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Your Teacher's Musicianship: Letter of Recommendation

Should your private music instructor be an excellent musician? I think so! Should he/she also be an intelligent person and a good communicator? Yes, I would say so. How do you know if your teacher has these qualities? Well, you could start by looking at his/her education. But let's face it – just because you have a degree in a particular field does not mean you're particularly good in it. There are lots of lousy lawyers that have law degrees, lousy doctors that have medical degrees, and lousy musicians/instructors with music degrees. What if the person has a lot of quantitative experience? I would argue that just because someone has managed to remain in a field for a long time, that doesn't necessarily mean he/she is talented, skillful, or even all that interested in it. For a more complete picture, you would also have to look at the person's qualitative experience, which is much more valuable information, but often hard to find. Anyone interested in my complete background as a performer and teacher can view my articles titled “My Piano Experience” and “My Trumpet Experience.” Still, you may not be completely satisfied with a person's auto-biographical account of their work, understandably so.

Something else you can do to evaluate the skills of an individual is look at reviews of his/her work. The main reason why I posted my “Testimonials” article was for prospective students to be able to see some short reviews of my teaching from actual students and parents over the past 20 years. Those kinds of reviews can provide some insight about a teacher's intelligence and communication skills. However, they don't really address the original question about the teacher's level of musicianship. Obviously, you can be talented in the general realm of instruction without being all that talented in any particular field, including music. That can also work the other way, of course, in situations where an expert practitioner in a field does not have the communication skills to explain his work. Obviously, you'd like to have a teacher that is an excellent practitioner and an intelligent communicator.

Assuming you believe student/parent reviews about a person being an intelligent communicator, how do you know if he is also an excellent musician? First of all, in this day and age, you should be able to access recordings of almost any musician, even if that person does not perform in public (which is not a requirement for an accomplished musician, by the way), as there are plenty of outlets for sharing music online, including social media. As for myself, although I am unofficially “retired” after a highly active performing career of more than 25 years, I can still be heard on commercially available recordings, as well as my own informal recordings posted on SoundCloud, a free music sharing website. Still, you may not be able to discern talent level if the musical genre is unfamiliar, as classical and jazz music are to many people. At that point, you could look at professional reviews, which are not only hard to find, but are also generally worthless (in my opinion) for a variety of reasons, unless you know the credentials of the reviewer and trust that his/her opinion was not compromised in any way, and can compare that opinion with others from qualified reviewers...way too much work!

The best thing you can do, in my opinion, is find out what great musicians think about your prospective instructor's musical abilities. How could you possibly do that? Obviously, you would have to do a lot of investigative work and then just ask around...again, way too much work! Fortunately, if you're trying to find out about my own musical skills, I've done a little of that work for you. Following is a kind of “review” of my skills as a young musician from a highly respected performer and educator. It's actually a letter or recommendation from the former Director of Jazz Studies (currently Associate Dean of Students) at the Esther Boyer College of Music at Temple University, written nearly 25 years ago. How did I obtain this document? Obviously, students are not normally allowed to have or even view such letters. In this case, my professor wanted me to have it because he knew I was considering graduate schools that he felt were not properly aligned with my talent level, and was trying to encourage me to apply for the best music schools in the country (at least that's what he said to me). He was just trying to boost my ego a bit, as he recognized that my professional aspirations were on the modest side.

As a kind of disclaimer, I would like to point out that the following two-page letter was not written out of the duties of friendship or charity. Although its author and I were well acquainted in an academic setting, we never engaged in any type of social interaction outside of school. In other words, Ed Flanagan was not my “buddy,” a fact which makes this letter (click to enlarge) all the more meaningful to me. I hope you find it to be helpful, or at least interesting...


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