What has this blog got to do with retirement? Well it’s to do with continued learning, what we used to call, when working, continued professional development (CPD). So continued learning as related to my jazz classes is the theme but, of course, learning, as I’ve mentioned before, comes with a price tag and that’s what this blog is about.
This week was the last week of the jazz workshop term. Time for reflection on how this key activity in my retirement plan is working out. I think it’s my second full term of attending a Monday night, jazz workshop at Heart in Headingley. What I am learning about jazz workshops, if not jazz itself, is that there are jazz workshops and then, there are jazz workshops. The personality, the aims and ambitions of these workshops – there are three different ones (maybe more) available in this small area of Leeds alone – vary greatly depending on who is leading the workshop. I nearly said teaching the workshop but that would have been very misleading. Who would have known that for some jazz educators (again a loaded word) that the term ‘teaching’ is a dirty word.
I recently had a one to one lesson with one of the tutors. The lesson is meant to last an hour, this one lasted two hours because my tutor spent about an hour of this time explaining in detail, and with some emotion, why he despised (maybe too strong a word) the traditional methods of ‘teaching’ a person how to play jazz. In a nutshell this approach was wrong because it indicated there was a right way to do it, that there was indeed an ‘it’ to teach. My one to one tutor, who also happens to run two weekly workshops, is a political with a small ‘p’ person. This hierarchical, ‘only for the experts’ approach is, he believes, a microcosm of all that is wrong with the world generally. I think I bring out the worst / best in him because one of my great skills as a psychologist was that I was always a good listener. So my eye contact, nodding, questioning skills, all the areas that make for a good listener (or at least the speaker thinks that the person opposite them is a good listener) encourages them to speak at great length. So, at my last lesson, I got the full monty about all that is wrong with learning to play and indeed playing jazz. He was as scathing about many of the jazz performers he listens to as he was about jazz ’educators’. He was upset because he had been invited to a jazz educator conference but hadn’t been invited to speak. Sadly, I can absolutely identify with this from my own career. Anyway, I digress, thing is, my tutor is big on the just do what you want / feel, there are no wrong notes is his mantra.
My Monday night class is very much in the ‘this is the right way to improvise’, mode. So I’ve got my wish in terms of learning the right way before having the platform to do it my way which may be the wrong way. This is all well and good but of course there is a downside. One thing is, assuming there is a right way, tends towards the complicated, so am I actually capable of learning this way, becomes one issue. Another part of the ‘cost’ in the cost/benefit equation is that when I do ‘it’ the wrong way, which I mostly do, then there is considerable headspace (is that a word?) for feeling bad about having done it wrong. Knowing, for example, that I have screwed up my solo on the 4th note of the scale (in blues you can get away with playing the same range / key over all of the three chords in a 12 bar song and in fact in my humble opinion it sounds very good). In jazz the ‘right’ way is to play a different set of notes over the 1st, the 4th and the 5th chords as well as often the 2nd minor chord of the octave, not to mention the many other chords that a standard jazz tune sometimes has. So you don’t need to be a jazz player to understand that this way means more and different notes to learn. Mucho opportunity for feeling bad, plenty of time to lose confidence and dent already dented self-esteem (those words again).
I am learning – slowly – but not helped by the fact that I don’t seem to have much opportunity to practice and between you and I, I do not choose to spend a lot of my week practising, I remember that from when I had piano lessons when I was a young person. Hours of learning scales and arpeggios. This is not the plan for my retirement years. I want this learning activity to be fun. Of course the Catch 22 is that if you don’t practice and you’re not very good, you don’t have that much fun when Monday night rolls around. Sometimes I feel very stressed just at the thought of going to the workshop. Surely this can’t be right. But yes, I am getting a bit better and I do still enjoy the challenge of learning new things, new terms, chords, modes etc.
I must be improving a bit because, instead of obsessively trying to form the chords and paying painful attention to when it is my turn to solo, I’m starting to pay attention to my fellow players and, in the case of the other two guitar players who are much better than me and know it, I’m starting to dislike them quite a lot. They cosy up to each other, sharing one sheet of music (no one sheet will be fine, they say), pointing out interesting or difficult things about the score (mostly just a page of squiggles to me), giggling with each other in a way that is quite excluding, playing their solos beautifully, always answering the teacher’s questions – that’s a d minor dorian. Yes, that’s right, coos the teacher. Oh, am I sounding a tad bitter? Sorry, didn’t mean to. I don’t suppose they really are smug, but it’s pretty damn close. A problem all of my own creation no doubt, but it smarts. So this is the downside of the ‘doing it right’ approach to jazz education. More accurately, others doing it right while you do it wrong. My tutor, when I had my turn at therapy during what was supposed to be a lesson, whining and complaining about my ‘fellow’ players, he said, Pete, I want you to go to the class and be big. Which I took to mean, do ‘it’ in my own style and don’t worry about whether it’s ‘right’. So last Monday I took my macho Gibson Les Paul guitar, more of a rock guitar and not my usual guitar, cranked up the amp and let rip, oh and closed my ears and eyes to the reactions of others. And that’s where I am at with my jazz workshops. Did I feel good about this? No, not really.
It is quite important to me that I get this part of my retirement ‘right’, whatever that means because it takes care of one part of my retirement value – to keep on learning into my old age. In one sense whether I’m doing the right or the wrong way doesn’t matter, the important things is that I keep doing it. Retirement, just keep on keeping on.