I was recently speaking with a musician friend about my teacher, Glenn Dodson. I was very fortunate to have had four years of Glenn's teaching during my most formative years. What I say, to anyone who asks, is that I could talk for hours about what he did for me, but I sum up his teaching with two thoughts. He taught me to be a musician (as opposed to simply a trombonist), and he taught me to teach myself. These are precisely his goals as a teacher; he said to me many times that when our time together is over, he hopes that he will have prepared me to be able to teach myself. He did.
Reflecting on my two thoughts (especially the latter), my friend said that Glenn had educated me, as opposed to having trained me. I had never thought about it in that way, but I realized that he was right. Take for an example a writer or philospher; They have read much, and observed human behavior, and from that they have acquired knowledge. They then take this knowledge and create thoughts, beliefs, philosophies, etc. that are uniquely their own. This, is having been educated. Now, take for example an athlete; an athlete is coached to reach top physical form in order to achieve a set goal. Whether that goal be to jump highest, run fastest, or score the most points, the concern is not to do it with the most style or individualism, but simply to do it. This, is having been trained.
This got me to thinking about trombone teaching today. I'm afraid that too many teachers are simply training their students. There are some very fine players/teachers that are, in my opinion, training their students almost to the point that they are clones. Very good mind you, but still clones. I have worked with quite a number of trombonists over the last several years, who all had been students of one prominent trombonist, who will remain nameless. They are all very good players, and some are much more successful (in terms of name recognition) than I, but within a few minutes of hearing them, you could tell exactly who they studied with. That, to me, is not putting your personality on the music; it's putting your teacher's personality on the music. I have known many of Glenn's students, and I have never thought, "He studied with Glenn Dodson." I thought, "that's a good, musical trombonist." This comes from him having given his students the musical knowledge it takes to make their performing uniquely their own. I am now, several years since studying with him, maturing enough musically to start truly understanding and using many of the ideas and concepts that he had planted the seeds for years ago.
I think that we as musicians need to reassess our priorities in our teaching. I realize that there is pressure to achieve certain goals; to get into the college of choice, to win the audition for the job of choice, etc., but I still think that the first priority should be to help our students become the best musicians possible, and that doesn't mean they should be carbon copies of ourselves. This, I think, starts with our motivation to teach. Teaching has helped me become a better musician, and that is one reason that I teach. But the main reason is to help my students achieve what they want to achieve; not what I want them to achieve---what they want to achieve. Also, I see too many musicians concerned with how their students' success (or lack of) reflects on their reputations as teachers. I think that ego does nothing but get in the way of being a good teacher (or performer for that matter). What I tell my students is that they don't have to play a given piece the exact same way that I do, but they have to sell it to me. If they choose to play something at a slightly different tempo or dynamic, or choose to phrase something somewhat differently, that's fine, as long as it's musical. It doesn't always happen, but when it does, I really dig it, because I realize that I'm starting to do for my students, what Glenn Dodson did for me. I'm giving them the tools and the freedom to make a musical statement uniquely their own.
Bass Trombonist Barry McCommon is a soloist, freelance artist, studio musician, and teaching artist based in Philadelphia, where he is a first call musician for much of the classical and commercial/jazz scenes.