When I was in college a very good jazz pianist visited our campus. He specialized in fusing art or "classical" music with jazz music. He gave a nice concert and also did a few lessons for piano students.
I chanced sharing a few of my "hymn improvisations" with him. It was really my only connection to jazz at that point in time as a performer and I thought that maybe by sharing something improvised I'd get pointers. Instead, I got these pithy words, "Your music is like white rice with no exciting sauce. It's nice, but not very interesting." As with all things, there was a whole lot more going on there that day than I understood at the time, but that doesn't lessen the impact of those words.
Here is what I played for him that day:
It was after this rendition of "Amazing Grace" that I got my "white rice" commentary. So then I recovered myself and played this, which he liked a little better:
I don't tell you this story so that you'll feel badly for me. Actually, I learned a lot from that experience. First of all - I learned a good lesson about how not to teach someone. Second, I learned something about the power of words. You know - he liked "Be Thou My Vision" because it's a modal piece. It has some harmonic interest because of the tonal center . . . but I came up with these when I was in my teens. And I played them the way I'd always played them . . . without thinking. Music theory didn't settle into my mind as a holistic concept (or set of concepts) until I was well into graduate school. When I settled on these two hymn arrangements as a teenager I didn't really understand what I was doing - I was just doing it.
A few nights ago I was cooking dinner for the family - beef and veggie stir fry. I cooked it just like my dad used to: thinly sliced beef, onions, peppers, carrots, celery, spinach at the very end. I sautéed all of it in olive oil, added garlic, salt, and pepper. When I served it my husband said: "This is really good! What kind of sauce is that?"
Sauce? What sauce?
I replied, "There is no sauce. This is just vegetables and meat and olive oil . . . and salt and pepper."
He was flabbergasted.
Plain, humble ingredients sometimes become incredibly complex works of art.
Years after the white rice experience I revisited my treatment of "Amazing Grace" and added some new chords to give it a bit of contrast and interest. So you see, I was able to learn from exciting sauce jazz piano man (that's what we'll call him). And these days when I write songs I often think to myself: Does this need something exciting or something simple? What does this need? - and I try to treat the poetry with a setting that will make it a more powerful communicator. That's a large part of what music does for us, right? It communicates.
Some of us are fortunate enough to be teachers of other musicians. There are many kinds of music teachers. There are many ways to approach music teaching. My mom and dad both have stories of singing and playing for various conductors - some of them would throw things and yell at the musicians, others were soft-spoken, still others were manipulative. I, myself, have observed a wide variety of leadership styles as I've played and sung with ensembles through the years. When we get to be in charge of other musicians we have to realize that our words are going to change the quality of the music produced by our ensembles. I have heard incredibly good choirs sing excellent music, but with such obvious fear and tension - you can't hide that stuff. It's in the voice. In in the body language. It tells me that the person in charge uses fear and intimidation as a tool to get what they want.
Twice in my life I've removed myself from musical situations due to the leadership style of the person in charge. And in a delightful show of synchronicity, yesterday evening I noticed something while watching an episode of the Netflix original Chef's Table show. The featured chef had removed himself from a job in a prestigious restaurant early in his career because the environment was toxic - the man in charge was brilliant, but openly encouraged unpleasantness among the staff. People couldn't believe he would pass up a chance to work for this legendary teacher, but he couldn't stand the tone of the teaching. It was hurting him. In the long run, he did well for himself. There were other, better teachers.
White rice exciting sauce jazz piano man had a problem with church musicians and church in general, it turns out, and so I was a verbal casualty. A young, naive church music major. Easy prey. Right? Sure. I totally think he had a point about the fact that my arrangement was not exciting. It wasn't. But he chose not to teach me anything to help me make it more exciting. He missed an opportunity - because I would have listened to him!
All teachers who use belittling comments or intimidation to rule the rehearsal are afraid of something. We puff up because we think we'll trick the grizzly bear into thinking we're bigger than it is. It's a survival skill gone wrong when we use it on each other.
Sometimes I tell my students to think about how they want their peers to remember them when they've all grown up and gotten jobs and moved different places. I tell them, "Make sure they'll know you by your kindness. Make sure the story they're telling their kids about their old classmate is a story about something that will always make you proud."
We have to remember that as teachers, too.
You know, most of us are not made of exciting sauce. We're just plain old vegetables. I guess some days we might even be plain old rice. Yes - I totally am going to take this image of food waaaaaaaay too far.
If we allow ourselves to go through the right process, though, we can become something exciting. And so can our students. We have to be careful not to burn each other with our words.
I told you the story of the exciting sauce white rice jazz piano teacher man because it's really a pretty gentle story. It was a short encounter. I didn't study with him for years or even days or even hours. It was a matter of minutes. But those minutes had a huge impact on me for a long, long time.
I have been fortunate. I have had other teachers who gave me advice and instruction for hours, days, and years - and they have made all the positive difference in the world. I think I'll name them just for fun: Miss Gina, Mrs. Winters, Mr. Jackson, Andrew Duncan, Sonny Melton, Liz Frazer, Lisa Withers, Stephen Sieck, Dr. Tsai, Dr. St. Goar, Don and Susan Garrett, Karen Shuford, Dr. Harris - these are teachers who have given me good things to hold onto. I want to be like all of them when I grow up in different ways for a variety of reasons.
I've had a couple of teachers who have really hurt me. And I've learned a lot from them, too. All of us have had experiences like that. Sometimes now when I think of those few teachers I remind myself that they're probably a lot like that jazz teacher was - they had more going on than I understood at the time. And they need grace just like I do. There are days when I close the door to my classroom at 4:30 and say to God, "I know. I know. It wasn't my best. I'm so sorry. Help me do better tomorrow." None of us are ever perfect.
That's my long ramble for the day - go out there and be whatever you are. No exciting sauce is necessary when you allow yourself to do what you know is right.
P.S. Here's a new thing I randomly recorded in my living room just for fun!