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Chick Corea – A Civil Relationship Between Teacher and Student

By Christian Wissmuller

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Credit: Sakurai Toshi

Chick Corea. Maybe you’ve heard of him? 23-time Grammy winner, composer of contemporary jazz standards (“Spain,” “Windows,” “500 Miles High,” et cetera), one of the architects of jazz fusion, virtuoso pianist and electric keyboardist, collaborative partner of jazz giants (Herbie Hancock, Stanley Clarke, John Pattitucci, Al DiMeola, Miles Davis, and countless others) – yeah, him.

In mid-summer 2020, I chatted with Corea over the phone about the challenges presented by COVID-19, how he was managing to stay creative and engaged during lockdown, the over 60 hours of workshops available at Chick Corea Academy, and what advice he has for both educators and scholars learning to cope with a new (hopefully temporary…) reality.

Let’s start by addressing sort of the obvious issue: can you tell me how the pandemic has impacted you? Clearly there are no shows happening at the moment, and so on, but has it affected the way that you stay in touch, the way that you write, the way that you teach? What have the past many months been like for you?

Well, we’ve all been forced “inside the internet” – all of us, especially musicians. In the beginning of March, I was touring with Christian [McBride] and Brian Blade, we were touring Europe and having a ball. And in mid-March the proverbial shit hit the fan. And we got out of there quickly and safely got home mid-March. And since then, you know, the world has been pretty much locked down. So none of us are working live. They’re all trying, you know, being creative, trying to create… music is still music. And live performance is…I like to use the word “atypical.” Live performance is something the form of which will never change since the beginning of the human race to the end of time, whatever planet we’re on, live communication is going to be the way that life really exists. For me, the unchanging, stable part of being a musician is getting out in front of people and playing music. So now with that taken away, we’re all trying to work out internet and recording technologies more precisely. And that’s what I’ve been doing. I’ve been making recordings with a lot of different friends. Hubert Laws, I have some duets going with Hubert. I have duets going with my old mentor and buddy, the amazing Steve Swallow on bass. And I have some great duets going with Béla Fleck who’s another duet partner of mine.

I’m glad to hear that you’re staying active. I’m curious, have you had a chance –clearly via the internet, via live streaming, or what have you – to do any sort of teaching, or workshops?

Two months ago I started an online kind of community: The Chick Corea Academy (www.chikcoreaacademy.com). We meet live once a week and then I post all the live sessions for the members to view, because they come in from all over the world, and when I broadcast live half the world is asleep. So they see it later. It’s been really beautiful experience for me. I’ve been really thriving with interacting as intimately as possible with people at a distance like this because they write in their comments and their questions, and I get to chat which many of them live while the others that are viewing can see the conversation go down. It’s been really, really great.

It’s kind of a research project in a way, to find out ways to help other musicians and other artists with their goals – you know, how they want to improve in music. When you go to a school to do that, there’s a curriculum and there are tests, and there are all the negative parts of going to school, which is competition and you get nervous for tests and you start to memorize things just to answer them on a test, rather than really going for the particular purpose that you may have as an individual artist. So it’s a bit of research project for me to figure out how to impart my experiences – you know, all these decades in making music. I basically try to deliver to everybody what I personally find successful, what works. But I don’t present any of it as rules or dogma, or “You must do this!” It’s like, “This is the way I do things, this is the way I think about it.” But I encourage everybody that’s part of the Academy to think for themselves because that’s the artist’s first goal: to discover that your own judgment as an artist is what’s ultimately the most valuable thing that you can develop and treasure. So that’s kind of the atmosphere of the Academy.

I think it’s wonderful that you’ve embarked on this project. Would you have any words of advice for jazz educators who are trying to navigate this particularly unique and challenging time in terms of how to best connect with students?

Well, you know, that’s a big, big, big, big, big question. And it’s a very important question, and it’s not something that I could fully answer other than with a general answer. The first advice that comes to mind is to join the Academy and to check in on the kind of professional and musical philosophy that I try to put forth. But, again, that’s one of the main things that’s difficult to put across without actually gathering together and having a two-way communication live, because each educator and each musician that he’s trying to educate is a whole separate universe. This is the tricky part of education, and especially in the arts. You can get rather problematic about teaching engineering for instance. If you want to build a bridge, if you want to construct a house – any of the physical skills that way, would need to be taught with certain specific rules of physics and so forth. But art is not like that. Art starts with an individual’s own personal tastes and having the courage and the conviction to follow that vision, or that taste, or that idea that you originate yourself and follow through into a realistic creation and into a communication, for a listener or viewer. You know what I mean? Into a live audience or onto a recording or whatever. And that’s the tricky part of it.

So it’s hard to answer that [question] in a word. Please, join the Academy and… there’s a book, it’s a reference book of mine that I use in the Academy called A Work in Progress. It basically outlines what I consider to be the three or four basic things that encompass the subject of music. But it would be interesting to speak to educators, you know, if they’re not tied to a curriculum. If they’re tied to a curriculum or are looking for our curriculum then it’s… I mean, I wouldn’t disabuse a curriculum for certain things, but you’d have to be one-on-one with a student in order to make a curriculum work because you have to see how that particular student does with each step of the scale. You know what I mean? It takes a lot of care in that sense.

One thing that I’ve been thinking about quite a lot, particularly as the months go on and the lockdown continues, is that, for myself, private instruction obviously had enduring impact and clear benefit, but as a younger person, I feel like the most meaningful learning that I really absorbed and the largest leaps that I was able to experience came from playing with other people. I’m wondering if you have any thoughts or advice for younger jazz players who now can’t actually get onstage or get to the practice room or jam. That’s such a valuable and incomparable experience, and I feel terribly for all these developing, younger musicians who are just being deprived of that. Do you have any suggestions or advice on how younger scholars could perhaps, you know, at least tread water during this time?

Well, maybe we should all first realize that this is not going to last forever. We shouldn’t base basic ideas on how to move forward as a human being amongst the human race by this year, these months, you know? I mean, this is gonna pass.

I sure hope so.

At some point, this will pass, and then we will be back and alive. Communication and live interaction between human beings is what life is all about. I mean, it’s the definition of life almost.

I mean, you can’t do that separately and consider it life. So we’re doing the best we can under these conditions, but I would focus more on the basic rules and the wider picture rather than closing everyone down into trying to figure out how to operate within a pandemic. I mean, with a lockdown, you just have to do what you can do and you have to communicate the way you can, whatever devices that you have to communicate with because you have to keep your health in, you have to keep your family and your friends, your associates help in. So you have to do whatever you have to do to do that. Eat a good diet, you know, don’t let your immune system weaken by eating crappy food, eat a lot of vegetables. That advice is usually left out of these pandemic times, but I think that’s as important, sometimes more important than wearing a mask and gloves.

There are certainly a lot of people sitting around on the couch all day long watching TV, eating Doritos.

Yeah. And also if you look at the statistics, those that are being affected all have weak immune systems, a weaker immune system. The ones who have strong immune systems may not be affected, hardly at all. So that’s my cheap advice about this period. But as far as the overall look of being a musician and developing yourself as an artist, the old basic standby rules… What do you call these kind of rules? They’re called “self-evident truths.” In other words, it’s something that you can observe in life and you can say, “Oh, yeah, it works that way.” For instance, when you have a good, friendly, humane, civilized, creative rapport with another musician, that’s a good basis for making music. So in other words, when you have a good communication together, then the exchange of ideas between you will also be very smooth and won’t be bumpy with authoritarianism or any kind of lower toned action. It’ll all be, you know, civilized. Let’s use that term. It’ll be civilized. And a lot of the teaching methods are, I find, quite uncivilized. It’s this kind of criticism that goes on where you hear a student play and then you criticize his playing, you know, “That’s not good, that’s completely wrong, No. You must make that much better. You must express yourself more.” I mean, these kind of things, all they do is squash the students. And I personally, I consider that bad manners. Just personally, bad manners.

So, that’s a self-evident truth. As you can see, when a good association is set up in a civil manner, like when you do to others what you expect, or you only do to others what you would have them do to you, then there’s limitless potential. Treat others as you would like to be treated. That’s the golden rule.

Chick Corea & The Vigil

Absolutely.

And I think every educator ought to review that golden rule. Here’s another wrinkle to that one, which is, it’s become agreed upon in some phases of education that criticism is really good. You’ll see some great artists who will say, “Yeah, I loved my teacher. He was hard on me and he pushed me and he criticized me and he really gave me thick skin,” and so forth. And I think all of that is just a strong personality, having thick enough skin to keep one’s own mind no matter what comes. We shouldn’t have to develop such thick skin. You know what I mean? We should have a civil relationship between a teacher and a student or an instructor and a student and proceed from there. And the basics are apprenticeship, aren’t they?

Going back to your question, if you had a person study bridge-building, and he went into school and he you read all the books on bridge building, and he got all the physics checked that he needed, and he got all the equations down, would you then send him out to build a bridge? No. You’d have him apprentice with a good bridge builder. That’s what you’d have him do. It’s the same in music. You can study all the theory then, because anytime you study some theory written in a book, you’re studying what someone’s idea of it was. When someone says, “Bach did this,” and it’s a vi-IV inverting this, and it’s “this scale is called Mixolydian” – it’s their idea of what the actual music maker did. It’s their evaluations, one person’s evaluation. And somehow a lot of these are complicated terms that get agreed upon, and that becomes the “theory” of it. So you have to be able to add judgment in all of this stuff, otherwise you won’t be able to play music.

That’s a very strong point. And actually going back your point and borrowing your phrase, “good manners” between an educator and a student, I enjoyed the movie Whiplash as entertainment in certain respects, but I was dismayed with elements of the teacher/student relationship portrayed.

That movie should be… I watched a little bit of it, and I thought, “My God. People are thinking that that’s real life? That’s not real life.” That’s not the way someone gets trained. That’s when someone gets stressed. That’s how you get someone to give up music.

Basically, yeah. Or put them in a hospital.

Yeah, exactly!

Before I let you go, a lot of people are using this time to sort of say, “Oh, well, like, this is a great opportunity in a way. I’m gonna dig deep and really hone my craft and write a lot of material.” And then other people are completely uninspired just because they’re depressed. But aside from that, it seems nearly everybody’s listening to a lot of music, playing a lot of music, writing a lot of music, and of course, watching a lot of TV, but also listening to a lot of podcasts. And I just want to say that your podcast, “Jazzcast for Musicians” (https://chickcorea.com/podcast/) is an invaluable resource. So thank you for that. And I’m sure other people feel that way.

I haven’t been listening to them, actually. My friends 

have been putting them up and then I’ll say, “Okay, well – good. That’s good.” Just as far as an overall thing to do during this lockdown, you got to stay creative and active, but the thing that happens is people get introverted into the pandemic as if this is all of life now. And promoters of concerts, for instance, they are afraid to create a future because they don’t know what the government is going to decide at any moment. So they tend to lock in their imaginations also. So I’m advocating that we should create a future. Like, I’m trying to create tours and gigs into 2021, 2022, trying to put projects together. I’ve just accepted, I’m beginning to write, I just finished writing a trombone concerto for the New York Philharmonic, and written for the great trombone is Joe Alessi, who’s the principal trombonist for the orchestra. And that was a lot, a lot of fun and a great way to stay active, very active during this time.

Also, I’m beginning a percussion concerto for the Philadelphia Orchestra, and all of these collaborations that I’ve got going. All of us… “all of us” meaning all of the musicians, my musician friends, we’re really looking forward to getting back out on the road.

Oh, yeah, of course. And everybody’s looking forward to seeing you and everyone else. I think everybody wants to go to shows, wants to play shows, wants to get back to having lessons. I really appreciate your positivity and the fact that you are clearly staying super active and very creative and not letting this present-day reality be the soul-crushing thing, which it is for a lot of people. Do you have any parting words for jazz educators out there – many of whom at least are looking at either cancelled or delayed fall semesters?

Maybe it might be a good idea there to recognize that when someone is studying something… the most golden value that we have in that person is his own purpose for studying. So, as educators, if we really consult that person’s roles, like, “Well, what are you trying to accomplish? Do you need to learn how to read music for what you’re doing or not? Like, no stress is there. You don’t have to read music. What do you want to do?” If you’re talking to a child, for instance, you’re not going to pressure the child to learn, I don’t know, a Bach sonata or whatever. You know, what does he want to do? Then you get him the keyboard or you get him the drum that he wants to play, or if he wants to sing. Another way, as an educator, you have to consult the purpose of a student and then encourage that. Find out what he or she wants to do and then help them move in that direction. That’s my chief advice there.

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