Advice For Jazz Students #5: E is for Eco System

There’s no one else here. This is only seen by me until it’s seen by you, by which time I’ve finished it. So the first person to hear this advice is me, and it’s as much for me as it is for you, whoever you are.

The jazz world, with its soft borders for some, it’s strict rules of engagement for others, could be seen as a single eco-system. In doing things their way, people make space for each other, whether they like it or not. We feed off each other, support each other even in our differences.

Those of you who know me might be surprised to hear me say that. As I said, it’s for me as much as you.

Musicians can be obsessive, they need to be, and often equally so regarding criticism of other people’s ways of working. Familiar scenarios might include, but not be limited, to the following:

He Sold Out (Has An Audience).

She Doesn’t Know Her Way Around Chord Changes (doesn’t play standards).

They Went “Avant Garde” And Abandoned Their Values (They Abandoned My Values).

It’s All Image And No Music (The Band Are Younger Than Me).

These sentiments are always sincere, often justified, mostly bluster and catharsis, and can often run riot when work is scarce and adulation scarcer. They are not to be sniffed at. Let them in.

In the end though, a musician who plays in a way you don’t approve of is making a space for you. He or she is cementing your own ideas about what you want to sound like. What do you hear in that space instead of them?

Musicians I don’t like much inspire me, they are part of a process of elimination in finding my own way through the endless maze of music. I try and thank my lucky stars they exist.

I often fail.

(Writing this down helps).

I also love to hear musicians who can do things I can’t do, because then I can enjoy listening to them. From my distance of indifference to measuring myself against them.

(Again, writing helps).

Relish the differences in taste, because they come from your history, the million micro-experiences of hearing certain things in music and feeling a light go on.

Bluffers and charlatans are ultimately left to face their own demons, regardless of their successes. The work will be it’s own reward. It’s just like writing blogs. A face in the mirror looks back and tells you to work harder. Or relax. Relax harder.

Ok that may not be correct. I left out the people who a) don’t care about getting better and b) can’t hear how bad they sound.

Don’t be like them. Work hard. Get better and enjoy getting better. That’s my only real advice, and this blog series will probably turn out to be an alphabetically restrictive circling of that thought. I see myself basically as an apple-thumbed hawk above the hapless hamster of musical process.

So, don’t be like them.

Don’t.

Be.

Like.

Them.

Writing this down helps.

An eye for a bargain.

“Therefore all things whatsoever ye would that men should do to you, do ye even so to them: for this is the law and the prophets.”  Matthew 7:12, The Bible (King James Version).

Heady words indeed.  Put yourself in their shoes.  And so, with this in mind I have embarked upon an online course in photography.  Part of my daily life has involved the infliction of teaching, the battering of knowledge into poor, defenceless students.  I thought it was about time I had done unto me whatever I was doing unto them.  Obviously as a teacher I can’t afford the three million pounds a week that learning costs these days, so I went for an online offer that knocked 90 percent off.  A whole series of videos for twenty quid.

I have tried this before with golf.  I made the mistake of thinking that a good teacher can turn you into something you weren’t before.  I was not a golfer and, after several weeks and at great cost, I remained lacking in that area.  He was not a great teacher, being a golf professional who had never quite made Ryder Cup status and found himself in a field near Chingford talking about the specific trajectory of the wrists in a golf swing to someone who had no idea where his arms were unless he was looking at them.  I had enough physical coordination to walk and to use opposable thumbs to an intermediate level.  I had no ability and I wanted to know if I could gain some.  I realise now that it was not his to give.

So, back to photography.  I bought a camera some years ago, and have dabbled a bit, picking up bits of information here and there, making lots of mistakes and coming up with the odd good photograph.  I suppose I’m at that stage where every time you learn something, you increase your knowledge by fifty percent; somewhere near the bottom, comfortable, occasionally excited, salivating at equipment I can’t afford that I still believe will take a good photograph for me.  I know enough to have an idea that a photograph is good, and not enough to know that it could be better.  It’s just a bit of fun.

So, full of all of this, I eagerly log on to my first lesson.  A voice says hello, and welcomes me to this course in photography basics.  Straight away, he sounds like he doesn’t want to be there.  He isn’t there, it’s a recording.  But he sounds like he doesn’t even want to be that.  He sounds hungover, irritated at the thought he has to go over the relationship of aperture to shutter speed again.  It’s as if he has to be there every time someone plays this video, he has to struggle out of bed after a night out with his photography friends who already know about the effect of light on a landscape, about the Rule Of Thirds, about a raised hand too close to the lens that distracts and clutters.

This is not irritating at all, just vaguely amusing.  And after a few episodes, I am getting to like this guy; it seems that the longer we spend time together, the more he is warming to me. He understands that I am keen to learn, and that hearing the basic tenets of his craft explained again and again in slightly different ways is hypnotising me into understanding them.  Sometimes he gets into arguments with himself, and starts to bring what seem like like aspects of his life experience into the monologues;

“…it’s all about direction, it’s up and down and left and right and forwards and backwards.  You can’t just look forwards.  Believe you me, I know people in life who only look forwards, never to the right or the left, and especially never behind them.  And it’s unbelievable.”

This is totally irrelevant, and almost completely non sensical, but the message is getting through.  As I type this, I am distracted by the bookmark that says “photo course” in my browser, I can’t wait for the next instalment.  There is a lot of stuff I already know.  But to know it again is to know it better, as if repetition has its place in learning as well as in practice.  And occasionally he will tell me something that changes everything and declutters my brain, something is demystified.  But it’s importance often goes seemingly unnoticed, maybe it’s one sentence in the middle of a rant about light (only a photographer could have a rant about light) or a casual aside about diagonal lines receding into focal points.  But what is happening is that I am starting to trust this guy, or the voice of this guy, whose name I can’t remember.  I can see beyond the gravelly croak of his despondent delivery into the world of his visual imagination.  The surface of a person is such a resilient and persuasive advertisement, it’s catchy and attention grabbing, but the real stuff is underneath.  The real stuff is the number of times he has picked up a camera and done something with it that works, minus the number of times I have done that.  The shortfall is the reason I am persevering with it.  That and the twenty quid.

I think it’s useful to be taught something if one is teaching others.  I think I was looking for some kind of salutary lesson about how difficult it is to learn, how people who teach don’t understand their students and the obstacles that the gaining of knowledge and experience present.  Instead, I realised that as a student, it’s often your engagement with a subject that makes the teaching effective.  You have some ability already, and the teacher brings it out, directs it, sometimes enhances it.  I suppose i knew this already, but to experience it directly is a good lesson.   It’s easy to throw tennis balls at people and blame yourself for the fact that no one catches them.  But they have to jump.  And they might realise that the jumping is the fun bit.  Obviously, there are some people that just aim for the head and throw as hard as possible, in which case the lesson is to duck.

I think I’ve got enough mileage out of that analogy for now, maybe it’s time for a creative writing course.  When I find one I’ll skip to the chapter on endings.

Merry Christmas.