At some point in our musical journey most of us will seek the assistance of a more experienced musician to help us hone our skills. Traditionally this was done through a type of mentorship in which a less experienced musician might get the opportunity to learn from a pro either on a bandstand or in a practice room. Bill Evans (saxophonist) comes to mind as he says he really blossomed and learned a great deal from his early days with Miles Davis. There were many others and in some ways the tradition continues on but is much less present. For those of us without a pro mentor lessons are the next best option.
There are 4 styles of lessons in terms of interactivity: face to face, Skype (computer mediated musical lessons), video lessons, books. Within each of these lesson styles are various levels of interaction with the instructor and with the musical community at large. For some online instructors the community is a vital part of their program.
I have to make it clear that my preferred method is Face to Face. I feel it is very important that the instructor is able to see and hear your technique clearly and from any angle necessary to help the musician be more efficient and comfortable as they play. Regardless of how long you’ve been playing a second set of eyes can be a great resource in helping diagnose any playing issues. For example, I had a tough time in a unison lick in the Thad Jones piece “Groove Merchant”. It took a great friend and amazing local saxophonist to see that I could tighten up the lick at speed by using side C and forked F# to be more efficient. Those small changes reduced my finger movement by 25% and evened out the phrase. Without being able to see this another instructor may have just sent me back to the practice room to shed the lick more.
Skype lessons have been popular for quite a while now. In fact several of my favorite players currently offer Skype lessons on limited basis. Monsters like Tim Price, Ronnie Cuber and Gary Smulyan take the time to teach via this medium. Next to face to face this may be the only option to study with high caliber musicians that are otherwise unavailable due to geographic limitations. There are some serious limitations though and for the most part they are technical. First, if you’ve ever used Skype then you know that the audio can be quite tinny due to compression and is limited by the students equipment and or the instructors listening equipment. Secondly, the video is at a fixed position, so other than the instructor asking the student to turn or step closer to the video camera it is difficult to observe the nuances of a students performance. Thirdly, and most importantly in my book, is the lack of direct human interaction at close proximity. Virtual lessons can serve to add a distance between student and teacher even greater than the physical distance.
Video lessons can range from the classic VHS tape to the more modern streaming sites. Sites like Bob Reynolds lesson site and Jazz Everyone offer expert tutelage but very little instructor student time. By their very nature it would be nearly impossible for sites with hundreds or thousands of members to get a traditional 30 minutes to 1 hour lesson with the instructor. I mean the poor lesson teacher has to eat, sleep and write new material. The best of these sites really focus on bringing people together to answer questions and the instructor acts as a moderator to the discussion. This kind of group learning can be useful and provide a wonderful sense of community to those subscribed to the site. On the other hand to the paid subscriber it can feel as though they are not receiving the kind of attention they might want from the instructor. And there is little to no feedback on tone or technique from the instructor.
Books are the 4th type of musical learning device. Books include instructional manuals like Top Tones by Sigurd Raschèr or Three-Note Voicings and Beyond by Randy Vincent. These tomes require the student to have a significant amount of self discipline. The student must learn to take the musical leap off of the page and into understanding of the concepts and techniques on display. To gain the most from learning books requires commitment to the material and the ability to see the big picture and the small details without someone interpreting the results. The student must be their own worst critic and greatest cheerleader. I think books should be the tool of last resort for learning to improvise or general musicality. Book have a place but i don’t think they can take the place of any of the other options.
TAKE AWAY: For the record I am currently a subscriber to online learning resources, own several dozen books, have taken lessons via Skype, Google hangouts, and had face to face lessons. Each learning method offers advantages and disadvantages. It is up to the student to discover what method works best for them. Though it has been my experience that as a player matures musically they tend to work down the list from being taught to teaching the self. So if you are looking to improve your skills find a teacher and get to work.