The magic within a motivated student

I ran across a spectacular TED talk yesterday by author, speaker and business coach Seth Goden. Seth is the originator of the permission-based marketing concept and for decades has been a leading marketing and personal excellence evangelist. I promise that whatever you do for a living, you will benefit from reading his blog and wide variety of books.

The video is called “Stop Stealing Dreams” and was delivered to a group of what seemed to be elementary school age children. He should be commended for not dumbing down a talk that is just as relevant to adults. The video is Seth’s analysis of the public school system and how to make it effective (and it’s NOT about more money!). It’s about empowering people to be motivated to learn.

It passed the 12-year old attention span test. Last night, I asked my son, who was taking a short break from a video game heater, if he’d like to watch a really cool video. As soon as I opened it up and he saw the 17 minute length, he replied, I don’t want to watch that long of a video. After assuring him we could stop it at any time, 17 minutes of his rapt attention ended with his enthusiastic reply, “that man is a genius!”

Here’s the video. I’ll wait while you watch it…

As I write my series of method books on trombone, I resonate with Seth’s premise that we’ve moved past the need for public schools to teach children to become obedient adults happy to work as cogs in a factory.

When Seth talks about the silliness of memorization, multiple choice tests and mass batched teaching instead of precise focused education, I say amen brother. When I first announced that I was writing a book on jazz improvisation, a member of the Trombone Forum wrote that the last thing we need is another book of “play the following patterns in all twelve keys.” I couldn’t agree more. Isn’t it interesting that that is what comes to mind when thinking about a method for learning to improvise.

I look at my books as large lumps of Play-Doh. I’ve given the reader a bunch of “moulds” in terms of suggestions of what to play within a variety of musical contexts. I’ve transcribed my solos and written hundred of bars of melodies conforming to the backing tracks and exercises, but I’ve suggested much more than that. I’ve recommended that the reader improvise over any rhythm track and that they start exercises on odd bars or beats in order to create fresh challenges from the musical lines. I’ve admonished readers NOT to use the modeling provided in the book as a long-term conformity to those notes or that style, but instead use the modeling as a means of learning the horn and building the connection within the ear. The notes won’t help you be a better improvisor but building the link between your “inner” ear and your trombone will.

One of my favorite concepts for improvisation is the myth of the wrong note. There are only unintended notes, and in the words of the late great Joe Pass, “If you hit a wrong note, then make it right by what you play afterwards.” But similar to Seth’s case against memorization and rote learning, I would contend that too much music teaching centers around exclusively playing only what is on the page. Not only what is on the page, but playing it exactly as those notes have been played a thousand times by the trombonists before you. And in the process, we’ve learned the shame of playing “wrong” notes.

Yes, if you wish to win the audition for ABC Symphony Orchestra, you’ll need to play Beethoven’s fifth exactly as they wish it to sound. And if that is the start and end of your musical aspirations, I honor that and wish you well. But for those who yearn to develop their unique musical voice as soloist, limiting yourself to the notes on the page as they’ve been played before will suffocate the art inside you.

Here’s a short excerpt from a new piece I am producing, coincidentally called “Through the Eyes of a Child.” Listen to it first, then hum or whistle some notes to orient your ear, then play your horn and make some musical lines. Resist patterns, scales and your standard licks (if you’ve developed any). What fresh original musical statement can you make with with this small lump of Play-Doh?

Seth makes a great point in the video that our learned reflex to ask, “will this be on the test” is proof that we’ve ingrained into students that learning is work. He makes the distinction between work and art – art being something we want to do. Something we feel driven to do. He says that we’ll always want to less work and that we can never do enough art, because it’s fun.

As a teacher, do your students view their lessons with you as work or as art? Do they show up week after week sight-reading the lessons they were assigned last week? I did. If so, I challenge you to create art out of learning the instrument. What can you do to make practicing fun and something your students want to do? What assumptions about teaching are you unknowingly assuming to be true and obligatory in the tradition of “this is how it’s always been done“?

For a 12-year old, Seth made watching a businessman lecturing on stage for 17 minutes fun. He even made possible an engaging 15 minute conversation after the video. That follow-up conversation became art for my son rather than homework drudgery. Is your practicing art? Are you teaching art? If not, for both you and your students, you’re robbing yourself and them of the magic within a motivated student.

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