Why Do Your Students Know Everything?
Branford Marsalis is one of the great jazz musicians of our time. He’s a member of the prestigious Marsalis family which has produced half a dozen of the greatest jazz musicians of our time. He’s also obviously unhappy with the attitude of many of his students.
When, during the documentary Before the Music Dies, the interviewer asks him what he’s learned from his students, he replies that he’s learned that they don’t know “sh*t.” He says that all they care about is for you to tell them how much they know and how great they are. Want to hear it for yourself?
I’m not disagreeing with Branford. It’s probably true for a lot of teachers, and it may very well be worse now than it was fifty years ago. I did some meditating on why, and what it means.
Fifty or seventy years ago, if you were a jazz musician, there wasn’t that much history to know. Jazz had only been around about 20 or 30 years and had barely gotten its name.
In those days there were legendary players, of course. But you didn’t read about them. You heard about them, and if you were smart, you went and heard them, and if you were good enough, you got to play with them.
Compare that with today: There are tons of great players, but not a lot of legends. The legends are all in the books, most of them are dead, and the only way you can learn about them is to read about them or listen to recordings.
What do young players learn? That they are supposed to become legends. Jazz has become “classic” and it’s much harder to learn to play it in a genuine way because there aren’t that many role models around, except of course in those recordings with the legends.
So the students come to their teachers and want to be told how close they are to becoming a legend. They determine this by assessing how much they know and how great they are. This is either a problem or an opportunity for a teacher.
When my students demand to be told how great they are, how much they know, what should I do? In my opinion, since that’s what they seem to need, I would tell them how great they are, and how much they know. The trick is, I wouldn’t stop there.
What these students have yet to learn is that it actually doesn’t matter how great they are, or how much they know. What matters is their attitude towards the people they play with, the people they play for, and the people they learn from. But isn’t that what Branford is saying?
Well, Branford wants to cut them down first, so they’ll recognize how incapable they actually are and decide to start listening. I want to give them enough praise so that they realize they don’t need it anymore and can work on more important things. I believe that by accepting my students the way they are, I can most effectively move with them towards something else.
There may come a time, of course, when certain students who aren’t looking further than their own greatness need Branford’s wake-up call. I’m completely happy to give that speech to that student. I just don’t think it’s true for most of them, most of the time.
What do you think? Am I a fool and a softy? Or do you see merit in acknowledging who someone is and what they need before you give them what you want them to have?