actually making it in the music industry.  What are the odds?

Not great, but they are doing it.  And it gives me great pleasure to ‘toot their horns’ for them.  Not because I feel like I’m responsible for their success.  I was just in the right place at the right time to give them a push, and they took it from there.  Remember that, parents, if and when they ever move back in with you:  I am not to blame.

The most recent example is Rachel Solomon, whose first solo CD of all-original material was just released.  But she is no stranger to the music biz;  she worked for seven years in Mustang Sally, an all-female country rock group.  Before that, Rachel immersed herself in the Berklee School of Music and expanded her studio chops exponentially.  And before that, she studied privately with me for seven years, through middle and high school.

Rachel was one of the rare students who seemed to grasp, from an early age, that the way to musical success was consistent, disciplined practice.  What a concept!  I didn’t have to waste time with her explaining why this was important or cajoling her to stay on task.  She got it.  She did it.

Example:  around the mid-point of her sixth grade year, it became apparent that Rachel was capable of doing more than your average saxophone student.  So I got her into 48 Famous Studies for Oboe or Saxophone (popularly known as the Ferling Etudes), a medium-high technical etude book that we usually reserve for high schoolers or precocious eighth-graders.  All saxophone players will play the Ferlings; it’s just a question of when.  Region tryout music for high school is usually taken from this book.

On our first lesson with the Ferlings, I assigned Rachel the first page, consisting of two etudes: a slow one, and a fast one.  The entire book is laid out in this manner, and since there are 48 Famous Studies, that means in theory that a student completing two etudes per week would be done with the book in 24 weeks.  This had never happened, of course.  The etudes get progressively harder and end in six and seven flats and sharps.

The next week, Rachel brought back the book and played page one flawlessly.  I assigned her page two.

Twenty-three weeks later, she had completed the book.  We were barely into the summer after 6th grade.

At this point, I threw some jazz at her.  The best available transcription book is still the Charlie Parker Omnibook, which contains 60 challenging improvised solos by Charlie “Yardbird” Parker.  So I started giving her one a week.

Flawless.  Every week.  I began splitting the lessons into half jazz and half ‘legit’, giving her minor and then major pieces of saxophone repertoire.  She struggled with some of it, but after a week or so it would be workable and after a month it was rock-solid.  By her senior year in high school, she had played most of the major saxophone repertoire and was now playing the pieces with her saxophone peers–accompanying them on piano.

Gifted?  Certainly.  Magic?  No.  Rachel understood how to practice effectively and consistently, and she did it.  Not rocket science.

To appreciate how rare this is, you might have to teach a while.  But after thirty years, I can tell you the willingness to practice this way is a rare skill.  And I still have to remind young people.

Like anybody else, students tend to fall into a rut, particularly with potentially boring tasks like scale and chord work.  There are dozens–no, hundreds–of approaches to this, and it’s up to the student to pursue them and keep it fresh once you have gotten them started.  But very few will.  Instead, they wait for the teacher to come up with all the new steps and ‘play cop’ to keep them on task.

After thirty years, I’m done ‘playing cop’.  And I say as much.  I recently had to tell someone of promise, “Look, it’s up to you to do this stuff.  I can give you thirty years’ worth of scale practice on a single sheet of paper.  But YOU have to do it, or come up with your own.  There’s lots of potential approaches, but only you can follow them.  Become your own teacher.”

Like I say, most don’t get it.  A handful do.

A couple more who did are Ricky Sweum and Tim Willcox, both sixth-graders when I encountered them an embarrassingly long time ago in Eugene, Oregon, near the very beginning of my teaching career.  Ricky and Tim were lucky to have a jazz-sympathetic band director, Joe Ingram, who put them in combo programs early on, and I had the good fortune of teaching these youngsters when they were first learning how to assemble the horn.  That much, I knew.

Something clicked, and they stuck with it long after I had departed the Pacific Northwest.  They ended up forming a quintet in high school that toured the state.  Today, Ricky plays with the Air Force Band of the Pacific-Asia stationed in Tokyo, Japan where he tours throughout Japan and the Pacific Rim.  And Tim is carving out a notable career as an unapologetic jazz musician  in Portland, Oregon.  It is great fun keeping up with them on Facebook.

It’s easy to get discouraged when you hear the drivel that passes for music these days.  But young people like Rachel, Ricky, and Tim give me hope that it won’t all be forgotten in a generation or two.  And I’m confident that they will maintain their musical integrity as they move forward with their respective careers.

How do I know this?  Because they have each invested too much time to allow for any other outcome.

Go get ’em, guys!


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