Issues Facing Music and Jazz Education


As unpopular a stance as it might be, I feel the way in which jazz improvisation, is generally taught is flawed and even antithetical to the cultivation of a distinct musical identity. More information (e.g., books on harmony, improvisation, music theory, etc.) is available to the students of today than ever before; however, this has not produced greater numbers of unique players than prior to this explosion of information. 

Most students are more technically proficient and knowledgeable about music theory, yet these same students seldom develop an identifiable voice of their own; however, this deficiency is hardly the complete fault of the player. In many cases, blame cannot even be placed on the teacher, who teaches only that which they have learned. If a teacher has learned by means of copying, emulating, and working out ideas, then what would someone expect them to teach?

What players need is proper guidance to make sense of the large amounts of information available to them. Information for its own sake is useless; this is equivalent to relying only on a dictionary to learn how to speak a language. Even if a person memorizes all of the words and their meanings in the dictionary, he or she has no awareness of the grammatical underpinnings necessary to make even the simplest intelligible statement. Unless the student manages to understand through his or her own approach, ignorance will remain.

Is this some sort of campaign against play-a-longs and music books? Not at all. The central issue here is the popular fallacy that has been fed to students: if you practice all your patterns, licks, clichés, scales, favorite players’ ideas, and know your theory, you will become a great player— nonsense. If this is all a student needs to be a great musician, there would be more great players now than ever before.

An emphasis on playing “hip”' is more frequently placed on students today. Ironically, many fail to realize that the players such as John Coltrane, Miles Davis, and Wayne Shorter all started out playing inside the harmony for many years before they began exploring modality and bitonality. This lack of vision has led to the cart-before-the-horse syndrome in which students attempt to go straight into modal and bi-tonal music without having any foundation in playing tonally. This makes as much sense as trying to learn calculus without first knowing basic arithmetic.

What is the answer to all of this confusion, you may ask? As with anything, there is no one solution. An awareness of the problem is the first step. All too often, the student gains awareness after many years have already passed. In my case, I was fortunate to have had two fantastic mentors in Jimmy Bruno and Jimmy Amadie. The former helped teach me the guitar, while the latter taught me harmony and how to find my own improvisational voice.

Bruno and Amadie have published books, which I highly recommend. Bruno's books on guitar fingerings and picking technique are excellent for students of the plectrum-based guitar. Amadie's books on harmony and improvisation are a godsend to students who have experienced great frustration at being unable to find their own musical fingerprint.

To the cynics who believe I recommend my mentors’ works only because I was a student of theirs for many years: you are very much mistaken. I doubt there are many who would argue that Amadie and Bruno are hacks who have not a clue how to teach. Many players I teach and have taught have benefited from the approaches these two men pioneered that it would be horribly selfish to keep it all to myself.

Although there are exceptions, most of the books I have come across contain a lot of information, yet they offer the student little or no direction. The student is left to make sense of the information with little or no guidance.

Unless the student has a tremendous ear and can come up with a system on his or her own, the student will continue to struggle. As someone who has struggled, I can empathize. However, in the seemingly endless sea of information on playing music, there exist approaches that can help. But the student has to be aware enough to recognize the works that will best assist them.

If there is anyone to be blamed for the pervasive ignorance of students, it is the so-called educator who is aware of these helpful approaches, but refuses to acquaint themselves with them. Sadly, this phenomenon is not rare: many teachers are too lazy to have to learn about a new system, especially when they have fallen into a convenient routine. Who loses most in this situation? (Hint: not the teachers)

Have you been through a jazz course? What was your experience like? Please share below.


Dr. Seth Greenberg