Sam Newsome

Sam Newsome
"The potential for the saxophone is unlimited." - Steve Lacy

Tuesday, March 13, 2018

Seek Heroes, Not Mentors

First, a quick story: In 1996, when I first began playing the soprano exclusively, I had no idea of what I was doing—musically, technically, and career-wise. So my first inclination was to get a teacher/mentor to help guide me through the process.

My first thought was Jane Ira Bloom since she lives in New York and has had the most experience playing the soprano exclusively than any other living person, other than Steve Lacy. I ultimately decided not ask her, because she did not strike me as the mentoring type. But I did attend a few of her gigs, and she was very gracious in answering some of my questions regarding embouchure building and sound control.

I then thought about Dave Liebman. He seemed perfect. He had developed the soprano to an unprecedented level, he was a dedicated educator and had traveled a similar path of having put down the tenor sax in pursuit of a new and more original voice on the soprano. However, during this stage of my straight horn path, he had already returned to the tenor—which did not exactly boost my confidence in my decision.

But ultimately I did not ask Jane nor Dave—for many reasons. Primarily because I did not want them as mentors, but as heroes.

What’s the difference? The difference is pretty significant.

Heroes inspire us to follow our own path. Mentors tell us which path to take. When you follow a mentor, you do what they do. When you follow a hero, you do as they do. And to bring the point home even further: One gives you a map to follow, the other allows you to create and revise your plan as you go along.

Having a mentor has its perks:

  • Easy access to information.
  • Access to their network of musicians. 
  • And most importantly, they offer you the excuse of being able to say that you were just doing what you were told. So if you don’t succeed you are not forced to bare total responsibility.

This is actually of the issues I have with jazz education, which is that we’re into the business of mentoring, while we should be more in the business of hero-ing. In music pedagogy, students are trained to follow orders, not their musical instincts. They're not trained to take risks, nor to problem solve,  unless it's a math problem. And I’m guilty as charged. I don’t have the answer. But one step in the right direction is to offer students both mentor-ship and hero-ship. Show them what a good map looks like, but then encourage them to go out and create their own.

But a special shout-out to all of mentors and heroes. Your influence us forever implanted.

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