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All About Jazz: The web's most comprehensive jazz resource


Meet Marvin Stamm

By Published: March 25, 2005
Teaching philosophy

My philosophy of teaching comes down to this: the student is the important factor! It should all be about the student, not the teacher. Many times, this is not the case. For example, many instrumental applied music teachers make putting their stamp on the student the most important issue in their teaching —that is making the student over in their own image. That may work for the self-image of the teacher, but I don't think it serves the student well. Every student is an individual with his own individual problems and must be approached in that way. There is no single, same solution to any problem for every person because we are all different. I learned this approach from some of the greatest teachers with whom I have come in contact: Carmine Caruso in New York, Jimmy Stamp in Los Angeles, John Haynie at the University of North Texas, Ray Crisara, professor of trumpet and head of the brass department at the University of Texas with whom I worked for years in the New York studios, and other fine teachers. The great ones always put the student first.

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IAJE (International Association for Jazz Education)

IAJE has become an extremely large organization that has tried with some success to institutionalize Jazz and teaching people how to play this music. I believe this serves some people well to a degree; but I also think what IAJE has become and the way it now operates has changed greatly from its original purpose.

For one, I believe the organization today stands more to serve itself—much like most corporate organizations in this country. The membership really doesn't have much of an active role in the direction the organization might take. The way the bylaws and organization of IAJE have been restructured over the years makes it extremely difficult for the membership to participate to any degree and/or to influence changes from within. Also many members join for whatever they perceive are the benefits; they don't really care to have any responsibility for or input into guiding the direction of the organization—much like the citizenry of this country desires to have it today. When this occurs, everything regarding the organization rests in the hands of only a few.

Secondly, IAJE and academia have led people to believe that one can teach another to play Jazz. I believe that to be completely erroneous. People aren't taught to become improvisers—they must learn through their own efforts, not the efforts of others. As with playing an instrument, the teacher can give instructions, but without the student physically putting those instructions into effect, that is training his or her own body to put them to use, it is impossible to learn to do so. In effect, one teaches oneself. Though classroom teaching can be of great benefit to those already caught up by this music, I believe trying to "teach" typical students to do something for which they have no passion is wasted effort—and misleading. Not everyone can do this; one has to really want to do this. Improvising—playing Jazz—is a lifelong pursuit, not just a skill one acquires like learning 2 + 2 = 4.

An oversimplified explanation of learning to improvise is this: People who develop into Jazz musicians do so because, as they develop their musical skills, they at some point in that development hear something in the music that touches them deeply, making them hungry to play this music. They get CDs and records or listen to the radio, trying to copy what they hear. Through imitation and developing their "ear and a vocabulary, they over time acquire the musical linguistic skills to become a Jazz improviser.

This is a lot like learning to talk. You can't teach a person how to talk; he must learn how to talk "by ear, by listening to the sounds emitted by the people surrounding him and imitating them. One cannot learn the grammar of language and how language works if he can't talk in the first place. Only after developing his ear and acquiring a vocabulary, learning how to talk, can he be taught about language. Learning to improvise is exactly the same. I know of no one who learned how to play this music first by learning theory (the grammar of music). Initially, the player must develop a musical vocabulary and learn to "talk before he can be "taught grammatically what he is doing. Only by listening to this music and getting it inside of you, acquiring a vocabulary and the ability to speak the language, and developing the ear can you become an improviser. After you're able to do this, then you can get into the theory.

The point is this: IAJE—and many in the Jazz Education community—has in a well-meaning way unwittingly institutionalized the education side of this music. They have helped lead people to believe that you can teach scales, licks, arpeggios, chord symbols and how to play on them, and students will know how to improvise. That's like saying that a child who knows the ABC's and a few words and phrases but who has no real vocabulary or linguistic skills can still put forth thoughts and ideas. That's not possible in my view. You cannot "shortcut the process. The teaching only works AFTER you have ability to speak or play.

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