Experience… The Best Teacher?

It’s funny, the things experience teaches us, as opposed to all the info we get
over the years from teachers, books, and our musical peers. Trial and error, acceptance and rejection, praise and criticism, success and failure… these are
some of the elements that come from experience, that pick up where
“book learnin’” leaves off. “Experience” is not a static element that happens
the same way to each of us… its results are wildly different from person to
person. Why? Because our experience depends entirely upon how we take
our education into the outside world, and how far, and how boldly, we’re willing
to take it. How brave we are, how persistent we are, will ultimately define
whether our experience is the best teacher.

For many of us, experience is not simply the best teacher, it’s the only teacher!
There are tons of great careers that have been built on experience only.
In this case we learn by trying something by ourselves, by listening and
observing someone else doing a thing… how we do on our own, and what
kind of quality we shoot for in our own work, will usually define how far we
go in that endeavor, and how successful we’ll be.

Learning through experience is dependent upon several things – 1. Our ability
(and personal courage) to put whatever we do “out there” and in that, invite
criticism and rejection. 2. Continue doing what we love and “putting it out
there,” in spite of the challenges and difficulties of public opinion. 3. Having
the insight and intelligence to pay attention to the public’s response to our
efforts, being able to turn our artistic attempts toward a more favorable
response… when possible, and where applicable.

That last one is especially difficult. After all, none of us want to be accused
of selling out. Besides, there’s a very gray, fuzzy line between what is
“selling out” and what is “purity of one’s artistic intent.” Hell, it can be an
accident, a sub-conscious happening, a slow, gradual change over time
that we might not even be aware of. It’s often difficult to impossible to
change our concept of what we do. After all, we have to believe in ourselves,
right? And our belief in what we’re trying to say, where we’re trying to go with
our art has to sustain us, has to have something of a protective crust on it
sometimes. It can be hard, to break through that crust, even when we know
we might ultimately be a better artist if we do break through it. Because what
is art, really, except our own personal means of expression… of what we know,
feel and perceive. And it is ours alone… doesn’t get much more personal than
that, does it?

So Is Experience The Best Teacher?

Experience was my second-best teacher. The Berklee College Of Music
gave me the tools I needed, then sent me out into the world to practice what
they preached. I did, and it worked. However, my artistic ego quickly gave way
to listening to what the outside world wanted me to do with my “art,” as I wasn’t
nearly good enough to plot my own musical future. Bands and singers wanted
my musical ability, but in a way that benefited them, that made them better.
Realizing that right away, my ego was able to toss my personal dreams aside
for the moment and go with what was needed from me. That ability, the ability
to realize what was needed of me musically and provide it, came to define my
entire career to one degree or another. There were times, of course, when I
fought for my way of doing or playing a thing, but by and large i built my career
on delivering what the man with the money wanted/needed. Occasionally it
stung a bit during the process, but paying the rent always justified the pain.

Not all of us are wired that way, I realize that. Some of my music contemporaries
refused to “sell out” and ended up either being successful on their terms, (which
was rare… only four or five guys that I know accomplished that) or by changing
the direction of their professional career, and doing something different…
teaching, printing, usually art and music-related activities that brought a higher
degree of financial security without challenging their sense of artistic freedom.
And I respect the hell out of that.

The aspect of experience also provides a kind of side bar to our “taking it to
the streets,” in that we are, to one degree or another, influenced by those
greats who came before us, who inspire us and give us something to shoot for.
In my case, I wanted to get a hip sound, but didn’t have a clue as to how to
do it. So I listened. I listened to Bill Evans, Oscar Peterson, Chick Corea,
Wynton Kelly. I studied what they played, how they approached a tune,
how they comped behind other players, how they soloed. And I learned so
much from them. Their records provided a wealth of information that my
Berklee education and my pretty good ear was able to translate into a more
than acceptable pianistic style which would, to a large degree, define my
playing for the rest of my life.

Records?? Yes, records. During the years I was learning by listening, which
was from ’59 to around ’80, it was either records or live concerts. I learned,
and was inspired by both, but it was the records that made the biggest
contribution, as I could play parts over and over until I finally got what I
wanted from that passage at the moment. It has to be apparent here that I
wasn’t much of an original performer, but rather a patchwork of my favorite
players. And that was, and still is, okay with me. I never had, or developed,
the ability to find and establish a style and approach that was totally unique
to me, like Thelonious Monk, for instance. And that’s okay, really. Oscar
Peterson, one of the giants of the twentieth century jazz pianist, patterned
his playing on the style of Art Tatum, a blind pianist with massive technical
skills. Whatever originality I possessed was found in my approach to chord
changes, voicings, altered rhythms and soloing. And what do you know…
that turned out to be enough!

A good ear, a Berklee education, a ton of listening and finally understanding
what I was hearing… those were the elements of my eventual success. Each
element was required to produce the final product, all of equal importance.
For me, education and experience totally depended upon each other to obtain success. The education part was fairly easy.. I just showed up and paid attention.
The experience part? Not so easy, as we’ve mentioned. But so necessary. We
can’t grow, we can’t improve without the sometimes painful experience that must
follow the education. Again for me, without the experience, the education
meant little to nothing. Without education, my experience would have been
either empty or impossible to achieve… a great example of one thing needing
the other to be a complete experience.

Seems simple enough, right? Except that for nearly all of us, the experience
part is a bitch to get through, accept and continue forward. Strange, too, as
it is also the element that usually keeps us going, sometimes at all costs, and
often contributes to defining the kind of artist we become. Plus, it’s one of my
favorite Catch-22’s… you can’t usually get a job without experience, yet how
can you get experience unless you get a job? We all have negotiated those
waters in different ways. I got some experience doing one thing, until I was
asked to do another, then (thankfully) I was able to also do that other thing…
and off we went! Bet yours went something like that, too. In this event, a
willingness to try to be versatile goes a long way!

My early experiences were stark, easy to understand, mostly positive, and,
quite often direction-changing. There were a few tough experiences, too…
one it particular. Shortly after I joined the Boston Musicians’ Union, it got
me a gig with two Italian guys who had a steady in a North End restaurant.
My first (and only) night with them was a nightmare… and I quit and drove
home at the end of the first set. These two guys had played together for years
and had a 20-minute medley of songs they knew backward and forward…
and expected me to be able to fall right in with them. Well, I didn’t know
half the tunes, or the order, or the keys. And the keys!! With guitar and a
clarinet player, more than half the tunes were in sharp keys, which I hadn’t
played in much at that point. Hell, I was still a junior at Berklee, still learning,
still absorbing. Suffice to say that I barely made it through that first set,
sweating profusely, with the two of them giving me dirty looks, yelling keys
at me, changing tempos and expecting me to know, somehow magically,
where in the hell they were going next. As soon as the set was over, I grabbed
my coat and told them I was leaving, I couldn’t do what they needed.
“you can’t do that…”
“Watch me.”

The Union called me down to the office the next day, warning me that if
I ever did that again they’d have to drop me. I sat through it all quietly, knowing
they would never have to do that, as I’d never take a gig from that Union
again without knowing all the specifics. As it turned out, they never called me
again, and it didn’t matter, as most jazz happens outside the jurisdiction of
any union. Ah, experience.

Whether some of us decided to stick with our dreams and our abilities, or
whether we changed horses early on, took a different direction, keeping our
musical hearts relatively pure… is not a judgement call on our artistic ability or personal courage. It is a judgement call on our sense of practicality, on our
ability to see ourselves ten years down the road and try to decide if we want
to make music, or any artistic career, our hobby and remove its responsibility
to support us, It can be a tough choice for each of us.

My mom always wanted me to become an English teacher and simply do
music for fun. For all the good practical reasons in the world, she was right.
But i couldn’t even bring myself to leave music and attempt it. Besides, I might
not have gotten through the required college courses to graduate. So for me,
the question is moot. What isn’t moot is the part that experience played in
helping each of us make our career decisions back then. We were all still in
our 20’s, still young pups, but our decisions turned out to be pretty much 100
per cent right for each of us. That’s kind of amazing, when you think about it.

Probably experience is the best teacher. For me, experience has been one damn fine teacher… of that I’m sure. I’m retired now, and have discovered writing to be a rewarding hobby as well as a challenging exercise. Some of my old pals have have also taken on new artistic directions – photography, painting, jewelry-making, even artistic renderings using only chemicals! I am proud of all of us, for getting this far and continuing to learn, experiment and grow… indelible proof that we always were, and still are, artists, after all.

Steve Hulse

2 Replies to “Experience… The Best Teacher?”

  1. However you arrived at where you are today, you were a very good learner. Love your music, and the joy you give to others. Thank You

  2. I love pondering this along with you, Steve. Reconciling our past life choices from our advanced age is bittersweet. I relate to your artistry vs practical choices along with my own personal regrets (?) or “roads not taken.” But the arch of our lives—I agree— astonishingly reflect who we really are. Thanks for your insight.

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