Photo credit: Jackson Square, Dec. 1995 or 1996. All rights reserved © Patrick J. Cain. Photo used with permission.
Talented musicians are not merely born. Granted, there are those that have more talent or natural abilities. It’s true for many vocations. There’s the kid that can memorize speeches easily, or knows their multiplication facts very quickly, can recite facts and figures from history, and the list goes on and on.
When it comes to musicians – there are people with perfect pitch, or “have an ear,” a natural sense of rhythm, or easier time learning things – BUT … as in all things, skills need to be developed, and natural abilities sharpened, for them to blossom.
Recently, I was having a conversation before a gig with a well-known band from New Orleans. I’ve known members of this group for over 15 years. Back when they were “coming up,” they understood the value of the lessons they received on the streets and in the French Quarter from the senior musicians. Those kids looked up to their elders. Music was their ticket to opportunities to see the world, play for audiences all over, and make a good living, and keep them on a path and lifestyle they could be proud of.
They shared stories of their elders, whom they all respected and feared as youngsters. They were allowed and encouraged (for the most part) to come and play with the elders. But, along with that opportunity came an understanding of who was the teacher, and who was “in school” learning each and every time a song was played.
Too often today, you hear stories of the youth not wanting to listen to their elders, with the belief that you can’t teach them anything they don’t already know. An arrogance that the “old ways” are just that – and serve no purpose.
Harry Connick, Jr. was recently asked to help on American Idol. The contestants were asked to perform a hit from Great American Songbook. The contestants he worked with were asked questions by Harry about the meaning of the music, what the song conveyed, etc. He was trying to mentor and work with these young talents. However, they were more interested in vocal gimmickry and “show” than conveying a message and meaning in their music.
New Orleans brass band music conveys feelings and emotion. It’s a personal music expression by individuals to mark life’s milestones. From weddings to funerals – these bands play for the people. If the next generation of these musicians doesn’t understand the emotions and play from their soul – the music will become as empty and meaningless as the current pop music on the radio.
Luckily, in every generation, and in every genre, there are the “young bucks” that still take the time to listen, that understand the importance of learning from a master, and serving as an apprentice. You learn your skills better when taught by someone who knows the struggles, the obstacles and roadblocks coming ahead.
It’s a mutually beneficial relationship … the elders showing one, demonstrating how to properly play a song, a solo, or to interact with an audience, and the reason why it’s done a certain way. For the young cats coming up, not only seeing it, and listening – but then doing it themselves. Like learning to ride a bike, there are going to be some falls, bumps and bruises – but the beautiful thing from watching and seeing this in action … the elders are generally encouraging, and helping them get back and try it again.
In order for this to survive, you need both those elders who are respected, but also love what they do to share it – and you need the youth that have a desire to learn, an inner drive to improve, and become a part of the tradition. No matter where you are in your life journey (elder or “young buck”), whether it’s music, or whatever vocation you hold near and dear, embrace your role.
See one, do one …