The Joys of Useless College Majors Pt. 2 – Post-Secondary Education Blues

Missed Part One? Click here…

The enemy, in this case, was a grizzled old sonuvabitch named Jack who had recently become the head of the university’s jazz department. This guy had seen it all, twice. A thirty year career in the pits, rubbing elbows with some of the most hallowed names in jazz, had culminated in a cushy gig molding the next generation of torchbearers for this distinguished genre. While in many professions a faculty job is viewed as the pasture to which one is put out after outliving one’s usefulness, teaching in jazz is not only encouraged, it is practically prerequisite. Jack was a quirky but gifted educator; however, he had seen enough of the world to know that anyone possessing anything less than utterly fanatical dedication to their craft would quickly be ground down and spit out by the relentless wheels of an utterly Darwinian music business; therefore, he took it upon himself to identify these individuals before the industry had a chance to crush their spirits, and redirect them toward safer pastures.

So into the lion’s den I wandered: eighteen years old, brash enough to have my own very stubborn ideas about how music should be played, yet lacking the self-assuredness of adulthood necessary to back up such bold convictions. Experiencing the world outside my  tiny rural hometown for the first time, I must have looked the spitting image of the musical dilettante; constantly distracted, always playing or saying the wrong thing at the wrong time, too green in the world to hybridize the lessons being taught with my own inner vision. Oh, I’d certainly been scolded previously by music teachers on occasion; after all, I was still a teenager. Nonetheless, I knew – I just knew I possessed such limitless talent that a music career was not only inevitable, it was going to be downright easy. I sat down, guitar in hand, ready to tap into that ethereal wellspring from which all great players draw their boundless creativity…

“There’s something fundamentally wrong with the way you’re playing your instrument.” Jack’s words sliced through my reverie like an executioner’s axe. Baffled, I attempted to continue playing for a moment; stumbled on a phrase, nearly regained my momentum, then just sort of… stopped. I could stomach the occasional “constructive criticism”, but nobody had ever had the stones to tell me something like that, at least no one who knew anything worth knowing about the guitar. My head was swimming. Anger, frustration, confusion… I went through a thesaurus’ worth of emotion in about two seconds flat, awaiting the qualifying statement from the man I was now utterly convinced was a complete musical ignoramus.

“It’s your rhythm, your swing. It just feels hokey. What are you listening to?” I rattled off a few artists – Joe Pass, Wes Montgomery, King Crimson, all the boilerplate names a sophisticated guitarist would be expected to have at the ready. My tone dripped indignation; who the hell was this old fart to question MY credentials? I was a TALENT goddammit, not some snot-nosed hack who had just picked up the instrument a month ago. I tried again, and again, and again… each take worse than the last. The harder I tried, the less impressed Jack became. It was like a living nightmare, like I was watching my talent wither and die before my eyes, and all because of some quirk in my technique I couldn’t even hear.

After two years smacking my head against the brick wall of institutionalized music education, low on funds and thoroughly depressed about music in general, I gave up on school; then, after another year or two playing rock gigs in the local scene, on music as a living entirely. After a few false starts, I managed to find an alternative niche in IT, and began a cozy career as a corporate trainer. I never stopped playing guitar, and even picked up the odd gig here and there, but I had managed to convince myself whatever opportunity I may have perceived had long since passed me by.

The revelation came shortly after my thirtieth birthday. Every previous attempt at re-invigorating my interest in taking music seriously had been stymied; either by self doubt or the sting of my imagined failure in college. I just hadn’t practiced enough, I hadn’t listened to the “right” music, I didn’t “want it” enough… I had developed an entire litany of reasons not to invest as much into my art as I really wanted to. Then it hit me: maybe, just maybe, I had spent the last several years taking things way too seriously. So I just started playing, in the truest sense of the word – just practicing whatever piqued my interest at any given moment.

Ironically, it was during one of these sessions that I discovered the fatal flaw in my technique which had sunk my aspirations ten years prior, and sure enough, I really did have a hokey sense of rhythm in certain contexts. The problem all this time hadn’t been in the criticism, but in how I reacted to it; this sort of fervent solemnity with which I addressed every stinking thing in my life at eighteen, which over the years had become a knee-jerk defense mechanism to not being taken seriously. Once I learned to just relax, I found I could actually solve problems and bad habits I may have been a bit too proud to admit I had. I began retreading the lessons I remembered from college, and sure enough, I began to improve; slowly, but surely.

It only took a little more than a decade for Jack’s lessons to sink in. I never got to be the “brilliant young talent” I had always wanted to be; however, age isn’t really the big deal I’d once thought it to be, and having a corporate-type day job beats the starving artist routine every day of the week. I finally figured it out; I can play for fun, but still take it seriously. I think there may be a metaphor for life in there somewhere; I don’t really have time to sort it all out though. I’d rather go practice.

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