You have a jazz studio north of Chicago in the city of Evanston. What kind of students are you attracting and working with there?
First let me tell you how it started. I have been teaching for about twenty years now. In the late 1980's, I started teaching saxophone at eight different Chicago-area high schools. I taught sixty individual lessons per week for a period of about six years. During that time, I started to get my teaching method together. I had so many students that I was able to experiment with many different approaches to teaching theory, ear-training, scales, chords, etc. I would track the student's progress and notice which teaching methods were the most effective. After a few years, I realized that my passion was more for teaching jazz improvisation than teaching basic saxophone skills. There are many wonderful saxophone teachers out there, but only a few who focus on jazz improvisation.
So, I decided that I wanted to specialize in jazz improvisation, because this is one of the things I can offer that is unique. I started to teach ear training, theory, harmony, improvisation, and how to transcribe - how to figure out things off of the record. These are really my specialties and these are the things that I enjoy doing. There are a lot of fine saxophone teachers who teach beginning level saxophone - how to read music, how to count. I did that and I enjoyed it but I didn't think that was my calling as a teacher. My thing was getting into the music aspect - showing my students piano voicings, talking about the role of the piano, talking about bass-line construction, and things like that. I wanted to train students to be good musicians, not just good saxophone players.
At times I found myself at odds with the band director. For example, one director wanted me to work primarily on sax solis in jazz band charts at each lesson, so that the school could have an impressive showing at competitions. I'd spend some of the lesson time on band music, but I felt that the students would probably never play most of those tunes ever again in real life, and that they should also be learning some Duke Ellington or Charlie Parker. I also felt that the students needed a deeper understanding of the music to improve as players and to increase their own enjoyment of the music. This could only be achieved by spending time listening to recordings, learning standard tunes, improvising, and working on transcription, theory and ear training.
I decided to move in a new direction, with no restrictions on what I taught, so I left the schools and started to teach out of my home. Once I did that, the teaching thing really took off. In addition to my high school students, I started getting more advanced players. I started to get college-level students, and even some adults who'd been playing all of their life, but wanted to learn how to improvise. After many years of teaching out of my house, a great opportunity presented itself. About two years ago, a friend of mine, Paul Maslin, opened PM Woodwind Repair in Evanston, Illinois. It's a pro-level saxophone repair shop, and about a year ago, he had the chance to expand the store, doubling its size. I had the opportunity to create a custom built teaching studio in the expanded store space. The studio was built to my own specifications, and it's just wonderful. Greg Fishman Jazz Studios opened in June 2004. It's the perfect environment for teaching. I had this room in my mind for many years, and it's just great for playing and teaching. I've outfitted the room with an excellent piano, stereo, recording equipment, Mac and PC computers, with more than 50,000 jazz recordings from my personal record collection, and even a TV for watching historic jazz videos. I've also decorated the walls with vintage album covers for extra inspiration. It's like my home away from home, where I can concentrate 100% on the music.
I teach about twenty students per week. Most of them are college or advanced high-school level players. However, I have some pro-level players who study with me as well. Some people come to me to learn how to transcribe. Others come just for ear-training. Sometimes I get other teachers who are interested in learning my teaching method.
The lessons are so packed with information that I started to record a CD for every student at each lesson. This way, the student can listen to the lesson repeatedly during the week. I found that this really helps the student's progress. For the CD recording of the lessons, I play examples on saxophone, and I can also play piano and bass as either examples or accompaniment. It's all geared towards the student's particular needs.
I listen to each student and assess him or her from a technical standpoint, as well as a musical standpoint. Then I give them what they need depending on their particular level. Their age doesn't matter - I could be giving something very advanced to a kid who is fourteen or fifteen, and give something very basic to someone who has been playing for 40 years. That's the great thing about it. There's no age limit - you can be 15 and sound just great. You don't have to wait until you are 21 or graduate from high school to sound like a professional level player.
My theory is that I am teaching a language - jazz is a language. An improvised language. I am improvising right now. We are using vocabulary to speak to each other. But we are able to communicate spontaneously. It's not like this morning I got in my car and said, "Here's this great sentence I am going to say on the interview." I describe it to students like this: if you are going to go on a date, you can't think, "Wait until I say this sentence to my date tonight - she's going to think I am so cool." It's impossible to predict what words will be appropriate to say at 7:30pm on any given evening. You can't prepare in advance. Have you ever been with a group of friends and said something off the top of your head that was really funny, that fit the mood of the moment, and then you tried to say the same thing on another occasion, and it just fell flat? Jazz is the same way. If you're counting off "Cherokee," and you immediately start thinking about what lick you're going to play when you get to the bridge on your improvised solo, you're in trouble. You need to have enough control over your musical vocabulary that you can react and express your ideas in real-time, as things are happening.
The academic approach I've seen used in a lot of schools is one that trains students by sight, rather than by sound. In other words, students are taught reading - looking at dots on the page, moving your fingers based on those dots on the page, and figuring out how to count. These are definitely valuable tools. However, I feel that there is not really enough emphasis on what the student is hearing in his head. Students look at the chord on the page and they have been trained that it is "appropriate" to play an E or a Bb when they see a C7 chord. Those are fine note choices, but if you just play them because you're "supposed" to, that's not a good enough reason. You need to hear them for yourself. These were some of the core issues we always talked about while I was getting my Masters degree in jazz pedagogy at Northwestern University.
Some students learn to play a diminished whole-tone scale when they see an altered dominant chord, and so they are going to play it because it is the "correct" thing to do. The problem with that is that it's meaningless if they arrive at those note choices by theory alone, and not by ear. I call this phenomenon "empty note playing." These are notes without specific harmonic intent. The notes may be technically correct, but they won't be as convincingly played as the same notes arrived at by a gut-level, emotional feeling to play those particular sounds.
There's another phenomenon that's closely related to empty note playing, which I call "random chord tone playing." For example, I could read a list of random words: "to rainy on I a day read love." There's nothing wrong with those words, but it's like random note playing. Now I'll put those words together with some intent: "I love to read on a rainy day."
Some students come to me when they are at the empty or random stage, and I love to get them at this point, because they are developed enough that they have some vocabulary, but they don't know how to put it into context and how to use it to build a solo. When I can see that they are noticing the difference, that it is not just a matter of playing your licks or moving your fingers around or playing something flashy, it's very satisfying, because I know I've reached them. It's all about syntax, context and intent.