Play Like You
It's important that you find your own voice, because the rest are taken.
Get better at the bass or quit. That’s where I found myself fifteen years ago. I had just left a jam session. While the other musicians nodded in approval of my playing, I felt a fraud. I had been playing for twenty years and was embarrassed that I still couldn’t really play—at least not the way I wanted to sound. As I packed up to leave, the trumpet player smiled in appreciation, remarking, “You “killed it,man.” I wondered if this was hyperbole or sarcasm.
My previous experiences with music teachers was scarring, but I knew that they couldn’t all be bad; so I searched for a new teacher and found one less than three miles from my house. In his youth, Clarence Stephens had been a Warner Brothers studio musician, orchestra chair, played with avant-garde luminaries Cecil Taylor and Don Cherry, and was, at that time, the bassist at the Church of Coltrane. Not all great players are great teachers but with that resume, I was willing to take a chance.
The first few lessons started as expected. Sheet music was laid out on the stand, and I walked the chord changes―trying to outline the chords with quarter note lines. I played consciously for his approval, and thought I might be showing signs of improvement. The look on Clarence’s face told me otherwise. Bass notes that were meant to groove and meander under the chords, known as “walking,” sounded more like the footfalls of a toddler. There was forward momentum but steps stuttered and the direction uncertain.
Over coffee, I shared my frustrations with a trusted friend, Ian. For most of my musical life, I felt that learning the jazz canon was the gateway to becoming the bassist I wanted to become. Ian peered out over his mug and raised an arresting question. Did I want to play the songs in the jazz canon? In truth, I didn’t. I had no interest in playing gigs that included My Favorite Things and The Girl from Ipanema. I preferred the spontaneous inventions of the avant-garde but had never dared to try. Ian placed his mug on the table for punctuation, So why don’t you play that?
A few weeks into my lessons, Clarence, sensing that his initial efforts were getting us nowhere, had a new plan. I walked into the practice room and he skipped the usual pleasantries. “Grab my iPod and pick something.” Thumbing through a sizable list, I landed on an Ornette Coleman tune that I didn’t know, but with Ian’s words still fresh in mind, I finally dared. Clarence continued, “Put on the headphones. Now, turn up the music loud enough so that you can’t hear yourself play.” The tune was a wild one. The drums crashed and banged, the horns raced through serpentine lines, and the bass was some twisted combination of both. I panicked. Why hadn’t I picked something easier?
With eyes closed, I played through dashing and darting solos and tried to collaborate with a drummer who took no pity on me. I tried to let the bass recede into the background, hoping he couldn’t hear me butcher his work. I wasn’t sure how I sounded, but I welcomed every invitation to act and react with the music. The music was bombastic, but after a few minutes of playing, I was at peace. This was the music I loved. Without warning, Clarence removed the headphone from my right ear. Despite playing notes that I couldn’t hear, to a song I had never heard, I was playing along with the track as if I had been hired for the gig. Although the time and tempo were dynamic, I was locked in with the drummer. Without prior knowledge of pitch or key, I was supporting the angular solos, creating a natural yet nuanced conversation. I was playing the music.
I worked with Clarence for a few more sessions. He helped me get stronger, refine my intonation, and become confident in my playing. When I concluded my lessons, Clarence warned me of being an imitator. “I like your sound,” he told me. “Keep playing like you.”
Clarence’s approach was progressive. Rather than follow a prescribed curriculum, he designed my lessons based on my needs and ability, and then, retooled each lesson. Traditional education is considered the tried-and-true approach for shaping young minds, while progressive education is regarded as the disheveled, distant cousin that we tolerate but would rather not invite to a wedding. So, which is a better model for education: an approach that promotes predictability and imitators or an approach that promotes problem-solving and innovators?
Clarence Stephen’s masterful teaching has served me well as a musician but also in my professional life. Every student should develop a sense of self and self-advocacy. Knowing who you are (or want to be) and knowing when to ask for help (and from whom), are invaluable gifts for students. Thank you Clarence Stephens for helping me play like me.
This is the third and final blog in a three part series dedicated to teachers.
Markus Hunt is an educator, writer, speaker, and musician. He is currently the head of school at The Logan School for Creative Learning in Denver, Colorado.