I believe strongly that we are all fundamentally musical, and that anyone can learn to be a competent musician. All that is necessary is the will, effort and curiosity. There is a fascinating book by Daniel Coyle called The Talent Code, in which he documents how folks become very highly skilled in different areas of life – and it is largely because they have become master students – learning to ask the right questions, practice most efficiently, adjust to new input, embracing feedback, searching out strategies to make the most of practice time etc. Here’s his website – lots of great articles: thetalentcode.com. I am not of the school which dictates what a student must learn, or the teacher that will tell you what you need to know. I believe a student learns by experience, exploration, and guidance (that’s where I come in). I want to be a resource, so students can come to me with questions about playing, and music, and I can help point them to an answer they discover. In this way, it has relevance and intrinsic value to them, as their music study becomes a process of discovery. This keeps me learning too- which is one of many reasons I love to teach. My main goal is to foster a curiosity and nurture a student so they want to learn more about music and playing and relating to others with sound. What style(s) a person wants to learn is up to them – I was once a real jazz snob, but got over it, and now believe very strongly that all styles of music are valid, valuable, and have important musical qualities for us to learn, and great artists to learn from. Indeed, I play in wonderful groups from many musical styles, from straight up classical music to some very strange experimental and improvisational music.
I was really fortunate to have Rudresh Mahanthappa, Doris Award winner, Guggenheim Fellowship winner, Downbeat Critics poll Alto Saxophone Player of the Year 2011, 2012 as my first private student. He is a brilliant, amazing player and really thoughtful about music. I am now really grateful to be able to consider him a close friend. He said some nice things about me in a 2011 interview in Westword Magazine that are pertinent to my teaching philosophy:
I read how you had a teacher early on who opened you up to a whole bunch of different music.
Yeah. It was Mark Harris. I was Mark’s first student, I think, ever. He was a sophomore at CU and I was in fourth grade. He was my teacher until I left for college, actually. Mark is a really amazing teacher.
Are there things that you learned from him that you still kind of take to heart now?
I think it’s more kind of a spiritual thing. You know, he didn’t really dis much music. He’s just a really open guy. The amazing thing with him is that I would go see him play when I could. I was a kid and obviously I couldn’t get into the clubs, or sometimes he would actually get me in. I’d go see him play with a prog rock band and then I’d go see him with an Afro-pop band. Then I’d see him play with a real straight ahead big band, and then I’d see him play duo with a percussionist. I mean, he was kind of all over the map.
It was like music was this really wide-open thing and there are all these things that are possible. You don’t just have to play in a quartet or a big band. You can do all these other things playing saxophone. So that was really amazing to me. Just the whole breadth of experimental stuff to traditional stuff to a lot stuff that had nothing to do with jazz.
Mark is just a really good person. That really kind of comes through in everything that he does. I think that’s something I try to keep in check. It’s funny to be forty in New York. It’s easy to get dark or kind of get fed up and bitter, depending on what’s going on. If you do get into those spaces that comes out through the music. I think in the back of my mind I try to keep that kind of perspective that Mark seems to have.
As a devotee of learner centered teaching, (guide on the side, as opposed to sage on the stage) I try to help kids help themselves by asking a lot of questions, hopefully getting them to think more deeply, listen more deeply, and connect more concepts, and authentically learn through their experience, as opposed to simply telling them what to do all the time. I feel learning music is similar to learning how to skateboard, in that you can listen to someone describe what to do for a long time, but that will never match the information and real learning that takes place as soon as you put your feet on a real skateboard and try to ride! I feel everyone has the innate ability to be a creative musician, what they really need is a safe and comfortable and non-threatening place to do so, and a guide to point some things out along the way, and challenge them, and encourage them, and give them real constructive feedback about what they are doing and what they can do.
I am not in the business of dumping data on students (though I am more than willing to share whatever I can) so much as giving them the tools and helping them create an approach to music that will help them to continue to learn. I want them to be a master student (heck, I want to be a master student!) – someone who is really good at learning, really good at asking the right questions, really good at processing information, really good at creating exercises that will get them most quickly and efficiently and thoroughly to their goals. The best I can hope for is that my students will gain the tools to allow them to continue to learn to the best of their ability (not just music, mind you, but about their world and themselves) for the rest of their lives.
Creating master students.