Tuesday, May 8, 2012

Cookie Cutter

"Berklee is a great school, but every musician they churn out sounds the same." I heard someone say that a long time ago. And I always wondered whether that was true. I never went to Berklee College of Music, but I know a ton of musicians who did, and I wouldn't say they all sounded the same. A majority of the Berklee grads whom I've worked with had a high level of skill. But they weren't clones of each other.

As a jazz educator, I can see why there is cause for concern; if you give everyone the same tunes to learn, the same solos to transcribe, the same scales, etc....then yes; theoretically, you would have legions of musicians who sounded the same. The good news is that this is a theory. In reality, most musicians, at least in jazz, end up sounding different eventually. This is because jazz music encourages originality at it's core. Even the most conservative program will produce students who don't sound identical.

The incredibly subjective question becomes, "On a scale of 1 to 10, how original is any given musician?" This is an extremely debatable idea; for example, I think Kurt Rosenwinkel has a very original sound and conception. However, some might generalize and say that Rosenwinkel is a Pat Metheny clone (I don't agree at all.). I don't believe that Rosenwinkel would be where he is today without everything that he learned from his Berklee teachers and peers. So is he 100 percent original? I don't think any musician is.

I think that this idea of "not wanting to churn out a bunch of musical clones" is at first glance, very logical. However, in the long run, I think it's actually worse to "churn out a bunch of musicians who cannot play well enough to work as musicians in the real world." I'm finding that my own misgivings about teaching in a "cookie-cutter" fashion are being overrun by worries about not producing students who have the necessary skills to be successful.

Furthermore, and this might sound crazy, but I am not convinced that every musician is meant to be highly original( in the sense of a Kurt Rosenwinkel). I think the vast majority of players want to be really good, and get gigs. It might not go beyond that. I think originality should be encouraged; students should always write their own music and improvise as they see fit. But on a scale of 1 to 10, the result might not be thought of as  the next Theolonious Monk or John Coltrane. And that's ok! I think originality happens; it can't be forced. Skill is another matter; skill takes methodical work.


  1. Another great blog post, George. I couldn't agree more. So much of this "everyone sounds the same these days" argument is a veiled suggestion that one shouldn't learn one's craft. Their are things that all students need to know to work. There are recordings, scales, and tunes that every musician needs to know if they are going to consider themselves part of the great tradition known as "jazz." If one can't distinguish oneself as one of the most original artists of all time, this is hardly a failure and certainly not the failure of the institution at which they studied. The great artists that I known well know these basic tenets BETTER than the rest of us. They usually have absorbed MORE information from recordings and personal interaction with the masters than less well known artists.

  2. George, I'm with you here. You're right to say that, as educators, what we should be concerned about is whether or not our students will have the skills it takes to get work in the profession. This also gets into the debate about whether jazz should be learned in schools or on the street. The answer is BOTH. For the most part, you develop skills to be a working musician in school, you develop intuition and refine your personal sound on the bandstand. (Maybe I overgeneralize there, but from my experience, that's basically how it happened.) By the way, the Berklee grads I know definitely do not sound unoriginal!

  3. Us University of Texas--Austin folks do alright, too!

  4. George, good subject to explore. While I agree that learning the craft is essential I do think the way in which one learns the craft can help one develop a more personal sound. Jazz education seems to rely greatly upon written materials. And yet, one of the most basic skills involved with improvising is that of spontaneously creating melodic and rhythmic material in an interactive exchange with with other musicians in real time. I find that this skill requires a different kind of practice than is often emphasized in books and academic programs. It requires a slow, deliberate examination of every note that one plays with an ear to the potential note choices available as well as close attention to phrasing. In that way it's more like composing. Over time comes increased familiarity and appropriate speed of action. In this type of study one is presented with the opportunity for making many more personal choices. This in no way precludes any of the existing models in jazz studies. It's just that the idea of using one's own ears seems curiously undervalued and neglected in academic jazz studies. A truer balance can only help in the learning of the language and the development of one's personal voice. Less paper, more ears…

  5. I'm fascinated by how jazz educators are pondering the same issues as creative-writing educators. The creative-writing MFA is criticized for making everyone come out the same, even though that is demonstrably not true ...

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