At 30, I’ve spent half my life in higher education. In brief: I spent 3 years at a community college developing and being encouraged as a bassist and academic; 4 years at a highly competitive undergraduate program feeling like the worst bassist to ever walk the earth – but being halfway decent as an academic; and 8 years in graduate school being praised for my academic work and still firmly convinced of my mediocrity as a bassist. When I got the PhD, I almost immediately jumped ship on anything resembling traditional academia and began playing bass, teaching jazz/bass, and writing about practice full-time. While some of that decision was based on the huge crises currently raging in higher education, for me the decision ultimately came down to one fact: I wanted to be a musician, not an academic. The fact that I’d been repeatedly told that I was bad at the former and good at the latter no longer mattered.
Music education (and American society in general) is plagued with the idea that natural talent means you’re meant for a given profession. The musicians who are most encouraged by teachers tend to have had the privileges of early training and being able-bodied. Those of us who don’t quite fit the mold eventually run into discouragement from teachers because our lack of abilities is taken as a sign of lack of motivation/ passion.
What finally allowed me to come into my own as a bassist was getting over being “bad.” The turning point for me was a few years ago when I was starting to practice yoga. For the first time, I learned how to use my body, make adjustments, and respect my limits. When I applied these concepts to bass, my technique shot up rapidly. In a somewhat surreal turn of events, the material I learned as an undergrad (while slogging through classes that I was barely passing) now comes out in my playing and teaching. I’m now a “good,” well-trained bassist and music educator – but I had to be the one to get me there.
Because I teach outside of academia, many of my students feel like they’re “bad” musicians – or at least not “true” musicians. I know where they’re coming from because I was in that position for so long. But I also know something else – a truth that may not be apparent to them right now: if they have the passion, the true desire to be a musician and play their instrument, they will get better and they will get to the point where they consider themselves “good” musicians. My job is to make sure they have help along the way. But most importantly, I’m there to make sure they don’t have to go through the ordeal of getting a PhD to get to that point, like I did…