A little while ago, again on dreary old Facebook, I posted – well, no. I shared – a link to an article offering the ten most promising albums through which one might hope, by acquaintance, to get to know jazz. They were solid albums and all worthy of attention, although of course lists like this suck madly and always, inevitably, more than a handful of masterpieces is omitted. I said, yeah, for sure, check these out (and I’ll recommend ten Australian ones as well), then get yourself a good teacher, listen carefully to what s/he tells you, think about it, do some serious practice, and in three years you’ll have done better than anyone who conforms to the uni pattern and slogs along in pursuit of a to-ho-hotally meaningless Bachelor’s degree.
Why did I say this? Is it because the University feels it can manage without moi? Well, possibly. (Because apparently it does, and on evidence it can.) But then, I have to say if it does without moi it does without those things I feel I have to offer, and I believe they’re worth considering. And, of course, its reasons for feeling it can do without moi may have to do with the possibility that I’m offering something it either can’t, or maybe doesn’t want to, or even perhaps feels a teensy bit threatened by because it hadn’t thought of for itself. *blush* Also, let’s let our hair down, I’ve taught a few students in the uni system who found at the end that, even though they’d graduated (because you can’t do anything else, provided you live long enough) the whole thing was tremendously unsatisfying, and they moved on to apparently greener pastures.
Here Donald Trump would probably say: sad. But little Donny is such a ghastly representative of all the stuff we hate that there’s no way we’ll give him any air time whatsoever. Agreed? So please forget I mentioned his deplorable name.
I love, with an undying passion, Bill Readings’s marvellous book The University in Ruins. His manner of deconstructing, taking to the cleaners, and then mercilessly whipping the word ‘excellence’ is a tour de force of solid imagination and good sense. And he knows exactly what is fucked up in contemporary university culture: the pandering to standards that mean nothing (and that refuse to stop declining), the chunking through, year after year, of graduates in whom no further interest is taken, and the merciless courting of the heavenly dollar. His holding up of the ridicularity of any notion that the university is at all related these days to the historical idea of a disinterested pursuit of knowledge is breathtaking in its clarity and causes one such as myself to applaud.
I honestly believe what I said: a good relationship with a knowledgeable teacher who genuinely cares is worth more than hanging around for three years collecting up whatever the uni feels like dropping for you. One-on-one tuition is the basis of all the great musical education for centuries: Beethoven went to Vienna to get the spirit of Mozart from the hands of Haydn, remember? And that worked out okay. What Mozart himself learned from Haydn’s op. 33 quartets was not a matter of sitting in a classroom being given what everyone else got, geared to the most needy. One of the reasons music education funding is always at risk of drying up is that they know that principal study lessons are where it’s at, and yet (sorry, because) they’re so economically unthrilling.
Of course, I went through the uni system; my bachelor’s degree was handy because it permitted me to enter for a master’s, and that was the basis for my doctorate. Admittedly there is no other way to postgraduate study than via undergraduate. But say you just wanted to play your instrument competently and take part in a performing musical culture? Do you need a university degree? I think not. For an age and a half there have been players in the symphony orchestras with no university training – but they could play, and that’s what earned them their chairs. When I did the master’s degree there were candidates of this kind; expert performing musicians who wanted to study in a cohort but who hadn’t previously. To have sent them to an undergraduate degree would have been an insult, and (by rights) they’d not have stood for it.
And anyway, the best instruction I got as an undergraduate was from my first improvising piano teacher, Greg Gear, or from Tony Gould, who even in a class made things so personal and so individual it was like a principal study lesson. Prior to this all I had learnt about the piano came from my classical piano teacher, Patricia Leslie, in weekly lessons where her immense knowledge of repertoire and technique constantly challenged me and kept me inquiring. Is there anything more artistically stimulating than having someone who knows you, knows where you’re at, cares about you and your development, even loves you, taking you a little further in your journey?
Let’s talk about love. It’s a major motivator for me, and one of the things I’d list (as recently I did, in conversation with a close friend) as of supreme importance in charting a situation for artistic endeavour. When I say a teacher loves a student, what I mean is that the teacher has taken that student’s ambitions to heart, and decided to help as much as is humanly possible in assisting the student in reaching his or her goals. The teacher cares. Teaching is motivated by love, I reckon, because it embodies, it demands, it necessitates a kind of care that is deeply personal and accepts the risks of failure. And love is fundamental in music, anyway, so someone who doesn’t get this isn’t of much use.
The university is not motivated by love, you may be sure of that. Stories of senior staff members who make students cry during performance seminars are old news. Competition between researchers over protected fields are kind of funny but also ridiculously sad. The indoctrination of undergraduates with programs of business competency at the expense of creative wonder and enquiry is pathetic, but too real.
Permit yourself to dream. Go for what you envisage as worthy, as necessary. Ask all the questions you can think of. Make sure you’re getting what you need. Resist conformity. Explore. Read poems, see movies, check out the art gallery, meet people. Above all, be yourself. And don’t let any bastard take your stuff from you. Blessings.