Seven Words to Live By: A Journey in Music
After a long time juggling careers as a music journalist and a guitarist, I recently added another. I’m pursuing a Georgia state certificate in music education, with the aim of teaching K-5 music in the public schools. Music Ed students, as I’ve found out, have to contend with a huge flow of information while building our knowledge and skills. But for many of us there’s often one big issue that somehow looms over and defines all the rest. One theoretical insight, perhaps, or one problem or obstacle, one psychological hangup that we have to work hard to transcend. And only by transcending it, or at least fully engaging in the struggle to do so, can we come close to success in achieving our vision.
Let’s call it our Learning Objective, just like that blank field in every Lesson Plan that we need to think so carefully about before we fill it in. In my training I’ve been advised to keep the Learning Objective to no more than seven words.
Hopefully, if we’re focused and self-aware enough, we can follow that mandate — to whittle down that central challenge, that looming issue, our own personal and professional Learning Objective, to seven words or less. Maybe we’ll even be lucky enough to cross paths with a music educator who whittles it down for us, though we never asked them to.
Many years ago, I was a guitar major in the New School’s brand-new Jazz and Contemporary Music program, in its second year at the time. My classmates included Peter Bernstein, Larry Goldings, Brad Mehldau and for a short time Chris Potter — already high-level players in their teens who went on to become some of the most influential jazz musicians in the world. And right there with them were students like me, in the middle, working hard, dreaming, making significant progress but still figuring it out.
One of my teachers was Reggie Workman, who recently had the incredible honor of being named a 2020 NEA Jazz Master. Workman is the bassist on John Coltrane’s Live at the Village Vanguard, Wayne Shorter’s JuJu and Art Blakey and the Jazz Messengers’ Ugetsu, to name just a few credits on records that were landmarks in my own musical development and jazz fandom.
I was in Reggie’s ensemble and found a lot of support there, but the pivotal interaction with him was not in class. It was when I found myself in a room playing with the very best players at the school, and I believe some faculty members as well. Whatever the context, I can’t remember at all, I was thrown into a situation I wasn’t entirely prepared for. But I was playing better and better around this time and felt ready to try.
This thrown-together, top-level band decided to play “Syeeda’s Song Flute” by John Coltrane. I had never played “Syeeda’s Song Flute” before, but I knew it well from Coltrane’s Giant Steps album. They handed me a chart, and I could grasp the harmony and the challenge for improvising readily enough. So off we went, and the time came for my solo and I choked. Utterly. It was sink or swim, and I sank.
Reggie Workman was in the room. When the tune finished he tapped me on the shoulder and asked me to come with him to the main office — there was a form I had to sign, some bureaucratic college matter to attend to. (This was before email.) So we walked over to the office, he explained the form, I signed it, he took it and put it aside. And he looked at me.
It was one of those looks. This great veteran artist, bandmate of John Coltrane and Wayne Shorter, future NEA Jazz Master, whose name I’d learned in high school from the back covers of monumental jazz albums, was looking at me, sizing me up in the aftermath of a pretty low moment.
“You’ve got a lot of music in you, Adler,” he said, finally.
“I just wish you’d let it out.”
I. Just. Wish. You’d. Let. It. Out.
Seven words exactly.
After he spoke them, I tried making excuses. “Well, sometimes it depends who’s in the room,” I said, alluding to the monster jazz musicians I had just failed in front of.
“Don’t be humble before any man,” Reggie answered. “Be humble before the Creator. And when you play, you play to Him.”
The best teachers don’t magically solve your problems; they identify them like no one else can. Reggie had found my one overriding mental block, then spoke the seven exact words I needed to hear. It wasn’t weak chops or lack of knowledge that did me in on “Syeeda’s Song Flute.” It was nerves, stage fright, sheer inhibition. It was not letting my music out. That struggle continues; it’s manifested itself in all sorts of ways. But with continual self-assessment I can look back and appreciate the amount of fear I’ve been able to confront and overcome.
I never became a Brad Mehldau or Chris Potter. I became me, which meant devoting several years to an indie band with people who are my closest friends to this day. It meant doing hired accompanist work around New York with singer-songwriters and cabaret artists, jazz singers, pop bands, a gospel choir. It meant going to late-night jam sessions with top players and sometimes choking again, but sometimes fitting right in and taking flight, proving myself in ways I would never have expected.
I found success as a jazz critic and journalist, which led to adjunct work at Queens College teaching jazz history. And sometime around 2006, JazzTimes magazine sent me to interview Reggie at his home in New Jersey for a feature. He was so gracious and good to be around. He walked slightly ahead of me through his kitchen and down to the den to set up for the interview, and on the way turned his head back and hollered, “What are you doin’ with the guitar, Adler?” Still holding me accountable.
Not long after that I drifted away from playing for about two years, then came back to it with a completely renewed purpose. I started singing and performing solo. My two daughters were born, and gradually, through experiences visiting and playing in their elementary school classes, I was awakened to a new possible path forward.
As an elementary school music teacher, you let your music out. There’s literally no other option. But even so, Reggie’s seven words will be a constant reminder, an imperative in invisible ink, the implicit Learning Objective in every lesson plan I write.
Oh wait, here they come! The kids are filing in for music class. Let’s welcome them in!
Hey everyone, how are you today? Come in and find your spot on the rug!
Is everyone comfortable? Happy to be here? Great!
Now, please listen closely and then sing after me:
“It’s nice to say hello / hello / hello!”
Very good! Now listen closely again, here’s the next part — sing after me:
“It’s nice to say hello / hello, and how do you do?”
Wow, that was beautiful, class. You’ve got a lot of music in you! And together, we’re all going to let it out.