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Learning and Teaching

Saturday, March 03, 2018

Learning and Teaching

I never went to music school.  I’m basically a relentlessly curious, partially self-taught, mostly “ear” musician who’s searched out good teachers along the way.  I taught myself to play slide guitar and to write songs.  I did improve at writing songs through running a peer feedback group of songwriters for many years.  From the beginning I also learned from music teachers who taught invaluable lessons that I’m still using and extending.  When I was in the eighth grade in Stavanger, Norway, Mr. Mark Gathercole taught us all to play the guitar, and that changed my life.  In my senior year at the same school, another great music teacher, Mr. Bruce Kramer, accepted no limitations.  He gave us challenging and exciting music by 20th-century composers.  He got me into the choir, and I sang for the first time in public.   I played bass recorder in an ensemble playing Renaissance music.  “Try it! You can do it!” he’d say, and I believed him.  I took lessons with saxophonist Frode Gjerstad, a significant figure in European improvised music.  I attended a workshop that Frode co-led with drummer John Stevens, one of the major innovators of British free jazz.  Both Frode and John were very unconventional, and supported everyone to take risks, try things, listen and play off each other.  

Years later, when I started writing and singing my own songs, I found a vocal teacher, Philip Carroll, who helped me understand my voice, how to care for it and make the most of it.  He also helped me understand how to interpret and deliver a song, and exposed me to art songs and arias that I would never have explored on my own.   Five summers ago, I took my first vocal improvisation workshop with Bobby McFerrin, and it changed my life, opening up a world of possibilies and new musical relationships.  

Even now, I’m still taking lessons from teachers (Joe Morris, Jay Clayton) who are outstanding musicians and improvisors, and it’s making a big difference in how I understand music.  I’m reading books on how to practice, and it’s changed how I spend my practice time.  And I meet regularly with a group of vocal improvisors, to keep practicing and learning together.

For me, good teaching and good learning are inseparable.  My mind and heart are most alive when I’m doing both.  It’s no exaggeration to say, my sense of purpose and satisfaction in life are bound up with doing both.   When I teach, I’m always trying to approach it as a learner - to put myself in the shoes of people learning from me.  I often think of my own mentors, and how they’ve encouraged me and helped me go beyond myself.  And I’m always learning valuable things from my students as well.

I’m teaching at two music camps this summer, and I want to invite you to either attend, or to help me spread the word to musician friends of yours.  

June 14-17 in Medomak, Maine, Abbie Gardner and I will be leading the Tribal Mischief Island Songwriting Retreat.  We’ll be teaching classes on songwriting, doing individual consultations, and performing, individually and with each other.   It’s open to 10 people, at all experience levels.  I spent 13 years running a songwriters’ circle in NYC, and I have enjoyed helping many folks develop their songwriting.  Abbie is a great songwriter and performer, best known for her work in the band Red Molly.  We have co-written and done quite a few shows together over the years, and we make a good team.  Fees, signup info and more:  https://tribalmischief.com/maine-songwriting-retreat/

From July 23-27, I’ll also be teaching at the Ashokan Acoustic Guitar Camp, along with Beppe Gambetta, Happy Traum, Mary Flower, Flynn Cohen, Peter Davis, Larry Baione, Jefferson Hamer, and Sylvia Herold, all distinguished players and teachers.  This is a chance to learn from a very diverse faculty of players and instructors, in a beautiful setting.  I’ve taught a fair amount of guitar over the years, both in classes and in private lessons, and I’m looking forward doing it again.  Fees, signup info and more:  https://ashokan.org/guitar-camp/  

It’s going to be a fun summer.  :-)  How important are teaching and learning in your life?

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Eyes:  Books

Jonathan Harnum, The Practice of Practice:  How to Boost Your Music Skills https://tinyurl.com/ycg4ez2l

Helen Sword, The Writer’s Diet:  A Guide to Fit Prose https://tinyurl.com/y9ecyql4

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Ears: CDs

Frode Gjerstad / John Stevens, Let’s Just Keep Going https://tinyurl.com/ybhty6tq

Bobby McFerrin, Circlesongs https://tinyurl.com/y9w3pwa8

Joe Morris Trio, Symbolic Gesture https://tinyurl.com/y8zl5ef6

Jay Clayton, Circle Dancing https://tinyurl.com/yb3pgtob
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Oh, and a last random but happy piece of news:  My recent CD, “This Is Absolutely Real:  Visions and Versions of Phil Ochs,” has been nominated for an Independent Music Award in the Best Tribute Album category.  
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updated: 5 months ago