Steve Barry: Constructive Discussion and the Learning Process

Posted on 14 July 2013

originally published at

Andrew Dickeson and I had an interesting chat during a jam session a few nights ago about the process of learning jazz (whether it be on the bandstand or in the classroom) and the vital role that constructive discussion (not criticism) plays. It’s a phrase that’s always floated around and sounds glaringly obvious to read, but in reality I’m surprised by how little more-than-superficial discussion about playing goes on in the various musical contexts I’m involved in. I’ve found in reality it’s pretty infrequently that musicians will take 5 (sorry…) after playing a tune at a session or a gig and talk in any great depth about the music making that just occurred – or especially to discuss the personal performances of any musicians in the group. Yes it’s an aural tradition, but that shouldn’t in any way diminish the necessity of verbal dialogue about performing music, especially when performing it with other people.

Firstly I feel it’s important to make a distinction between ‘criticism’ and ‘discussion’. ‘Criticism’ carries a negative connotation to most people (and the Merriam-Webter dictionary), and also implies a one-way monologue directed towards an individual from a person of higher knowledge or opinion. Don’t get me wrong, it can be useful, but in a learning and pedagogical context – especially with subjective pursuits like the arts – it falls short of the collaborative discovery potential implied by ‘discussion’. It’s a common principal of educational psychology that open discussion among peers helps expedite cognitive growth and retention; an environment where each person feels that they have something valuable to contribute.

That all being said I’m sure many musicians both here and overseas haven’t encountered the issue, but down under it’s been a large part of my experience of group jazz teaching and learning and was especially true of my experiences in the tertiary environment. While I had tons of great one-on-one lessons, as soon as a group of people were involved in an improv class or ensemble for the most part it seemed like there was a vacuuum for constructive musical discussion, and a reluctiveness on the students’ part to engage and think critically about their learning and related thought processes. However it is a reciprocal issue – partly the lecturer’s responsibility to initiate the converstaion in a gentle, constructive manner, and also in the student’s best interests to acknowledge their position of apprentiship and be open to the dialogue. In this way learning is accellerated and both parties can engage fully and satisfyingly in the process. (Mihaly Csikszentmihalyi discusess this state of “optimal experience”, or energized focus and full immersion in an activity in his ground-breaking book “Flow”).

I came across a classic example of this while taking a summer jazz workshop Siena, Italy last year, where I had the opportunity to take a small ensemble class with bassist Reuben Rogers. At the very start of the first class Reuben started the dialogue in a relaxed but serious manner by reminding us that we were all there to learn and should be ultimately aiming to be the best musicians (and human beings) we can be (himself included). He continued by saying that anything he said during the course of our time together was said out of love and a desire to help the learning process. Taking that 5 minutes to say that helped us all leave our egos and insecurities at the door and focus on being the best ensemble we could be, despite the often fairly drastic difference in experience levels of the bandmates. In the end we all learnt a lot, formed deeper bonds than we otherwise would have, and had a total blast doing it!

I’ve also recently started a new collaborative band with some longstanding friends, and we’re all making a conscious effort to talk openly, honestly and deeply about the music we’re making together. We’ve found that in turn leads to closer personal relationships, and ultimately a tighter musical unit. I want to know if someone feels like my comping gets in their way, and likewise if the drummer is playing a groove that feels uncomfortable under me I want to be able to discuss it.

But sometimes it’s not an easy conversation to initiate. Everyone has a different level of confidence in their abilities, and accordingly a different level of receptiveness to open and often personal constructive discussion. Nevertheless, if the mutual desire to improve is present there’s always a way to tactfully bring up issues. With that in mind here’s a couple of ideas on initiating a successful dialogue:

1. As the saying goes, always remember that no question is a dumb question. The chances are that you won’t be the first person to have whatever questions or doubts you’re experiencing, and someone around you probably has probably been through the same situation and has a great answer they’d be more than happy to share with you. I’ve found while taking students of my own that there are a lot of areas of my own knowledge I’ve overlooked or forgotten over the years, and even the most basic of queries from another party can help to refresh and recement that information – which is actually pretty inspiring!

2. Realise that acknowleding a lack of ability in a particular area isn’t a personal weakness, very contrarily it’s a courageous, postive indication to others that you’re serious about the activity and fast-tracking your learning.

3. It might sound cliche, but begin each musical situation with an open dialogue about what you’d like to achieve from the session. This is a great time to bring up anything you’ve been practicing, any ideas you’ve picked up from records, any concepts for arrangements you’d like to try and so on. Whether it’s a stadium gig, background music at a wedding or a session in your backyard, remember it’ll always be a more fulfilling experience for everyone involved if you can start together on the same page – and we should be striving to make every musical experience a fulfilling one.

4. Don’t beat yourself up about your playing. I’ve had plenty of occasions where I’ve been hugely frustrated by my performance on a certain gig or session and left feeling darkly negative about myself and music -  and I know I’m not alone in that. Yes, we need to keep driving ourselves forward but the passion should always come from a positive determination to improve and a joy in the learning process. Negativity is totally counter-productive.

5. Finally, if you’re on the receiving end of a question or someone attempts to initiate a dialogue like the one I’ve been talking about, commit yourself to engaging compassionately in the discussion.

It’s an ongoing challenge for all of us to acknowledge there is always learning to do, to strive to be the best we can be and not let our egos or insecurities dictate how we interact with other musicians, or limit our potential. I read recently the human brain has the capacity to make more synaptic connections between neurons than there are atoms in the known universe, so I’d say that potential is pretty unlimited!