Why Jazz Education Doesn’t Fit the Mold

One thing we’re all accustomed to in this day and age is results with a limited amount of work. From daily tasks to larger life goals, this mentality has been ingrained into our collective mindset. Put in a set amount of effort and time and you’ll reach your goal, getting the exact results you’ve envisioned. This attitude especially holds true for our educational system.

You spend four years in high school and with a minimal amount of work, you get a diploma. You are now a high school graduate. Next step, college. Pick a major, complete each course, pass your finals, and now you’re ready for the job market. This is the typical model for most jobs, every step of the way there are minimum requirements and goals to meet. Once you’ve jumped through these hoops, you’ve accomplished your goal.

However, as jazz musicians, we don’t exactly fit into this system.

Jazz education

This model is not conducive for creating innovative jazz musicians, yet this is how the jazz education system is set up. While nearly every other discipline has adopted a collegiate degree system to acquire the knowledge and skills needed for a profession in a field, this does not have the same success for jazz musicians.

The reality of the matter is that the skills needed to develop as a mature improviser can’t be acquired in a single course or even over the years it takes to complete a music program – you need to spend your entire life striving to improve. Four years of study cannot produce a complete musician, but this is not how many people see it.

Here’s the way many music programs envision it: with an ear training course you’ve perfected your ears, with four semesters of an improvisation course you’ve mastered all the skills you need to craft a great solo, with a jazz history course you’ve learned everything you need to know about the origins and development of the music.

This is not to say that music schools have no benefit. College music programs are a great place to connect with a mentor, meet and collaborate with other musicians, and start on the path of serious musical study. However, your learning should not begin and end inside the walls of that music school. The true learning begins as you push yourself to master this music.

How the masters learned

Throughout the history of this music, take a look at how the masters learned to play. They did not have specialized music programs or guide books to show them the way. They simply immersed themselves in the records, applied their own creativity, and dedicated their lives to the music. By spending hours studying all aspects of music for the span of their careers, these musicians created something truly innovative.

The process is the same, even today. The best musicians that attended music schools are players that studied in college and intensified their learning as they left school, continuing to acquire technique and language as they grew older. Rather than feeling satisfied with proficiency or sated with success, these contemporary masters strive to improve each day.

If you want to sound like your heroes, it’s only logical that you follow their example. Looking for secrets or shortcuts to get out of spending hours in the practice room is only going to leave you short-changed. What you put into this music is directly proportionate to what you will get out of it. The masters of this music were and continue to be some of the most dedicated people on this planet.

Know what to expect from the start

It’s easy to make misguided assumptions about playing jazz. Whether it’s relying on theoretical knowledge to master the jazz language or thinking that you can spend a limited amount of time and effort to become a great improviser, acquiring a realistic vision of what it takes to achieve the skills you want is a difficult but necessary step in improving. Instead of adopting the mindset that you can master bebop with just a few key licks or that with a few years of concentrated study you won’t have to work hard any more, accept the fact that becoming a proficient improviser is a life long pursuit.

Learn to appreciate the joys that come with learning something new and improving a little each day. Take pride in the fact that improvising well is not something that is easily accomplished and is only fruitful for the most dedicated.

So You Want to Keep Improving?

If your goal as a jazz musician is to get better fast and have fun doing it, then make sure to join over 100K Jazzadvice Subscribers by signing up to our FREE newsletter. Each week, we'll send you powerful resources to keep you moving forward in your jazz journey.