Balancing Performing and Teaching Music

I typed this the other day in anticipation of being asked:

“How do you balance being a performer and educator?”

There isn’t really much balance. I can’t treat them as opposites. There’s usually a misinterpretation about educators. Dizzy Gillespie was the greatest educator. He had a message and he wanted to share it. This is great music. It’s about the struggle of America to overcome it’s horrible sin of slavery and continued oppression. Learning the notes is part of it, but educational institutions in this country founded and constructed on a European model often try to pluck the notes out of the music and leave the rest behind. In this model learning happens in the University and performing happens in the club or concert hall or jazz festival. If we look at ourselves as either “educators” or “players” we shortchange both activities. Educators who teach without a real connection to the practice of performing are at a disadvantage. I was like that. But I tried to keep the passion of a performer as I was getting pigeon-holed as an educator. But now as a busy performing musician it’s much easier for me to instill the reality of jazz performance in a traditional educational venue – classroom or private teaching studio. Some of the best lessons, my students tell me, is when I have a lesson to teach and I’m supposed to be preparing music for a gig. So I teach the music to the student. They get to see TS Monk’s book and read through the tunes. Or I’m memorizing some of Nat Adderley’s book while they’re sight reading – I’m teaching them to sight read while they’re helping me memorizing a tune. This is where teacher and performer are one. By the same token, the bandstand has to educate, too. When we’re on stage we have to communicate what is happening, who has soloed, why the tune is significant. Jam sessions are the ultimate educational tool. If a jazz musician can function at a jam session, they are ready for so much more. I try to play with the students and for them. I want them to look for challenges. To strive to know enough tunes that they can function without having to be spoon fed. I want them to be aware of the economics of the club, how we strive to invite in and entertain the lay people. There’s so much learning that goes on in the club that never would get translated into the classroom.

I’m honored and humbled to be a working jazz musician in New York City. This is not an easily attainable goal, in fact I often wonder if it’s a reasonable goal. To me the goal has to be to play music as often and as well as possible; to lose oneself in the pursuit of mastery. Having practical goals isn’t bad, but it can’t be the reason. If you’re goal is to put food on the table and get health insurance, there are better ways. But if you’re looking for spiritual fulfillment and to give your life meaning – there’s nothing greater than this music. It’s been quite a journey and with all the years of frustration I experienced, it’s easy for me now to see what a blessing my life has become. A working saxophonist and respected teacher.

I’ve read posts on social media lately by young musicians complaining about the way things are. Older cats don’t give them a chance. I know that sometimes I’m included in north Jersey scene as being an “insider” and being one of the people keeping other people from working. But I want to tell the younger musicians (and sometimes disgruntled musicians of my generation) that every moment you spend looking at what isn’t being done for you or looking to assign blame for your lack of success to someone else, you’re missing an opportunity to give of this music. You’re missing an opportunity to listen more, practice more, you’re removing the joy that got you caught up in this music in the first place. I feel I was usually successful at responding to every slight by rededicating myself to the music. Practicing harder. Learning how to prepare for and get a call from a band leader and then later, how to keep that gig and get return calls. It’s hard and it doesn’t make much sense. There are fewer and fewer bands that actually have a chair for a saxophonist. And if you’re working 30 dates a year with a band, that’s outstanding. There are no more 50 week a year gigs.

At some point, hard work makes you valued. To feel valued for what you do, when you’re doing what love is an incredible gift. I remember for years wishing I had more private students, more classes, more gigs and more teaching opportunities. But it seems that overnight that changed. I had to trim back my teaching activities, I find myself relieved to have a Saturday night off. I don’t ask often how much a gig pays. I do it if I know the music will be high level and I’ll be challenged. If not, I don’t need to even worry about it. I’m not going to destroy my inner peace playing in a situation that doesn’t support my musical vision.

Taking Stock

Several things happened recently that are making me take stock, reassess, and evaluate the state of my career. I was asked for a bio for the program for the NJAJE State Jazz Festival preliminary competition which I am adjudicating this week at five different locations throughout New Jersey. (You can see the result of my bio writing efforts at http://mikeleejazz.com/bio.) Writing a bio can be a painful process for a neurotic jazz musician. I’m not saying I’m neurotic, but I definitely find the process uncomfortable and neurosis could explain a lot – to someone who doesn’t know me well that is.

All kidding aside, I do feel that writing a bio, if done with integrity activates many uncomfortable self definitions from the past. I remember including associations in my earliest bios that included musicians who had been a guest artist with a college band that I played in. Including guest artists from college concerts is common practice, I know, but one that felt like cheating. Then there’s the gray area of including someone that I’ve hired on a gig, that didn’t hire me. Yeah, I’ve played with that person and gained experience from that interaction, but that’s not the same as getting hired by that person. Then there’s the shady practice of including someone in a resume whom I’ve worked as a member of a large ensemble backing someone who had nothing to do with hiring me and maybe didn’t even meet me. So as each of these somewhat dubious inclusions were dropped from each updated revision of my bio to be replaced by more authentic working credits, there was a sense of relief that my sited relationships are more direct and only placed in my bio because each of these artists has directly and repeatedly hired me.

And it’s all to create a story. A somewhat lengthy bio with authentic associations is nice. It helps to get work. I went through a lot of years and rejection and embarrassment to get certain gigs and then learned how to prepare and execute on those gigs to receive return invitations. Between the time I developed the ability to get desirable calls and the time I developed the ability to consistently get called back for a second, there were a lot of “one and done” gigs, and consequently a lot of names on my earlier bio renditions which represented one gig. So now I am able to put a bio together of people who know who I am and have called me for multiple gigs, and while logic would suggest that my insecurities and bad feelings about the process would dissolve – here they are.
Before I continue, I must stipulate that your continued interest in the inner madness of my very twisted sense of self in no way establishes you, the reader, as my official counselor, therapist, or other mental health professional. While I appreciate your kind attention, you will not be paid for the service regardless of your credentials.

What’s happening here? I’m blogging that’s what’s happening. For quite sometime I’ve been journaling, well actually for my entire adult life I’ve been journaling. I have read exactly none of my old entries – well almost none. In the past year and a half I’ve written in an online, but private journal that tracks the number of words I write and let’s me know when I get to 750 words and tracks the number days I do succeed in writing 750 words. I’ve found this an especially worthwhile endeavor. Check out 750words.com if you’re interested in finding out more about it. So now I’m wondering if I can blog publicly with some regularity. It’s easy to write privately knowing that no one, not even myself, probably will ever read it. It’s cathartic and helpful to reflect and see what my mind comes up with, but writing for public consumption, that takes some kind of guts. It also takes A LOT longer.

This entry is in my private journal, but I’m writing with the intention of publishing it on my all new reconstructed website, mikeleejazz.com.

What you can clearly see is that the topic I started out talking about went to a place I didn’t intend and this is the beauty of journaling – the seemingly innocent discussion of writing a new bio – which I thought would be a single sentence in a list of events that were causing me to self reflect – became a 400 word segment in what looks to be a multi part blog now. This is the intention of spontaneous writing: winding into territory of hidden fears and possible neurosis that wasn’t really defined until I let the writing wind through and shed light on deeply held unexamined thoughts.