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Ralph Peterson: Music Teaches You Life

George Colligan By

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RP: Sometimes the best tunes aren't in the books! The book covers kind of the basic language; rudimentary tune knowledge right? And so I created this class for Jazz Drum Set Repertoire a while ago. They have 15 weeks to learn about 50 tunes. I am still getting pushed back over the number of tunes that I require students to learn. Out of the 50, 20 to 30 of them they should already know if they are considering themselves in any way shape or form serious about jazz. So half the class is... what's the word? Not rudimentary, but remedial in nature. But the other half of the class is with recordings and the Real Book. I usually disseminate five tunes a week. Five tunes a week is not a lot. That's one tune a day with two days off!

The practical application of learning tunes quickly is like so: if I get a call today—it's Thursday—for recording on Saturday. The best a bandleader can do is next day mail us the music. Or I suppose with email you could get the music by tonight. Right? Fine. We can see and hear the music tonight. Right? But the best we have is 24 hours to learn the music. And you need to be ready to record on Saturday!

GC: Right.

RP: And so learning 50 tunes in 15 weeks is just the tip of the iceberg. You know it's funny George, I always mention you at the beginning of every semester, as a high example of this skill set. This is a skill set, the ability to learn people's music and internalize it. You know if I called you for a gig you'd be playing some of my music from memory.

GC: Yeah, yeah, yeah.

RP: Still, that's one of the thing I love most about you. It's your commitment to internalize music—which is why you play so well.

GC: But it takes work.

RP: Yeah! You have to want it!

GC: Let me ask about that. Do you think that, in general these days, the work ethic amongst students is lower?

RP: Yes. And I believe it is so, because as a culture, we have come to a place where the number of students is more important than the quality of students. Colleges, institutions of higher learning, are now fund raising machines; they're not instruments of education. And considering we are sitting here in the shadow of the Acropolis, what with Socrates, and all, it's kind of ironic. The Greeks—they were about enlightenment, it wasn't about funding it was about the information.

And that pendulum swings back and forth. Just like the pendulum we were discussing earlier: the need for the credentials. You know, when I started at college, you didn't really need a lot of credentials to be a college professor. By the time I finished college, you couldn't imagine having more than an adjunct position without a master's degree. And then, by the '90s, it loosened up again.

Well, now that having money is what drives the schools in a sense and it's not about having money to pay teachers, mind you—it's having money in the building, or having money to give away scholarships to people who don't necessarily deserve them. It's having money to send students on trips, rather than keep their ass in class, you know? Colleges are notorious for sending students on concert tours. They say to the students, "Do this concert and represent your college. Travel here; represent your college. And, oh by the way, you are on academic probation—for all the classes you missed!" It's like a shell game.

The other thing that contributes to the state of me answering yes to that question, is that these conservatory minded music departments don't even know what jazz means anymore. When you have institutions trying to position themselves to take credit for the success of anybody who ever ate lunch in their cafeteria, regardless of whether or not they complete the program, then that's a problem. Plus, a mentality on the part of students that, because they came from the McDonald's All American State Band or the All County Band, or what have you, then they should go to music school. And that's in the few communities left in America where music programs are supported at the secondary level. Which is a whole other issue, the lack of music in the schools, and how to fix that problem. You don't even start in high school, but we need to start in grade school, in terms of fixing this problem. Things are so different now, because when I was at school, and when you were in school, people didn't come to school with guns.

GC: No, no.

RP: No. I don't think it's a straight line, but there's a line from the absence of music programs to the increasing violence in schools. There is an absolute co- relative line: Music teaches people who they are. It teaches you about yourself. You learn your own limitations. You learn about your ego. You learn about having courage. So these principles are not being taught in computer stations. And for many kids, both parents are working. You know, parents working two jobs to send the kid to the best school, but sadly, the parents aren't around to teach them anything.

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