Until I became passionate about music, I always felt I was a slow learner. I thought that my intellectual lamp burned a 20-watt bulb--a sentiment I'm sure was shared by many of my teachers. In some instances, I was probably viewed as just plain old stupid. My grades all throughout school were unimpressive at best, which matched perfectly with my disinterest in school--even more tragic, my disinterest in learning. Attending school was just a five-day-a-week, an eight-hour-a-day commitment that prolonged my enjoyment of Christmas break and summer.
When I discovered jazz and improvising that all changed. I acquired not only a love for music, but for learning. Even more important, I discovered that they are different approaches to learning.
One insight I gained from my quest to become a skilled improviser, which began when I was in the 8th grade, is that I can accomplish and understand most anything I put my mind to, no matter how difficult the task may seem. Like many young students who are bitten by the jazz bug, it was the first time I practiced my instrument without being told to. I practiced because I was excited about learning, not because I feared the repercussions of not doing well on a test.
Why is this important? When you're incentivized by the love of learning, even when what you're doing is difficult, you won't be easily deterred. You will work at it for as long as it takes to figure it out: hours, days, months, or even years--which is often the case when trying to figure out jazz. In some instances, it's a matter of finding your own unique way of understanding. And this is also very important. In more traditional subjects like math, science and history, students are often motivated by grades, not the love of numbers, or the love of understanding nature and the past. With short-sightedness learning, it skews our ability to see the bigger picture, hence, making us less motivated to go beyond the call of duty.
Had I had the same love for learning when it came to these subjects that I had for jazz and improvising, I would have had an entirely different relationship with hitting the books, as they say. I would have read about history without being told to, or I would have practiced mathematical equations until they became easy, and maybe even fun. I would have studied different types of mathematicians and schools of thought on math until I found something that resonated with me personally--like the way I did with music. I went beyond the Neal Hefti stage band arrangements and discovered Count Basie and Duke Ellington.
When I discovered jazz and improvising, I was inspired not just by the greatness of the music and its players, but my relationship to it, and the small but monumental sense of ownership I felt from finding my own way of understanding it. And this certainly was not the case when it came to more traditional subjects.
My big "aha!" moment regarding learning came when I was in college. My roommate invited me to drive down to Yale University with him one weekend to visit his cousin, who was also our age. What struck me the most about his cousin and her friends was how passionate they all were about learning. They studied tirelessly during the weekend not because they had a test the following Monday, but because it was fun for them. And they conversed about the things they were learning with the same enthusiasm and curiosity than many young people their age do when conversing about current events and tabloid gossip.
Where I went to high school in Hampton, Virginia there were probably a few students like this, but they certainly did not exist in large numbers the way they did at Yale. This experience demystified my idea of the smart person, the natural academic genius if you will. What I discovered was that they were no different than the high performing students at Berklee who could really play. Both achieved exceptional levels of achievement through hard work and an unwavering passion for learning. It wasn't just something they were born with. None of my friends in high school ever discussed anything that went on in the classroom outside of the classroom, unless we were inquiring how each other scored on the test. There was certainly no intrinsic learning taking place. We were mostly incentivized by grades and report cards.
But I'm happy to say that today, even though I'm far passed worrying about receiving traditional grades for my intellectual and creative efforts, I do love learning, and I feel pretty confident that I can conceptually understand most subjects and see their relevance in the larger scheme of life. And it's not that I'm smarter, I'm just motivated by a more love-of-learning-oriented incentive. More important, even if my understanding is unclear in the beginning, like when I first tried to figure out how to improvise, I now understand that I can examine things from many linear and non-linear viewpoints until I find what works for me. I've discovered that learning does not have to be a one-size-fits-all paradigm. Just as we all talk differently, walk differently, and think differently, it should be no surprise that we all learn differently. And I owe this new understanding to jazz.