A Lesson from Yogi

After he’d miserably flunked a high school exam, Yogi Berra’s disheartened teacher asked him:

“Yogi, didn’t you learn anything?”

The future baseball Hall-of-Famer replied: “Ma’m, I didn’t even suspect anything.”

Like Yogi, no one could ever teach me much of anything. As a young man I figured that the few things I didn’t already know I could either do without or learn on my own. So I usually learned things the hard way. Fortunately I had some special teachers along the way who understood that the best approach was to let me make my own mistakes and occasionally point me in the right direction.

This isn’t the most efficient approach to learning, but along with the labor of reinventing the wheel comes the joy of discovery, and a deep sense that the wheel belongs to you. And to this day I persist in my belief that in a very real sense we’re all self-taught. Still, we all need teachers and mentors.

Over the years I’ve learned a great deal about music from other composers (older, younger, and my own age), and from many gifted and generous performing musicians. I also count among my teachers fellow artists working in other disciplines, Alaska Native elders, as well as mathematicians and scientists – who are some of the most creative people I know.

Composing, learning and teaching are all processes of asking questions. Asking the right question at the right moment can be far more important than any answer. My own best teachers and mentors – James Tenney, Lou Harrison, Morton Feldman and Dane Rudhyar – all afforded me courtesy and respect as a younger colleague. They never offered definitive answers, only pertinent observations and timely questions, sometimes gentle, sometimes provocative. (As Morty put it: "Love the questions.") I’ve tried to carry this approach into my own work as a teacher.

Not too long ago I found myself beginning a composition lesson with a particularly gifted but unfocused student by saying: “You’re very talented, Joshua. Now, what are you going to do about it?”

Talent is a gift. But it can also be a handicap. The challenge is to not settle for what comes easily. No matter what our natural gifts, our work as students and as artists is to go deeper and deeper into the strange, the new, the obscure.

Deep learning requires discipline. It requires learning about learning. And there are as many ways of learning and teaching as there are students and teachers.

As teachers, we learn about the different ways our students learn. We do our best to give the student what she needs, in a way that invites her to accept the gift.

As students and as artists, what we learn about how we learn gives us the practical tools that eventually become our personal disciplines for learning and for practicing our art.

It’s clear that we can teach and learn about music. The technical devices – the “chops” – can be codified, ingested and digested. But technique alone doesn’t make art any more than a recipe makes a great meal.

What have you learned about the art of music? How have you learned it?

Are there particular mentors or teachers who have changed your life, your practice or your understanding of music?

How do you teach?

And what do you think: Can the art of music really be taught? Can it really be learned?

Or, like Yogi, do we never even suspect it?