When I was in high school, music teachers weren’t always sure what to do with me. I knew a lot of theory and information, which meant that my teachers were constantly giving me new information about jazz theory and improvising techniques. The only problem? I couldn’t actually play any of it.
There is a mammoth difference between knowing how to do something and actually being able to do this. In my many years of teaching, this is often the biggest challenge I face when working with students.
One summer when I was teaching at a summer music festival, there was this hotshot young jazz pianist that was wowing everybody. He would sit at the piano and play extremely complicated and virtuostic music, while everybody sat listening, completely impressed. Knowing that he was going to be studying privately with me, a couple of students actually came up to me and said “What are you even going to be able to teach that guy?” (Sigh.). At his first lesson, I had him play a Blues in F at a medium tempo. He completely fell apart. Turns out he had spent a lot of time learning the “hip” stuff, but hadn’t really learned the basics.
The most significant improvement I have made as a pianist has been when I take the time to fill in the gaps. I sit down and made a list of all of the skills I lack– from voicings to scales, to working through difficult keys. I once took a lesson with the saxophonist Kirk MacDonald, who asked me to arpeggiate the chords on All the Things You Are and I couldn’t do it. At all. I had played that song hundreds of times, but I was still unable to manage the very basic skills. I was stuck on the “knowing” side and very far away from the “doing”.
I think one of the reasons my private students are so successful, is due to my experience of being a “knower” for so long. I start everyone who walks through the door in the same place – at the very beginning. Some of the more advanced students are taken aback that I would be working them at such a “low level”, until they discover that they are actually lacking in a great deal of these crucial foundations. Most of them are quite shocked at how much they improve when they go back to the beginning and translate what they know to what they can do.
Nowadays when I’m practicing singing or piano (or both), I take my time to make sure that what is in my head is actually coming out of my fingers/voice and isn’t just stuck in my head. It makes practicing really engaging and fun and helps me to stay grounded as I work.
Is there anything that you “know” but aren’t able to “do?’ What could you do to tackle that?