Clinician-To Be or Not To Be

by

Mel Martin

 

Part of the jazz musician's mandate is to pass along his knowledge and experiences. This is one of the prime ways the music is kept alive. Aspiring students will take this knowledge and attempt to incorporate it into their ongoing efforts to develop themselves as players, composers and arrangers. Others may never reach a professional level of performance but become fans, music industry personnel, record company presidents, President of the United States, head of the Federal Reserve or, God forbid, jazz writers.

Among the early experiences a musician usually undertakes in this area is some form of private teaching. This becomes a source of extra income as well as a means of constantly going over basics. In my case, I took beginning students while still in high school. Later on as an adult, that experience came in handy as aspiring musicians would come to me as a professional to learn what they could. Frankly, at that time, I can't say that I enjoyed teaching very mush probably due to my own insecurity as a °teacher.° This points up the fact that teaching is inextricably linked to personal growth as I now derive considerable pleasure from teaching as well as doing clinics and guest soloist spots at schools throughout the United States. I believe that this kind of work must be studied, researched and improved upon just as one masters an instrument and musical style.

The field of Jazz Education has grown so much since my teen years that it has become a major part of the jazz musician's income and lifestyle. Fine arrangers such as Bob Mintzer, Frank Mantooth, Manny Albam, Jim McNeeley, Phil Woods and many others have published their charts for school bands that are buying them in increasingly large numbers. Extensive Jazz programs exist in most colleges and universities. High schools and middle schools as well as schools specializing in the arts also have some form of jazz education. Actually, this should be taught in the grammar schools as well because they provide feeder programs to the higher levels. Unfortunately, there have been many cutbacks in educational funding and these have been the first to go. The Berkeley, California system had an excellent example of this type of structure which turned out many fine professional level bands and musicians by the time they reached high school.

Many schools have funds available to bring in clinicians. A clinician comes to a school and interacts with the students in a number of ways. He may be a guest soloist with the school jazz band, usually a full big band. Or he may come in with his own working group, perform and perhaps be in residency for a few days. Or it may be a one or two hour clinic where he may coach the ensemble, play a bit and answer questions from the students. This is a simple summary of something that is far more complicated. Many Jazz musicians who have some experience under their belts and, perhaps, a few recordings on the market may wish to augment their income while travelling or at home by doing some clinician work. Or they may be invited directly by a school to come and perform with the school band. This is often where it starts. But what really is happening is that a whole new can of worms is being presented. Being a clinician requires an entirely new dynamic that a good performer may not be ready for. It is another level of communication, openness and giving and the ability to quickly bring about change and problem solving results. There are no classes, licenses or degrees in this. It comes from having many professional experiences and a true dedication to unselfishly passing along these resources. The most important part is a genuine interest in other people. A clinician will be interacting with teachers, administrators, students, parents, musical instrument dealers and manufacturers, organizations such as the International Association of Jazz Educators, The National Endowments for the Arts and other arts agencies. All of these things may be important elements of the clinician's new found "career ."

Providence and trial and error usually are the first steps in becoming an experienced clinician. My first experience as a guest soloist was a call from a Bay Area high school that included a young trumpet player named Jon Faddis and saxophonist Alex Foster. This experience opened up a situation which required me to deal directly with a band instructor, parents, relatives and, of course, student musicians. At that time most of my employment centered around nightclubs and performance. I hadn't been in a school environment since I had left college. In another instance a number of years later, I was asked to do a large clinic where many schools would be participating. This involved me getting up in front of a large number of students and speaking about the saxophone as if I was some appointed expert on the subject which I clearly was not. Afterwards some students came up to me and made some comments to me that showed that they could see right through my thin veneer of "expertise." Upon reflection, this proved to be a very enlightening experience in that I learned that you never talk down to your audience. Now I would handle the situation very differently. The first thing to do is engage your audience by, perhaps asking some questions as to where their interests are. Then you have some idea where you can direct the flow of the clinic. Another thing is to try to speak with the instructor beforehand and gauge what their interests are. Any of this type of information can be useful and help alleviate the stress created by sort of stabbing around in the dark.

Whenever I do a school clinic or in-store clinic, I first of all play. I enjoy playing solo and find that it establishes an immediate communication with all levels. Other situations can involve using a rhythm section provided by the school and, perhaps, inviting other players to participate. This can be turned into a critiquing situation where you can respectfully and tactfully offer constructive ideas for each player while demonstrating in the classroom. The goal would be to offer one or two concrete suggestions that the students can immediately grasp while attempting to also pass along information that they will eventually absorb.

Other situations frequently involve rehearsing a big band ensemble which obviously requires much big band experience to draw upon. Finding the obvious flaws such as time, swing, intonation, ensemble and sectional work and dynamics is always a good place to start. It is not unusual to spend most of the class time doing this and then in the remaining five minutes be asked to explain how the soloists can improvise. I find this fairly exasperating for the simple reason that improvising and jazz phrasing are at the heart of the music. The teachers become overly involved with getting the ensemble to sound good whereas the soloists are pretty much left on their own. It clearly requires as much or more time for a student to become a good soloist. The arrangements are inevitably jazz based and require an instinctual ability from all the players to phrase and swing correctly. These are very common situations that every clinician is confronted with and their are no simple answers. it's always a treat to find a student ensemble that has mastered basics so that I can cover some of the fine points. Alarms always go off when I go into a school and the teacher proudly proclaims that they have covered the modes and the blues scale so therefore their students are qualified to solo. This, too, is not uncommon as this is often the way the instructor was taught. Hello-o-o-o! Can the student play a melody such as the tune they are performing? Can they improvise melodies with good jazz phrasing and articulations? Have they overcome the fear of having to play some substantial music without a chart? Can they hear tonal centers and chord qualities? Above all, can they swing? It's always amazing to me to find instructors that are in the situation of trying to train young musicians for competitions and performances and can never figure out how to go beyond mere ensemble work and spend any quality time helping soloists develop. They need to be making recommendations for listening, requiring students to study with qualified teachers, attend workshops and generally encourage them to jam and play as much as possible. This is ultimately what is required. A student cannot be expected to have a set of chord changes come up in an arrangement and have any idea of how to interpret this unless they have had a good deal of experience. This lies at the heart of what is wrong with jazz education, particularly with programs that emphasize large ensembles. The idea that jazz can be taught is a questionable concept at best but the idea that musicianship can be taught is not.

Another area where the professional jazz musician/clinician may find himself involved is that of musical product endorser. This might involve the players primary instrument or peripheral items such as reeds, mouthpieces, drumsticks and cymbals, software, audio equipment, cases and anything else under the sun that comes under the classification of retail merchandising: Each year the National Association of Music Merchants holds it's annual conference where thousands of musicians, manufacturers, educators and fans gather to view and try new products, hear professionals demonstrate same, meet the performers and generally party down with other members of the industry. And a large industry it is! Sales of musical instruments and related items are in the billions. As a professional clinician/performer it is useful to be involved with this. Often a musical instrument company will support particular artists in a number of ways and on a number of levels. Everyone sees the highly visible endorsements by artists that have reached a certain career level and name recognition. This is a nice stroke that often lifts the visibility of an artist and adds to their overall visibility. The same companies usually offer a less visible but no less important financial component in helping to pay for the costs of a clinician. Most companies will sponsor a performer in conjunction with a school and/or a music dealer so that the clinician gets paid his correct fee. This can involve a certain amount of paper work and pre-planning on the part of the performer. I have been able to sustain periods of touring doing mostly this type of work. The key here is to understand that no one is obligated to do anything for you. If that happens, then fine. If you do a great job of working with students and faculty, play well under all circumstances, carry yourself with dignity and intelligence and a lack of ego then you may be invited back for future engagements. I have had many experiences where the person that brought me in was very happy with my work and went on to badmouth the last several clinicians that had come through for not being communicative, helpful and making many unreasonable demands. They also talk to other teachers so, as in music, your credibility is all that you have. People skills are as important as your musical skills.

So the decision to become a professional clinician requires as much thought and patience as becoming a jazz musician. It is a long evolutionary process that involves a person's personal growth, commitment to passing on clear values in a direct and personable manner, ability to deal with people that are not necessarily like yourself and the ability to travel and work alone. Other things that help a clinician are writings such as books and magazines, a number of big band and small group arrangements suitable for students at various levels, a good up-to date promotional package with some reviews slanted to the educational market, a useful and informative web site, e-mail connections as many students and teachers are on the internet, a good database of jazz schools throughout the USA and elsewhere and a lot of experience in working with students. These are the ways it is done and some players find this type of work more appealing than others. In this day and age of jazz clubs and concerts being few and far between, it is a viable path to alternate income. But do not approach it for that reason only. If you don't find a personal level of satisfaction, how will anyone else be able to? Do it because it brings about positive experiences. You never know. You could be influencing tomorrow's giants.


Jeff Kaliss Reviews Mel Martin's Website

Remember that jazz has often drawn its inspiration on the cutting edge of creativity and you won't be surprised that Novato saxophonist Mel Martin is responsible for one of the most entertaining and informative sites which this sometime surfer has ever witnessed on the World Wide Web.

The Web and the associated Internet, linking computer users like you and me all over the globe, have been overhyped by the media, as is so much these days, but guys like Martin are there to remind us that there are good human uses to these daunting cybernetic tools. All you need is a Mac or a PC with a modem which offers you telephone access to the Web, and a Web browser program, preferably Netscape. Once connected, you type in Martin's Uniform Resource Locator (URL, basically a Web address): http://linex.com/~msaxman. (The squiggly line before the first 'm' is a tilde, usually at the upper left of your keyboard, and you shouldn't include the period with which I ended that sentence.)

Then lean back for a few seconds and watch as your screen is graced with a nice big color shot of the "saxman" who's not only been livening up Bay Area clubs and hotels for decades, including Sausalito's no name (where you can hear him tonight and on April 6) and the Ritz Carlton (where you can listen to him over San Francisco's best brunch on April 14), but has also sustained the art form by putting together big bands for local visits by Dizzy Gillespie and Benny Carter (whose music Martin has recorded on the BlueMoon and Enja labels) and co-founding the fabulous Bebop & Beyond ensemble.

You'll get details about all those activities on the Website, along with links (click-activated transfers) to separate sites for Gillespie, Carter, and a host of other jazz giants. But that's not all: your host also transports you over the Web to a variety of worldwide jazz clubs, magazines (including Jazz Online, where you can read more by this writer), and radio and tv stations. You can get some background on "A Great Day In Harlem" (a wonderful, commercially successful jazz documentary), read essays by Diz on "Some of the Prerequisites for a Successful Jazz Musician" and by Martin on the synergy between saxophone playing and Zen Buddhism, access all kinds of sax resources, download the chart for Carter's "When Lights Are Low", and join Usenet chat groups with other computerized jazz fans.

"Being a Gemini," Martin notes in text at one of his site junctures, "I am a naturally curious individual". That's apparent as he profers yet more links outside jazz per se, to his wider interests in healing, education, and Web design. His own proficiency in the latter area is apparent in his tasteful use of colors, textures, graphic layout, and navigational tools throughout his site.

This is the kind of Web experience which occupies you for hours, perhaps putting you in competition with your cyberactive offspring. The result may be a deeper interest in jazz and/or in promoting your own enterprises and interests by mounting your own Web page.

If you'd like a few more technotravel tips in the meantime, feel free to e-mail me at And don't include the period.

Reviewed for the Commuter Times, Marin County March 29, 1996


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