The Importance of Having a Mentor in Music

Today the internet has put an incredible amount of information at our fingertips (and also a vast amount of misinformation).  If you want to know more about any subject, or just an answer to a single question, you Google it. And more and more, we automatically expect this information to be free, requiring only a computer (or smart phone) and a tap of our finger.  However, in spite of what has been gained in having this great quantity of information, there is something missing in its quality…especially if the information gathering method of our times becomes the the only way we acquire our knowledge of music.

What is missing is the relationship with a mentor…someone with not only the information we seek, but who also has the life experience of the journey on the path of learning and growing (most often once shared with a mentor of their own)…one who knows how to turn facts and information into true knowledge, and how to make that knowledge a useful and integral part of a life in music.  This last point deserves more discussion, for in the end, we are really seeking (and really need) much more than information.  My mentors are all published authors, and yet if I had only read their work and had never worked with them in our one on one relationship, I would have never enjoyed anywhere near the same levels of understanding and growth.  Now as a teacher myself, comparing my one on one time with a student to writing this content rich blog, it is quite clear to me that there is a lot missing with the online format…that a lot of the important information slips through the cracks, and that the information alone is not enough.

The relationship between the mentor and the student is rich in the dynamics of learning. Much more than the exchange of information, an experienced mentor shares knowledge in a personalized, practical context that will also increase the student’s awareness. Information is not stuffed into the student vessel, but instead, a deeper sense of knowing is drawn out from the protege (the word educate comes from mid 15th century Latin words…educatus and educare, which are related to educere…which means “to bring out”). The mentor is a true advocate for the best that already lies within the student, and champions that best version of the student in spite of any obstacle (like confusion, discouragement, etc.) the student may experience along the way.

We all have had teachers in our lives, and I believe that every teacher has something to offer (although some may only present a good example of poor teaching), but the mentor is more than a teacher.  The mentor can also be a counselor, a therapist, a confidant…a friend, cheerleader, constructive critic, and more….he will continually challenge you to do  your best, which will certainly change the direction of your life.  My three mentors (shown below), have fulfilled these important roles and services in their own unique and special ways, and so are great examples of this exceptional kind of individual.  Their impact on my life has been both profound and beyond measure, and the debt I owe them is something I will never be able to repay.

I originally went to jazz guitarist Dale Bruning to study improvisation, but during the course of our time together ended up learning so much more. His teachings were full of rich stories from his own experience (or often about the masters of the music), and were always perfectly related to the challenges I faced at the time (my own teaching style borrows so much from his wonderful use of parables).  I learned of his lineage…that he studied with Dennis Sandole in Philadelphia, as had John Coltrane, so I felt that I was receiving very special knowledge from men that were extremely devoted to their music.  Dale would always stress the highest standards the music demanded, all the while maintaining his kind, humble nature.  His views on surviving as an artist in this world still continue to help me retain both my focus and sanity.  Dale also gave me invaluable performance experience in settings that were perfect for my level of playing at the time.

Bill Pfund was my last trumpet teacher in college, and lessons with him were different than with any other trumpet teacher I had known before.  Not only did he help me make the vital connection between the breath and the phrase, and get me to think more about how I was playing instead of just what I was playing, his patience and support saw me through one of the most difficult periods of my life.  Although his standards were extremely high, he gave me great tools for problem solving, which I continue to use every day in my own practice and teaching.  Bill always spoke with so much respect and admiration for his teachers Esotto Pellegrini and Roger Voisin, which made me feel fortunate to be a part of that lineage too, and want to match the love and intensity for music all of these men before me had.  He has given so much of himself in the service others…for his private students, his university students and colleagues, and for the membership of the International Trumpet Guild (he is a past board member and former president).

I did not spend as much time with Roy Stevens as with my other two mentors, but his knowledge of trumpet physics and his clear, detailed description of the embouchure has manifested as a beacon that I can continually set my compass and course to.  It is a great mystery to me why his name and method are not more widely known.  Roy had a great compassion for the frustrated players whose musical gifts were undermined by their physical shortcomings, and chose to specialize in the solutions to those common problems.  His practice of allowing all students to watch anyone’s individual lesson was a revelation to me, and I continue to follow that practice today in my own teaching studio.

I love this cartoon that Gary Larson (creator of the “Far Side”) did for Dale’s album with Bill Frisell (who also was a former student).  Here Dale is depicted as the mentor who is still “looking for a few good notes” (as Dale used to, and probably still does say)…and Bill can be seen as the student just arriving at the clearing after his long journey through the woods.  The point here is that when you find your mentor, you go to him…no matter where he is.  Mentors are not chosen because of their convenient location, or because they charge less money for their services.  Sometimes we may stumble upon them within the normal course of our lives, but other times we must travel great distances to work with them.  We pay them their going rate with great respect, and without haggling…knowing that we are receiving something which is priceless in value. In doing so we are investing in ourself…becoming devoted towards something greater than the current version of ourself.  Any challenge or sacrifice that we experience in the process only elevates our commitment and passion (the word passion these days is more equated with desire, but its Latin roots suggest the meanings of suffering and submission…if you really have a passion [or desire] for something, you are willing to suffer to achieve it).

Every great artist must spend countless hours in solitary, introspective study, learning as much about Self discovery as they do about music.  A mentor does not ever replace that unavoidable and necessary component of growth, but he will help to point your journey in the right direction, provide you with valuable clues along the way, and give you the needed tools for the work at hand.  In my case, the relationships with my mentors were also opportunities to develop a camaraderie with three of the most wonderful human spirits I have known.  The greatest players have had mentors, as did their mentors.  If you are truly serious about your music, you are doing yourself a great disservice if you do not put the finding a true mentor at the top of your to do list (now that would be a great Google search!).  It has been said that “when the student is ready, the guru shall appear.” Are you ready?

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This entry was posted in Composition Lessons, Improvisation Lessons, Jazz Piano Lessons, Observations on Our Human Nature and Self Improvement, Trumpet Lessons, Uncategorized and tagged , , , . Bookmark the permalink.

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