Ask Damian Erskine: Teaching

Q: Do you teach? If so, how do you approach different players needs and styles and needs? Do you like teaching or would you just rather gig?

A: I do teach occasionally, although I’m usually too busy playing and traveling to take on too many students. That said, I did just accept an adjunct position at PSU here in Portland!

Generally speaking, everyone learns differently and everyone has different goals for their music and instrument. I’ve found that the best approach has been to assess what the player really wants to do with their instrument and then try and foster a lesson plan that addresses both their immediate needs and future goals. There are, of course, a lot of fundamentals that I believe everyone needs to become aware of and I will enforce the shedding of certain things (for example, knowing what notes are in any given chord. How can you play confidently if you don’t know what notes are in the chord you’re playing over?)

I try and balance the technical with the musical (i.e. taking a break from chord inversions and the like by just playing and having them navigate changes by ear that I may make up on the spot, for example).

Honestly, I’ve never really liked teaching. It’s not in my comfort zone. But, that is exactly why I do it! For me, one of my weaknesses had always been a fear of jumping into the unknown (musically speaking). In order to “shed” this, I force myself to take gigs that scare me or do things that intimidate me. This builds my confidence if I do well and, if I don’t do well, makes crystal clear what my weaknesses are and allows me to grow.

I have grown leaps and bounds as a musician since not allowing myself the luxury of ever saying no to anything out of fear!

Of course, I’ve always been a player, so I’m much more comfortable on stage than in front of a one or a few kids with basses in their hands staring at me blankly, waiting for the magic words that will make them shred.

If I can instill one thing in my students, it would be that there are no magic words, no amount of inherent talent, no amount of Youtube video watching that will make you a fantastic player. The only thing separating the genius (IMHO) from the hack is dedication and hard work. You have to love it so much that you can’t not do it.

Kind of like the saying that “to master anything, one must spend at least 10,000 hours doing it!”, when you love what you’re doing so much that you think about it when you’re not doing it and can’t wait to do it again, then you might become the next Victor, Jaco, Dave Holland, etc…

Because of this, I want students to know they must dedicate themselves fully and push their exploration of their music and instrument beyond any lessons someone gives them if they really want to master their instrument!

If they just want to be good enough to jam with friends, then I foster that as well! Not everyone needs to be a master. It can simply be about having fun.

In that case, drop the hardcore Berklee Level IV theory stuff and have fun making up pentatonic licks and trying to foster their ability to really listen and hear where the music is going.

Cater your lessons to the student (and not your strengths in teaching, or method) and you’ll both hopefully learn something!

Have a question for Damian Erskine? Send it to [email protected]. Check out Damian’s instructional books, Right Hand Drive and The Improviser’s Path.

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