A Small Lesson From Mulgrew Miller
From 2009 to 2012 I went to college at William Paterson University. One of the main reasons I chose that school was the faculty. However, Prior to visiting the school, the only Professor I had listened to was Mulgrew Miller. Unfortunately I was never in one of Mulgrew’s ensembles, but I did have a lot of interactions with him subbing for other people in his ensemble, hearing his feedback on dialogue days, and other miscellaneous encounters like the Jazz Room interview series. Mulgrew didn’t let the commute from Easton, PA keep him from coming in to WPU 3 days a week (unless he was out on tour).
I could go on and on about what a great person and musician Mulgrew was, but to keep this post a reasonable length, I want to focus on one particular statement he made. I don’t remember the context of the conversation, but one day someone asked him whether he thought a classical background was important. Mulgrew then made the point that there is no classical tradition on drum set. He also stated that in spite of this, musicians like Art Blakey, (who Mulgrew played with) and other jazz drummers were virtuosos. This made me question the cookie cutter approach to music education I had received the previous seven years…
When I started playing saxophone, there was only one reason I chose that instrument — I wanted to sound like Charlie Parker. I had no interest in playing in the band; I had no interest in being first, second, or any other chair, and I absolutely did not want anything to do with marching band. I wanted to sound like Charlie Parker and that was the end of it. I had been playing piano for years at that point, so I could already read music. I also had my dad’s old copy of the Omni Book. In my ten year old mind, all I needed was someone to show me which fingers to push down and how to form a good embouchure. Instead of getting what I wanted, I had to learn etudes, play a “classical” mouthpiece, and learn to play with thick and fast vibrato. Why?
The traditional, one size fits all approach to music education based exclusively on western classical music could use an update. Some changes should be made to include more ear training and improvisation. Also, if a student has an interest in a particular genre of music, they should be encouraged to pursue that interest. Forcing everyone to learn the same repertoire is part of why so many students detest band and/or orchestra class. I know plenty of jazz musicians lacking classical chops (such as myself), and plenty of classical musicians lacking jazz chops. This is all well and good, but just like improvising over a 12 bar blues isn’t part of an orchestral audition, neither should a classical piece of music be used for a jazz audition.
In context of my own technical development, the biggest issues I had all through my public school education (and ultimately why I quit the high school band and started taking classes at the University) could be summed up by: play softer, use harder reeds, and play a small mouthpiece. Of these three issues I had with music educators, doing what I was told would not have brought me closer to reaching my own musical goals. In my own performances now, I am frequently playing in to a microphone because my saxophone isn’t loud enough. I do play harder reeds than I did back in high school, but this is largely related to me fixing how I breathe — something not addressed in any of the band classes I took. And last of all, my mouthpiece now is much bigger than the Meyer 7 I was banned from using in school. I attribute the improvements in tone and technique entirely to my own private lessons where teachers had me practicing overtones and interval patterns, not classical etudes from a clarinet book all the saxophone players were supposed to learn. In retrospect, the issues I butted heads with my band directors over were non-issues. Unfortunately, I continue to see private students I teach face these same issues of being forced into playing certain repertoire and equipment not suited to them.
I'm optimistic about the future of music education. An after school music program in Baltimore I taught at put more of an emphasis on ear training, improvisation, and creativity than I ever saw in my own schooling. Also, I think technology like the internet, affordable recording devices, and sequencers makes it easier for people to learn about how music is constructed in ways that don't limit their own creativity.
Just to clarify: I love classical music and think everyone can learn a lot from it. I just don’t think it should exclusively be THE curriculum used everywhere, especially from a performance perspective.