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Sunday, September 6, 2009

Branford Marsalis on students - 2

The previous post I made relating to Branford Marsalis' comments on students was picked up on by Darcy James Argue, and has created a bit of a furore over on his site.

For myself, I found Branford's comments both provocative, (deliberately so I'd imagine), and, typical of the man, in the sense of his proclivity for taking a scattergun approach on issues on which he feels strongly. But I also found that his comments contained some elements that are worth thinking about at least.

His tirade about people being given grades which they don't deserve is probably a little more apposite for Americans to discuss rather than I. Since the cost of education in the United States is so expensive in comparison to Europe, it's bound to have an effect on pressuring students to get higher grades (in order to get value for money), and on pressuring the schools to keep the students since they need their fees for survival. In Europe since most schools are state funded (though not the one I teach in), the pressure on grades is different -- schools never feel obliged to give high grades unless they're merited. Also I think there is less pressure on the students (whether this is a good thing or a bad thing is a topic for another debate) to achieve high grades than in the United States.

So that part of his argument is not one on which I feel qualified to comment. However I was quite taken by this quote: " the idea of what you are is more important than you actually being that". Here I believe he touches on something that's a bit more universal in terms of dealing with students and young people in general -- at least in my experience.

Several years ago I wrote an essay called" Control Freaks?", which questioned the outlook of a lot of students towards improvised music, and how I felt that there was very little risk-taking among many young musicians and students. In the years that have passed since I wrote that essay I feel that things haven't really changed, in fact the tendency towards a kind of "safety first" in the playing of many young musicians has got worse instead of better.

I think much of this playing safe outlook has a lot to do with the experience of young people, or lack of it, in making decisions for themselves and then taking responsibility for their decisions. Here in Ireland we experienced a huge economic boom over the past 15 years (though it's over now!). In that time the country changed enormously and a huge amount of disposable income was floating around the economy and was used for all kinds of things. Naturally enough, one of the main things that it was used for by parents was the provision of all kinds of extracurricular activities for their kids.

So you have a situation where kids were being ferried around from football to drama, from horse riding to music lessons, from canoeing to dancing etc -- their lives being micromanaged by their parents as they frantically filled in every leisure hour for the kids to make sure that they (the kids) had the opportunities that they (the parents) never had. In addition to this, you had the advent of the mobile phone so that parents could make sure that they knew where their kids were every minute of every day. In such an environment kids grow up never having to make a decision for themselves, or never being allowed to make a decision for themselves. They reach the end of high school having had their lives micromanaged since they were born.

In addition to this, most of the middle class kids who study music (and they are mostly middle-class kids who study music here in Ireland), were also raised in an environment where money was not particularly an issue -- your parents would only be too happy to make sure that you had the latest status symbol (iPod, Xbox etc), and take you on two to three foreign holidays a year. So you end up with a generation that has had every decision made for them, and pretty much everything they want given to them. This mixture is a recipe for disaster as far as responsible decision-making is concerned.

The ability to make a decision, to take responsibility for that decision, and to see it through, is a pre-requisite for a jazz improvisation. At the school I teach in we've noticed more and more that students want to be told what to do down to the smallest detail, are afraid to take a chance, and are often looking for a "magic bullet" that will allow them to get to where they want to be as players. The fact that there is no magic bullet and that the only way to get to where they want to be as improvisers is to work their asses off, practice like crazy, immerse themselves in the world of improvised music as listeners and players and use school as a resource for information rather than an instant provider of success, is something that seems to elude many of them. To return to Branford's quote, "the idea of what you are is more important than you actually being that" -- the students want to be great players, but often can't seem to make the connection that much of the responsibility for being great players is theirs alone, not the responsibility of the teachers.

And I think this desire to be spoon-fed by their teachers, as they were by their parents before them, is reflected in a lot of the music that's produced. I find it extraordinary how little risk-taking there is in the music of many young musicians. There is a sense of safety, of only using what you absolutely know will work on a gig, only playing with players with whom you are completely comfortable and never putting yourself at risk of being wrong. But in improvised music, if you're really improvising, there are going to be times when you make mistakes, when you do the wrong thing, when you take the wrong decision, and this is how you learn and make your music better.

I think the real result of this new "safety first" policy can be seen in the amount of what I would call "in the middle" music that we hear from young musicians. This is particularly true in terms of dynamics, and to an even greater extent, tempos. It's so difficult these days to hear young musicians play music that is really fast, or really slow. Everything is either slow-medium, medium, or fast medium. A whole range of tempos seems to have been abandoned -- possibly because they're so difficult to achieve and are dangerous to attempt! If you listen to Miles' "Complete Concert 1964" you'll hear extremes of tempo -- both fast and slow -- that are almost never attempted in contemporary jazz. And they are particularly avoided, in my experience, by musicians under 50 years of age. The same goes for dynamics -- occasionally you may hear something that's really loud, but you almost never hear anything that is really quiet. And you almost never hear things that move between extremes of dynamic within the one piece. By extremes of dynamic I mean pianissimo that is so pianissimo that the audience almost has to sit on the edge of its seat to catch what the musicians are playing. And a fortissimo that is so loud (at least in relation to what went before), that it is almost shocking and makes the audience almost be afraid of what's going on on the stage!

These are extremes of speed and dynamics that have almost disappeared from much improvised music, especially that performed by younger musicians. Of course there are exceptions, but if you doubt what I'm saying try this experiment -- get 10 CDs recorded by young musicians in the past 10 years. Have a listen, track by track, and see how many tracks feature extremes of any sort -- particularly those of tempo and dynamics. I would be very surprised if you don't find that the vast majority of the pieces are in a range that can only be described as medium.

So Branford may be saying things just for the sake of stirring up controversy, or because he can. And while he may be using a sledgehammer to crack a nut, I think there are issues brought up by what he says that are worthy of consideration by all who are in contact with young musicians. I think we've got to encourage them to take responsibility for their music, because we need risk-taking adults playing this music, and playing music with commitment and self belief. Commitment and self belief are features of the music of every great jazz musician in history - let's encourage these qualities at least as much, if not more, than knowledge of chord/scale relationships!


  1. I think that he didn't use a big enough hammer. These programs are teaching shit and teaching it from a really narrow focus. The lack of dynamics is the direct result of engineers and other so called experts judging what is musical, when they themselves cant play and are not musicians in any meaningful sense of the word. Jazz stopped growing when it became something that you could just simply waste your time doing in a classroom rather than working and taking risks on the stage and in rehearsal.
    Also the man is right, this requires a consensual platform in order for everyone to keep up the sham.

  2. I agree that getting an education in improvised music is not much without gaining experience ie. playing gigs,jamming as much as possible.But I very much disagree with the notion of time being wasted in a classroom.There are too sides to it and with the level contemporary jazz is at in its complexity both harmonically and sometimes rythmically a young creative musician has to be equipped with the knowledge and skills to handle such music and thus ideally be given absolute freedom to be creative! I think we are being given a fantastic oppurtunity these days to be able to study jazz in the classroom and it should be taken advantage of with optimistic hopes for the future of the music.