New podcast episode now available! It's time to Discover, Learn, and Play Jazz with Dr. JB Dyas
Feb. 28, 2023

Special Guest, Brent Vaartstra

JazzPianoSkills welcomes New York-based Jazz Musician, Educator, Author, Podcaster, Entrepreneur, and Founder of LearnJazzStandards, Brent Vaartstra.

Welcome to JazzPianoSkills; I'm Dr. Bob Lawrence. It’s time to Discover, Learn, and Play jazz piano!

Last week I had the privilege of sitting down with Brent Vaartstra (Jazz musician, guitarist, author, podcaster, and jazz coach living in New York City. Brent is the founder and visionary behind the website LearnJazzStandards which helps musicians of all instruments level up their jazz playing without the overwhelm. Brent and his site LearnJazzStandards have contributed significantly to jazz education since 2011.

So, please sit back, relax, and welcome to JazzPianoSkills, Mr. Brent Vaartstra!

Warm Regards,
Dr. Bob Lawrence
President, The Dallas School of Music



Dr. Bob Lawrence  0:32  
Welcome to jazz piano skills. I'm Dr. Bob Lawrence. It's time to discover, learn and play jazz piano. Well, I hope everyone has been busy practicing for brothers, which we dissected in last week's podcast episode. Such a great tune right? Not easy to play, fingering challenges from start to finish, and packed with many lessons for developing jazz improv vocabulary. So I hope you've been busy. I hope you've enjoyed your time with Jimmy Giuffre his four brothers but today, but today, I want you to take a break to enjoy my interview with a jazz educator that I am quite certain most of you, if not all of you already know. Last week I had the privilege of sitting down with Brent Vaartstra, jazz musician, guitarist, author podcaster and jazz coach living in New York City. Brent is the founder and visionary behind the website learn jazz standards, which helps musicians of all instruments level up their jazz playing without the overwhelm. Brent and his site learn jazz standards have contributed significantly to jazz education since 2011. So I want you to sit back, relax, and welcome to jazz piano skills. Mr. Brent Varsa. Brent Vaartstra.

Brent Vaarstra  2:06  
Bob, thank you for having me. It's so great to be on the show. Oh,

Dr. Bob Lawrence  2:09  
man. Listen, man, what an honor. Because dude, listen, you are like Mr. Internet. You are like Mr. Jazz internet. Because everywhere I go on the internet, and everywhere I look in jazz. There you are. And yeah, it's it's amazing. And you have done a phenomenal job with learn jazz standards, which we'll get to which we'll get to later. For sure, sure. But it's it's such a thrill and honor to have you on jazz piano skills. And I know as a guitarist, right, your people are probably wondering, as a jazz guitarist, what the heck are you doing on jazz piano skills, but as you know, when we're talking about jazz and jazz studies and improvisation, right, it crosses over all instruments. So. So yes, I thought it would be

Brent Vaarstra  2:56  
100% like learn jazz standards. Like we basically serve all instruments except for drums. So I totally I agree with right, yes.

Dr. Bob Lawrence  3:04  
So that's what I want to do, man, before we get to the business side. And before we start talking about jazz education, and improvisation, all that good stuff. Man, I want to just I want you to take some time right now and share your story. Because I know so many people are very much aware of you and the great things that you're doing in jazz education. But I want to, I want you to start from the beginning and talk a little bit about your childhood, your family, your upbringing, how you got into music, and how you got to where you are today. So I'm going to turn the microphone over to my friend and tell us your story.

Brent Vaarstra  3:39  
I have no idea how I really got into music, honestly. And the reason I it's a funny thing to say because a lot of musicians I know, they, their parents were listening a lot to music, and it was in the house. And it's not that my parents didn't listen to music. It's just that there. They didn't, they didn't listen to music a lot or expose me to it a lot. I just somehow I don't know, I just got interested in it. And I went full in and I don't know if we're really trying to psychoanalyze me right now. You know, my, my siblings were all really intellectual. Great grades in school, not that I bombed or anything, but I was always the creative guy. That's just how my brain works. I think so I just kind of like I got my, my, my guitar when I was like 10 and I just latched on to it and you know, got obsessed with it. As you know, that's any all musicians get obsessed?

Dr. Bob Lawrence  4:36  
That's right. No, before you go on, though, siblings, How many siblings?

Brent Vaarstra  4:41  
I have four.

Dr. Bob Lawrence  4:41  
Are you the youngest? No, I'm

Brent Vaarstra  4:43  
the second oldest

Dr. Bob Lawrence  4:44  
second oldest, okay, now Yeah, so they play or no, they're all They're all the intellectual

Brent Vaarstra  4:49  
net? Yeah, no one plays I am the I'm the lone musician in the family. So Wow. Yeah. So I get the black sheep of the fan. Yeah, you're

Dr. Bob Lawrence  4:57  
the loser man.

Brent Vaarstra  4:59  
You Yeah, exactly, exactly. I'm either the loser or I'm the really cool guy. How you look at it, you know, I mean, yeah, all your nieces and nephew think you're the cool guy. Yeah, that's right. Yeah. You know, you just don't tell them that you're a jazz musician, right? Because you know when people are like, Oh man, do you like play? Are you like a rock guy? Right singer songwriter, right? No, I play jazz. I

Dr. Bob Lawrence  5:24  
play jazz. Alright, so what did you join the band? We are we did a band program. Where did you pick up the guitar? Yeah,

Brent Vaarstra  5:34  
sure. So so like a lot as far as getting into jazz. So I was I was super into prog rock, and even prog, but I just I liked virtuosic music, I loved music that was telling a story. I enjoyed improvisation and soloing and all I was interested in that stuff. So like a lot of people Yeah, I joined the jazz band in high school and got an introduction to that and all that. I think we're really started though, was in I grew up in Boise, Idaho originally so in its there's not a lot going on there. There's there's stuff going on there. But I just I got lucky, there was a teacher in the area who was hardcore jazz guy, but like really like teaching like the whole ear thing and just super into that and transcribing and learning by ear, and he had just this small discipleship of of students, and a friend that I was in a prog rock band with, he was connecting with him. And that's how I got into this kind of circle. And, you know, I was just playing with the other students at this. They started like this, this art school, but at the time, when I joined it, it was It wasn't an art school. It's just like a, almost like an after school program. And, you know, you're I was playing with all these musicians that were super serious about it. And that's how I got really like, Oh, I get it. Because, you know, I was always interested in it. But that's where I started going, Whoa, this is this stuff is amazing. And I want to like really search this out, right. And that was my senior year of high school when I really got deep, serious about jazz where I started, like, you know, after school, I was just practicing until dinnertime, right? Maybe an hour after dinner, and then kind of like that kind of a thing. Yeah. And so I decided I want to be I want to be a professional jazz musician. That's what I decided. Yeah.

Dr. Bob Lawrence  7:23  
Which is really fascinating, right? Because most people would think well, wow, that's that's jumping into the game rather late. Right? Senior in high school. Yeah, we think of like, we think of these jazzers all starting at, you know, three years of age, you know, doing transcribing and practicing at that young age. So that's really awesome. And that's inspiring, right there.

Brent Vaarstra  7:42  
Yeah, well in in a way, you know, it kind of brought me into a place where eventually I did go. I took a year off actually between high school and college because of this decision. And I just I studied with a teacher of mine came with his ridiculous program. For me, I was practicing five to eight hours a day, I learned 100 jazz standards in one year wouldn't recommend it. But that's a side story. You know, I was transcribing 32 bars of a solo every single week, I was playing a gig every week, I was just trying to save money to go to college by teaching guitar lessons. I mean, so that's what I did for a year. And then when I jumped into that kind of give me a little kickstart, honestly, and when I jumped into art school, I moved to Seattle and went to school in Seattle for one year there. You know, it was kind of like, Oh, right. There's these guys that have been doing this for a lot longer than I have. And when you're kind of in that situation, it forces you to like, raise the bar a little bit. Yeah. Right. And the next year after that, I moved to New York City, which was like, Yeah, even more. Yeah, it's like now you're you're a really small fish. You know, when I when I was starting in Boise, Idaho, I have one of the best gigs in town every single week. Not so much in New York, right. But all of it's such a big learning experience. And just,

Dr. Bob Lawrence  8:59  
yeah, yeah. So hey, I wanted to I want to step back for a second. So here you are senior in high school, right? Yeah. So your senior in high school, you're getting into it. Yo, man, I want to be a jazz musician. So somewhere along the line, you had to have a conversation. Hey, Mom, Hey, Dad. Look, I've decided I'm going to take a year off after high school and not go to college. But I'm going to hit this jazz guitar stuff heavy. I'm going to practice and transcribing gig for a year before, before I get back into academics and education. So tell me, tell us a little bit about that conversation and how that went.

Brent Vaarstra  9:36  
You know, believe it or not, my parents were always so supportive. My musical endeavors, you know, and I know that's not the case for everybody. Right? But they, they were always I think they just saw how serious I was about it. Right? And so they were just like, Well, I mean, he's, he was not like I was, you know, slacking off and not really, I was I was practicing. I was serious. I was trying to take less Since from people I was, you know, it was all I think they saw all of that. So, I think, definitely the whole gap year thing between high high school and that that was a bit of a conversation. And literally they met with my teacher and was like, Well, is this a good idea? Should he be doing this? You know, stuff like that. And that and my teacher said, Yeah, you know, let's let's do this. And, you know, there was other like logistical reasons and stuff involved as well. But it wasn't Yeah, they weren't. They've always been supportive of it. So it wasn't like a tough conversation or anything like that.

Dr. Bob Lawrence  10:35  
So where did you end up going to college?

Brent Vaarstra  10:38  
So I went to I mentioned in Seattle, I went to Cornish College of the Arts for a year, which is a great arts college over there. And then I moved to New York, and I study at the City College of New York and Harlem, which good good jazz program there. I mean, at the time, when I joined John Patitucci, was the artist in Redis residence there, and then you kind of had your pick of who you wanted to study with in the city. So it was great. And then you know, just being able to, of course, there's all the other really good programs out there, like the new school for jazz and contemporary music and Manhattan School of Music and NYU as a good program. And so you were just also playing with all those people to like, you're jamming with those people too. And like, so it was kind of all there. It was almost like, the college was great. And I learned a lot there. But honestly, the city was in the scene. That was the, to me, that was the real education. That was it. Sometimes it was a harsh education. And other times it was a rewarding it right. So it's kind of Yeah, both

Dr. Bob Lawrence  11:38  
Yeah. So Yeah. And you're you're still there, right? You're still New York City.

Brent Vaarstra  11:44  
Yeah, I live just I live like literally on the other side. I actually live in Jersey City, which is in New Jersey, around the other side of the Hudson River from Manhattan. So like, throw a stone and yes, so we stayed in the area. Wow. Fantastic.

Dr. Bob Lawrence  11:57  
So all right. So here you are now your New York, your jazz musician, jazz guitar, as you're doing the gig scene, you're Hank, you're hanging with the the best of the best. And you're learning somewhere along the line. Somewhere along the line, you gained a interest in education, music, education, jazz education. That's apparent because you wouldn't be doing devoting all your energy and effort and time and resources into learn learn jazz standards, which, you know, that we'll talk about here shortly. But but there's, you know, I've watched you, and I've followed you, and I've checked you out. And there's truly an educators heart there. And so how did how did that come about? Because that's, that doesn't happen for all musicians.

Brent Vaarstra  12:55  
Right? That's really true. I mean, you've heard the thing before, where it's like, you know, you could be the best musician in the whole world, right? But you could be an awful teacher, right. And so I will get started, obviously, like, you know, even in high school, I was, there was a moment in high school, where I was like, a dishwasher. At one point, I was worked at a coffee shop, at one point, I did landscaping, you know, high school jobs. And then I had such a bad experience at a couple of those jobs. So bad, I just hated it. And I made a pact with myself that I would never do anything else from that point on other than music to make money. And I've stuck with it to that day. And so teaching is one is, is I would say if you're going to be a professional musician, it's it's almost essential. I mean, even some of the best jazz musicians in the world like I would, I would get to study with them in New York when they were back home, right? And Jewry, right? They're still doing it too. So. So I was teaching lessons back then. And, you know, just understanding the nuances of teaching, right? Like, obviously, probably being not a good teacher when I first started, you know, right, to getting better and better and better. But honestly, it really was. When I started creating content, and I'm talking about I wrote two books for how Leonard I wrote, I've self published a bunch of my own books I've created. You know, we're on Episode 400, something of my podcast. We've created hundreds of YouTube videos, I have created tons of videos for courses. And what happens it's it's just like learning to play music, is you get better at communicating and teaching. And then you start learning about the students that you're actually teaching like the people that are actually coming to you for help and you start understanding Oh, actually, the thing that I'm talking about They don't need that as much as they need this more or, you know, the way I said, this is actually not the best way it should be this way. And, you know, believe it or not, you know, running a business plays into that as well, because the two are connected, how well you're able to teach and communicate and help people is directly related to your bottom line. So yeah, I mean, I think it's just like that. It's just that I, I always thought it was I always enjoyed teaching, because the people that taught me how to play music, I mean, that got me to where I was. They had such a big impact on my life. Right. So there's that side of it, just the joy of like, when someone has an aha moment. Yes. Like, this is? Wow, this is great. Yeah, it's founded on the belief that music is is enriching and worthwhile, I think.

Dr. Bob Lawrence  15:50  
Yeah. And what's funny is a lot of those aha moments are on our side of the coin, right. As the teacher, we have the aha moments.

Brent Vaarstra  15:58  
Yes. That's so true. I mean, it's unbelievable. How, if you really want to, there's, it's a cliche, but if you want to learn something better, or really well, or at least internalize it, yeah, like, try teaching it right. Because it's right. It's almost like once you're able to do that, it's like, Oh, I get it better. Right. I remember I wrote, I wrote a book for how Leonard they wanted me to write it was a guitar book, you know, for for, you know, anyways, mapping out your fretboard and all this stuff. Okay. And just going through and creating this book, I was like, Oh, my gosh, I know how to play my guitar. So much better now. Just by doing it. So

Dr. Bob Lawrence  16:36  
there's, there's no question about it. There's, it's so rewarding from you know, as a teacher, you have to have conviction, right? You develop these positions about how to approach the instrument, how to approach the genre, how to approach improvisation. So these convictions start to evolve and, and develop, and that has a profound impact on your plane, obviously. Right? Yeah. So

Brent Vaarstra  17:03  
100%. And they they work hand in hand together? And yeah, like I said, to like, there's the business side of it, too, which strangely enough plays in all that. Yeah. Well, yeah. Because you start learning things. And it influences your teaching and the way you play and write and all that.

Dr. Bob Lawrence  17:21  
Well, let's talk a little bit about the business side, because the other thing that's very impressive about you, and is that you're an entrepreneur, right? You're in music, and you're an entrepreneur, there's this business side of you. So let's talk about how did that come about? Because that's, that's a, that's a benefit that a lot of folks do not possess and do not have in our music profession. So let's talk a little bit about your entrepreneurship and how that came about.

Brent Vaarstra  17:55  
I'm glad to say that I often talk with people when I'm like, you know, why is it that when I went to music school, there was not one class about any of that stuff? Yeah, it was, you know, it's a shame. It's, which is really interesting, right? Because, you know, it's the, the idea of going to school for something is to make a profession out of it. Right. And so part of that is getting good at your craft. Absolutely. That's a huge part of it. But honestly, if you ask me, it's 50% of it. Right? Right. 50% being able to do it, other 50% is how do you actually monetize this, and then that's the whole rabbit hole of start ship marketing and sales and networking, whatever, whatever. You know, there's, there's a million different things involved in that. I think it comes back down to you know, when I got out of, well, when I when I was in high school, when I was in college, when I was going to school, when I was out of school, I was trying to make a living off of music. Like I said, I said, I'm never going to make money any other way other than music, and I stuck with it. So that meant that I was having to hustle gigs, that meant I was making phone calls, that means I was networking. That means that I was like, hold on a second, you know, this revenue stream of playing gigs is super unreliable, and I'm gonna have a stomach ulcer. So we need to add some teaching in there, right? So we got to get that, oh, this, this student, the student dropped out. Now I don't have as much money this month as I thought I was going to have. So it's all these things, you start finding problems with your business model. And so really, when it came to starting to bring things online and building out the blog, building out a podcast and starting to add products and all that stuff, it's it's a revenue stream, right? And at first I didn't know anything I remember. You know, the guy who developed a very early version of our website, he put this like, you know, box at the top that just said sign up for our newsletter, which by the way, there's almost no one will do that today. If you just put a box sign up for my newsletter. I didn't even know that it was connected to anything. So one day I looked in our email service To provider and I was like, Well, what I wonder if anybody actually signs up for this thing? Well, there's 1000 people that's in and then. And so I started not knowing anything. I didn't know anything about what to do about marketing and business. And suddenly, I just, you start getting interested in and so I started just like I did with jazz, started reading marketing books, and I started going to conferences. Yep, started to pay for business coaching, all that stuff. Because, you know, that's just as important. And so then you start getting a passion for that as well. So I think it's a beautiful thing when you can, you know, do all this stuff, but still have it tied to, you know, I feel fortunate. So have a tied to that that original passion that I had, which was playing music. Yeah. Teaching in teaching musics. Yeah.

Dr. Bob Lawrence  20:44  
Right. Quite quite a blessing. Right. Right. To be able to, pretty much so as I tell folks all the time, you know, my, well, folks will ask me, Bob, are you going to retire? And, man, I've been retired for 35 years, man, I you know, because I've been so fortunate that my work is my play, and my play is my work. And right and to be for us to be able to say that is an incredible blessing. No doubt. Yeah. I agree. I agree with that. So you even have a little spin off from all of this as well. Because don't you have like a whole? Don't you have a whole business side on actually somebody if somebody was interested in getting into podcasting set, you know, doing a podcast as a business? Am I losing it? Or I thought I saw somewhere where you're doing?

Brent Vaarstra  21:37  
You're not losing it back? I think it was in 2019 or 2020. I did something like that for a year. Okay. It was called passive income musician. And I kind of that was just kind of like a, I wanted an outlet for like sharing this stuff with other people. Yeah. Because I just I learned so much about this, right. And like musicians all have a lot of musicians have that problem. Right, right. Hey, how am I going to make? How am I going to make money? Well, this is one way, right? And then within that way, there's a bunch of other ways, right? So that was an outlet for me, I kind of only did it for a year. And then I stopped doing it because I realized that Well, I realized I couldn't do both. I couldn't do both my main business learn jazz standards, which was bringing into the in the money and that one as well. And ultimately, I, you know, I felt like I said, what I wanted to say, right, gotta follow where the passion is going. So, but you're right. I did do that for a little bit. Yeah.

Dr. Bob Lawrence  22:28  
Well, I thought it was great idea. I thought it was Yeah, I thought it was fascinating. So But you're right, you know, there's, there's only so many hours in the day. Right? And, and it's amazing how, once you like you said, Get go down the rabbit hole. And all of a sudden you start the business and the entrepreneurship and you got the music side of things, and you got teaching, and all of a sudden, all this stuff is adding up. And then you got there, you got the challenge of time management and the how the heck am I going to keep all of this moving forward? Yes, exactly. So how do you do that man, because I'm amazed at how much you do and the content that you put out from the videos, to your podcast, educational content? I mean, how you doing it, man?

Brent Vaarstra  23:13  
Well, it started out where it was just me, right? For a long time, it was just me, I was doing all this stuff. And you start realizing you first of all, eventually you hit burnout, and you start not sleeping well you start having some problems, then you wake up one morning, you're like, you know what, I can't keep living like this. I did, by the way. Absolutely, by the way that played into it. So I don't I don't perform as often anymore. And that was a conscious decision. It it was a conscious decision to say, Yeah, you know, unless there's a there's something that's pays great money for me and I can do it. But you know, now I've got, I got a wife got a one year old daughter. And I got a business, I got tired of working all day and then working all night. That's what I was doing. I was working all day, and then let's go to the gig work all night. And that's not sustainable. And either was the way I was running. My business wasn't sustainable. either. I was doing everything myself. And so really, it comes down to team, you know, building out a team, which I've been doing over the last four years or so building out a team of people start out with just an assistant and then it turned into someone who's running all the tech on my website, then it turns into Okay, I gotta get a video editor. Then it turns into you gotta have a community manager for our membership got to have someone creating content for the membership. And then you just slowly build it out. And I'm still I'm still slowly building out that I want to, I don't want to ever create a big team. It's just not my style, but Right. And then you and then you know, like right now I've got you know, SCSE an SEO agency that I'm working with to improve that side of things I'm not doing that's the SEO agency and then we're doing a whole ran redesign of it gotta hold gotta you know, start investing into the business like that. And, and that's how I do it. I don't I don't post I don't actually post my YouTube videos, I don't post my podcast someone else does that I record them yet right someone else edits them. Yeah. And and that's how you do it right? It's otherwise you wouldn't be able to and and that's just the stuff that people can see they're not seeing the what's really going on, which is, hey, how do we reduce churn for our members? How do we create a better experience for our members? Right? How do we drive more leads? Hey, how do we get into paid advertising, all these things that are actually going behind the background that, as a CEO of a company, you kind of have to be more focused on than some of the other things. So that's how you do it. Yeah, it's pretty a long time. I'm a slow learner learner. So

Dr. Bob Lawrence  25:47  
you're doing fantastic, man. Now you're doing fantastic. It's everything you say? Yeah, everything is everything you do is quality. You know, from the presentation to the content. Everything's good, man. So it's, it's, it's awesome. So mom and dad have to be have to be really proud. Right? I mean, you would think that we talked about earlier, you know, siblings and be the jazz musician of the family. But but you're not just a jazz musician. You're a very successful businessman.

Brent Vaarstra  26:16  
Yeah, no, I think they are proud. Yes. I mean, I haven't asked them recently. Hey, are you proud of me, but

Dr. Bob Lawrence  26:22  
you might want to get the sense that they are after we give them a call. Are they still? Are they still living in Utah?

Brent Vaarstra  26:29  
They live in Idaho they live in? Yes, yeah. Yeah, they still live there. They still live there. So they're going to be actually coming up this week, because my my daughter is turning one. Okay, next week, so they have to see the granddaughter, so I'll ask them then.

Dr. Bob Lawrence  26:44  
So all right, so now let's talk a little bit about jazz education. As you know, in your experience in teaching, if you had to, if you had to, if you were forced to come up with the number one, in your opinion, the number one challenge that students have, when trying to jump that hurdle, from playing their instrument, you know, at an average level, jumping that hurdle and becoming a jazz musician, where they're feeling comfortable getting around on their instrument and being able to improvise, what, what do you think that? What what, what does that number one challenge? What would that be?

Brent Vaarstra  27:35  
Yeah, this is super easy. And it's one of the least sexy answers possible, but it is 90% of the problem, especially when we're talking about someone who's trying to take the leap, right? And that's mindset 100%. And when I say there's a lot to unpack there, so mindset is, I guess, belief in yourself, right? Just to just a watered down that a little bit is like a lot of people looking at jazz, and they go, Oh, this is complicated, right? Maybe I'm not really good enough to do this correct. Or perhaps they are in the water a little bit. But they're too afraid to go play at the public jam session, right? Because it's intimidating. It's scared, scary to do that. But there's also the side of overwhelm. It's right, when you look at learning a new language, which Music is a language, right? We talk about that, right? Jazz is certainly like that, like the way that jazz musicians speak is a certain way. There's a level of perceived virtuosity involved in there, right? And that can be very overwhelming, like, where do I start? And then, once you understand just even a basic thing, like, hey, one thing you really got to do to start playing jazz is obviously learn some jazz standards, right? How do you do that? That's overwhelming. So when it comes down to the way I approach or think about jazz education, my number one thing whether I say it straight up to people or not, is how do we make this as simple as possible? How do we reduce the overwhelm? And we recently had a retreat for our for some of our members. And it was all based around practicing. And one thing that that someone said in one of the q&a is was like, You know what the fascinating thing about this is, is a lot of this is just project management. And I was like, That's exactly it. Right? Right. And so this is probably a meaty or a different answer than maybe, maybe some of the listeners were expecting, but I could dive into it more if you want. But I think mindset is, is probably the biggest barrier is the way they perceive the challenge of learning how to play the genre of jazz, and that could go for other styles. But again, I think styles like classical and jazz are perceived to be these more complex or difficult sounds and music. And so the fear that can set in their overwhelm that can set in is much greater. And it's a bigger as an educator, it's a, it's a bigger one to tackle.

Dr. Bob Lawrence  30:12  
Yeah. So how do you how do you then help a student? How do you help a student work through that, that mindset, then how do you help them get to the point that where they can go like, Okay, wait a minute, I get this, I can actually do this.

Brent Vaarstra  30:27  
The most important thing is just to give them a quick win, right? And I'm not saying that in like a business or marketing term, I'm saying in a teaching term, which is, how can I just give them a tiny taste of victory, so that once they get that tiny taste, I give them another one, and then another one, and then another one, and then they look, suddenly, they're climbing this this mountain for just use those terms? And they look down and they're like, Oh, my God, I didn't realize I got that high. Right. You know, and that's, to me, that's, it's really comes down to psychology, like, we're really trying to teach someone anything, especially if it's an overwhelming task, right, is how do we give them these tiny little things? Right, like, give them the big picture vision, give them all this stuff? Right. But how do we just feed something that's attainable for someone so that they can keep making incremental progress? Right. To me, that's what you do.

Dr. Bob Lawrence  31:24  
Yeah, you know, that's, that's a really good point, you know, with a lot of students, you know, to get them. I remember I had a teacher when I was starting out when I was 14 years old and wanting to improvise. And right away he gave me he gave me two notes to improvise on. You know, he goes, We're gonna improvise on C major, you have the notes C and E to mess around with. And right away like what what you're talking about right away. That was mind blowing to me, because I was thinking of improvisation. In my mind. At that age. I was thinking of improvisation like this. Right? The hand, the hand, moving up and down the piano keyboard with rapid speed, and virtuosity. Right, right. So when he said, when he said, two notes, C and E. And here's the groove, and I want you to do something with those two notes. It was mind blowing, because I never even thought about improvising with two notes. I thought, what I thought I was gonna need a lot more notes than two notes. And of course, his his response was, Well, can you improvise with tune? Can you? Can you improvise with two notes? And I can remember saying what not very well. And he said, Well, do you think adding a third or fourth or fifth or sixth is going to make it easier? And I was like, No. And he goes, Okay, so let's play. Right? And so what you're talking about that was a quick win for me, because all of a sudden, I was improvising with two notes. And I realized, well, wait a minute, I'm actually improvising. I'm actually doing something here, I'm actually utilizing some rhythmic ideas, going back and forth with these two notes I'm playing in time, I'm playing it with a great feel and a great groove. I can't believe it, I'm actually improvising. So that's what you're talking about, right? Keeping things really kind of simple at first and not becoming overwhelmed with all the perceptions that we have about jazz and jazz improvisation. Absolutely.

Brent Vaarstra  33:21  
So and certainly we're talking on like, on a beginners level, but this this can go for intermediate players as well, like so for example, the RR teach our entire philosophy. And it's a it's something that we're really doubling down on, especially this year, is we believe that the one of the most high leverage activities that you can do to become better at jazz musician over time, is learn one jazz standard a month. And why do we believe that? Well, first of all, one month, is a good amount of time to learn something enough space to learn something? You know, we also believe that because a big problem people have is, you know, a question I get all the time is, how do I know when to move on to the next thing? The answer is, once the time is up, you move on to the next thing, and you learn the next lessons that are available to you. That's right, and of course jazz standards, because you know, the jazz standards. You know, one of my favorite musicians, Peter Bernstein, once told me the jazz standards will teach you how to play all the harmonic secrets are in there. All the challenges are in there. Now, obviously, how do we practice them? How do we attack them? That's another side of it too, right? But that's more simple, right? It's like, okay, we just have one project. And once you complete that project, the reward centers of your brain start firing, right. And then you continue that process. But then how do you actually learn a jazz standard? We have to batch everything and so that also goes to I'm saying with the, the little wins building up to each other, like we have to look at a project like learning a jazz standard or learning a solo by ear or whatever you want to be doing. And you have to break it up into smaller pieces. Yeah, to understand how to do that. And if you're able to do that and set that up for yourself, or you're able to get frameworks for doing that, and in a way where you're not practicing any more time than you actually have to practice today, because if we try to practice more than than the time we have, we're gonna feel like we're failing, we're gonna get demotivated and demotivation is the number one killer of long term musical progress, right? So when we have those frameworks in place, to me, this is how we can succeed for longer terms, like we start with the quick wins, we start with the small things that we can do to grow at any level, right? Whether even if you're an advanced player, right, we still need to be doing this for ourself. And then we build it from there. And we continue on with that.

Dr. Bob Lawrence  35:47  
So if I'm a beginner, and I'm, you know, and and I'm in your program, and we're going to learn a jazz standard a month, when you sit what a question I would ask you is, Brent, when you say learn, what does that what does that mean, exactly? Learn what constitutes me learning a standard?

Brent Vaarstra  36:05  
Yeah, you learn the melody. Okay, you learn what the chords are. Okay, that's the basic right there. That's, that's the complete basic, the cherry on top, as you figured out at least again, if we're complete beginner, you figured out at least one thing that you could possibly do to start improvising over that. And all that could really mean is that you figured out how to play the melody slightly differently. Right? Yeah. Right. Here's, the melody is actually the most important musical context that we have in any song, certainly a jazz standard. I mean, what's the difference between one blues the next? Well, sometimes a blues, they have slightly different chord changes to them. But for the most part, it's 145. Right? Or 16251, something like that. And it's the melody that defines the song, right? So when we're improvising on a blues, and we forget about the melody completely, we're just playing a blues, we're just improvising over blues, we're not improvising over tenor madness, or right things ain't what they used to be, right. So even that is such a simple tool that you

Dr. Bob Lawrence  37:05  
started with. Well, and you bring up a really great point. And I try to stress this to students as well that you know, your ability to play a melody. And to embellish that melody, just rhythmically, the play it like you're seeing it right, yeah, that in and of itself is what we call improvisation. You're Yes. Yes. are improvising when you do that. And that's why it's so important. I know you, I know, you subscribe to this as well learn the melody by ear, please do not, do not go out and read that melody. Because it's going to sound like you're reading a melody. Right? Listen, and learn that melody by ear and embellish that melody, play it, as you're singing it. And you're improvising.

Brent Vaarstra  37:47  
Right? Absolutely. And that's a really good point you make is, and here's here's actually a great illustration of some of the challenges we're talking about here. So you and I both know that the best way, as far as improvisation goes anyways, is to learn content by ear to learn musical lines by ear, right? For jazz. That's what works, because it's improvisation. It's the marriage between what you hear in your head and your muscle memory. To me, that's what improvisation really is, ultimately. And so a beginner, for example, will be like, that sounds impossible. Right? That sounds like I have no clue how to do that. So again, how do we simplify this and break it up into a framework that works? So we actually do this, like when people when we get new members, we bring them through a program that helps them do this? And so we do get some, there's obviously a lot of people that have they know that they've learned stuff by ear, that's not really a big, challenging block. But there's other people that they've never done it before. And it's, it's like, how do we get them over that hurdle. And once they do get over that hurdle, it's like, oh, my gosh, I learned something by ear for the first time. So if you don't mind, I'll just share what the framework is, you're on the podcast just yet, if anybody will find it helpful. So if we're trying to learn stuff, by ear, and by the way, this is just for beginners. This is for advanced players. If I really do it, this, if you do it this way, like it's just you're gonna get it so much more. So it's called My List process for learning jazz standards, or technically jazz solos by ear. So learning melodies by ear, for example. So the L stands for listen. And so listening. I mean, I can't tell you how many times I've seen musicians, like someone tells them to learn a jazz standard, and they almost just go straight to learning it and they barely actually know it. And that's such a huge mistake. So in the Listen phase, you know, we have we have resources like YouTube and Spotify out there. I'd go into Spotify, for example. And I'll create I mean, you type in the name it could happen to you, suddenly you have so I mean, this is I mean, they did not have this, this is right, this Yeah, right. Right. And so you have a list Have like 50 100 versions of it could happen to you, and you start making a playlist. And during this phase I like to call it passive listening. So it's kind of just like I want to learn it could happen to you, okay, I'm doing the dishes, it could happen to you, having friends over, it could happen to us going on, they might look at you funny if it's the same song over and over again. But you know, let's put that aside. You're driving, you know, driving in the car, you're going on a run whatever it happens to be it just, it just, you're just, it's now in your environment. That's the purpose of it. And so you're getting familiar with it even on a subconscious level. And the next step is AI, which stands for internalize. And so internalizing, is like, a lot of times when we think about practicing or thinking, we better have our instrument in our hand. And we better be working on an exercise or looking at some music. And what I'm here to say today to all the listeners is listening to music can be just as much practicing than anything else. And so the internalization phase is like, we're not passive listening anymore. Let's pick one recording, and Providence, the original recording or the version that you liked the most. And you're sitting there, like I'm doing in my seat right here. And I got my speakers on. And it's like, I have 30 minutes to practice today. All right, cool. instrument, you're gonna sit over there in the corner, I'm going to put on this recording, and let's like really listen to what's happening, right? You know, let's loop the melody, perhaps because I need to get the melody, let's loop it over and over and over and over again, right? We have tools to do that, too. You know, before it's like, pick up the record, move it back. And now it's easy. So we spend time doing that, like, how long should I do that for? Really, until you feel like comfortable enough, like could be two practices, three practice sessions, four practice sessions, however much you want. And I think, taking off the baggage that is we have to get this quickly. It's like, no, let's get this well, let's get this good. Right, right. And so eyes internalized. So l and I are listening, right, just ones passive and ones what's called active listening. And then S stands for sing. And it's kind of a cliche as well, like, you know, singing, there's I forgot who said, Is it how galloper he said, like, if you can sing it, you can play it. And with all due respect, I don't I disagree with that, I think it gets you maybe 75% of the way they're not quite. But what singing does, or humming or whatever, if you're, if you're not good at singing, it's fine, is it helps prove that you've internalized it, right. So you're you're listening to the recording and you're kind of singing, mimicking along with your voice, you're vocalizing it, you're feeling it in your body. So you've proven you've internalized it. And no, you don't have to sing every note perfectly. Because that's for the next step. It's just more about like, getting the essence of it like, Yes, I know it. Right. So T stands for transfer. And that's where you pick up your instrument. And you're like, okay, great, I can hear it in my head. Now, let's just figure out what the notes are on my instrument. Correct. And then you go from there, and I, and you technically could just do this at this point, with the knowledge that what you can already hear in your head, I wouldn't recommend that though, I'd recommend actually, again, putting on the record. And you know, starting with the first bar, or the first two bars and figuring out the notes, and because you want to match the phrasing you want to match how it feels, and then you can go off and do it a different way. And so, so that's my list process for learning jazz standards, or jazz solos, or what have you. And so that it's, once you're able to do it like that, right, you're able to like give a framework, then you're able to hopefully get to that point where it's like, oh, I learned my first blues, Melody by ear, right? Just 12 bars of the melody by ear. And it's when you when you get to that moment, right, you're winning, you feel like you're winning, right? Or after you're done the L process, you feel like you're winning, if you believe in the process, if you get to the AI process, you feel like you're winning, because you're checking it off. Right, and then you get to the end. And so what was the question again?

Dr. Bob Lawrence  44:01  
No, this is this is real. This is great stuff. Brent, you know, it's kind of it's interesting, too, I will just add to that, for listeners out there that, you know, starting this process doesn't always have to be a jazz tune. You know, I, I, a lot of my students, I will have them start, we might do like a Willie Nelson tune, we might do some nice little country to Hank, Hank Williams or something that, you know, the melody is really simple. We can find that melody, we can poke it out, the chord changes are really simple. You know, so I just want the bring that up as well that sometimes we get caught up in this. Everything has to be jazz to improve our jazz and everything doesn't have to be jazz to improve our jazz.

Brent Vaarstra  44:45  
Oh, yeah, I 100% 100% agree with that. And for example, it would be if we're talking about a complete beginner to jazz right, not their instrument right to jazz, it would be a fool's errand to be like alright, here's confirmation You know, it's like, that's just setting that person up for failure. Right? So

Dr. Bob Lawrence  45:05  
right, or even, you know, or even just some jazz standards are not the easiest things in the world to play, you know, a lot of changes going by and so a lot of times I encourage people hey, there's there's nothing wrong with poking out Happy Birthday, man. Yeah, absolutely nothing wrong with poking out Happy birthday, or there's also

Brent Vaarstra  45:23  
nothing wrong with that, because every time that was called on a gig, surprisingly, I would still screw it up. So

Dr. Bob Lawrence  45:30  
right, you're gonna Wait, man, happy birthday. All right, I

Brent Vaarstra  45:32  
guess that's part of my job. I like if someone wants me to play Happy Birthday. I'm supposed to do that, you know? Right. That's

Dr. Bob Lawrence  45:39  
funny. So, but you know, and then there's also the side, I think, talk about this a little bit, let's even talk about before the tune because, you know, you know, there's grunt work that has to be done to get us to the point, to have the tools in our toolbox to be able to actually play a tip. Right? So what words of encouragement? How would you instruct folks to approach the grunt work, you know, learning, learning chord structures on the instrument, whether it's piano or guitar, saxophone, for that matter, or, or, or learning scales, arpeggios, some of this grunt work that we have to have under our hands in order for us to play tunes.

Brent Vaarstra  46:25  
I mean, I mentioned up front that the biggest barrier to jazz but really just playing your instrument is mindset. And so and, by the way, this is very personal. To me. This philosophy is personal to me, because, unfortunately, I think I spent way too much of my musical life. upset that I wasn't better than I was that I want that I was at the point I wanted to always be better. I was never really happy with where I was, musically. And that was destructive. Right? It was both destructive to my happiness. As a musician. It was destructive to my progress. Right, right. And so when we're thinking about doing anything with music, I mean, really anything in life, but we're talking about music here. We have to think we have to reframe the narrative of why we're doing this. And the vast majority of people that probably come to you and probably come to me are for lack of better term hobbyists, right? They're doing this for fun, they're genuinely interested in playing their instrument, playing piano or in playing jazz, right? And so, you know, as soon as it stops becoming fun, then we have a problem, right? And so part of it is like, yes, we need to do this grunt work. And so the way we look at it isn't like, we have to do this grunt work. It's like, how do we practice over time reframing the way we think about doing these things to where it's more of a spirit of curiosity, right, and a spirit of fun, right? And not like, I have to get through this, right. And then the second side of that, too, for me is like, Well, how do we balance? The approach there? Right? We talked about the quick wins, right? How do we go like, Okay, let me give you a great example of how horrible of a teacher I was, when I first started, maybe not horrible. But I remember one of the first students I ever had, and I unfortunately did, and this was in high school, I think I taught like this for years afterwards, because I just couldn't learn. And that was a student would come and they would, you know, no, I don't know how to play the guitar. They're a kid. And they don't practice very much. And their parents are wasting their money, right, all these things. And so they're not able to play the D chord and the G chord, even though we learned it, and, you know, they were sent off to practice. Okay, so then that next lesson would be like, well, sorry, because you didn't get that we're gonna keep working on that and come back next week. And then the next week, they still didn't have it. And the next week, they still didn't have it. And then next week after that, oh, they actually kind of had it. And now all of a sudden, all we're doing is programming this person to hate playing music, too. And so how do you balance that? How do you go like, alright, we do need to learn these chords. We do need to learn these arpeggios, we do need to learn how to navigate our instrument better.

Dr. Bob Lawrence  49:15  
Right? Right. How

Brent Vaarstra  49:16  
do we break this up into things that are the reason why you wanted to study music in the first place? And I think a great approach to that, again, is learning songs, right? Like being like, what's tiny tool do you have? Let me show you how you can play a song, right? And again, that triggers the reward centers of your brain, right? Yeah. How can you use an arpeggio actually in a musical context? Right? Not just how do you learn all your arpeggios and all 12 keys? Great thing to do, I did it and I highly recommend it. But, you know, it's well, how how does that even fit in to your improvisation or a musical context that you're trying to accomplish? Right?

Dr. Bob Lawrence  49:54  
Well, it's also even with you know, first of all grunt work is music. People have to realize that I I always want students to know that when you're playing a scale that's play that scale musically, right? It's it's musical arpeggios, musical melodies are made up of scales and arpeggios for heaven's sakes. So this is music that you're playing. I think the other thing that's really important that you touched upon with your inner circle with learning, learning a tune a month, and then at the end of that month, you move on. Right, right. Well, I tried to stress the students, right, there always has to be forward motion, forward movement. So you know, I had I tell the story of a gentleman I still teach, he's an engineer. And he came in and his name Matt hat actually happened to happens to be Bob as well. And he said, he got he says to me, he goes, Bob, I got a game plan. I said, What's the game plan? He says, I am going to stay in the key of C, until I had the key of C perfect, then I'm going to move on to F. And I said, That's a horrible game plan. And he said, Why is that I said, because Bob, you're gonna be in the key of C forever. Yeah, you have to be moving. Man. If I tell it all, I say it all the time, if you want C to get better practice, and F if you want f to get better practice and being flat, if you want B flat to be better. Practice an E flat. In other words, there has to be this forward motion. So whether you're learning to tune, like what you're saying, or whether you're doing grunt work, you can't let grass grow under your feet, you got to constantly be moving, because you're going to be dealing with the same elements. When you go to the next tune, you're going to be dealing with the same elements. When you go to the next scales and arpeggios you're going to be dealing with the same elements. Would you not agree this forward motion being on or debating?

Brent Vaarstra  51:36  
Yeah. And that goes back to the whole jazz, one jazz standard philosophy I have is, you know, one jazz standard has a 251. You know, what the chances are that the next one also has a 251. Not not not 100%. But it's pretty likely that it's going to have right so and by the way, that could be a 251 and E flat versus a 251 and B flat. Well, they're just different contexts is all they are doesn't mean the right challenges to playing them. And also, depending on what instrument you play, there are different challenges. And some things are easier than others. But if it's I really just like the get messy, get your feet dirty, get in the water, right? Just get in the water, right and keep swimming. Right. And with each project that you set up for yourself, whatever it happens to be, even if it's not perfect, even if you didn't master it, because you won't, then you will have improved just a little bit. Right, you will have leveled up just a little bit. So Bob, I couldn't agree more forward motion is so important. Because going back to what I said earlier, I think I believe that losing motivation is the number one killer of long term progress. I see it all the time I see people are like, you know, I'm you know, I'm coming back to learn jazz again, after this time. Okay? Why did you quit in the first place? Right? And again, also goes back to mindset, it's because you're not able to see music as a journey, right? You're only able to see it as a series of failures. Right? And once you do that, you're setting yourself up for failure. Now, because like you said, the grunt work is the music and the music is the grunt work. That's exactly right. You got to make it fun.

Dr. Bob Lawrence  53:21  
So you're absolutely right. And and with that mindset, like what you're talking about it, it does remain that even for folks like you and me that have been doing our entire life, right? So oftentimes students will say to me, Gollie, art, are you, you have to be bored hearing these, this tune again, or you have to be bored hearing these scales again, are these arpeggios again, and I cracked up laughing like what what are you talking about? I do this every day all day? Are you kidding me? I don't get I don't get tired of it at all.

Brent Vaarstra  53:51  
Right? Because once you start to understand the possibilities, and once you're able to, and you're the thing is it's like I don't mean to use like a drug reference here. But it's kind of like a bit of like a drug. So it's, it's, you know, what happens is everybody okay, there, most of the gigs, and that's not true. A lot of gigs I've played aren't like, Hi big musical moments, where I'm like, wow, that was incredible. Right? But every once in a while, the stars align. And it's like, all the guys in the band were just worked. It could have been the atmosphere, the ambience was right. And I was in the right headspace and put my ego to the side I was just kind of playing from where I was at. I wasn't worried too much of relaxed set in. And you all of a sudden you're playing a tune and you wake up as if it was from a dream. And you're like, How did that even happen? So once you taste it, right, even if it's like a smaller version of what I just talked about, yes, you can't stop. It's not arpeggios and scales anymore, is it? It's right. How do we turn those things into like you The most amazing melodic moments. How do I set myself up for the best success for that actually happening? Right? Yes. Which is I'm going to what there's what's the quote, like, preparation plus, this equals success, whatever. I don't have the opportunity yet. Right? So something but that's like that. Yeah. Yeah. You know,

Dr. Bob Lawrence  55:19  
it's funny, I had a teacher when I was, again, just getting my feet wet with jazz. I'm sitting there at the piano, and I'm poking things out. And he says to me, he says, Bob, he says, I can't wait for you to play the very first time with an outstanding bass player. And keep it I had not played with any bass player jazz basis, right? Oh, because I can't wait for you to play with a jazz basis. And I'm just a little guy. And I go, really? And he said, he goes, Yeah, he goes, you know, he goes, You know what it must be like? And I said, What's that? He goes, it must be like, he goes, you're gonna feel this. He goes, it's gonna feel like this to you. It's the bottom of the ninth inning. game seven of the World Series. Bases Loaded. You're down by three. You're up. Right? And you go yard? Yep. He goes, that's what it's going to feel like.

Brent Vaarstra  56:17  
One of motivation. Right, and no pun intended, yet, right?

Dr. Bob Lawrence  56:20  
And guess what? Guess what Ben? It did. And that's what you're talking about these little? These successes that come along, come along the way and your journey?

Brent Vaarstra  56:29  
Yeah. Well, like I said, like, the first time that someone learns, like, the thing by ear, it's like, when they reach out to me, they're like, Oh, my God, it's like, it's so to me. It's not a big deal, right? It's just not at this point. But then this is like, huge, right? And it's like, Oh, my God, I believe now I believe in this, like, let's do this, like, let's keep going like, this is awesome. And so, right. You know, that's, that's what it is. It's that if you can keep motivated. And just understand that it's the way you're thinking about it. And no, you can't just change the way you think about it has to be practiced, right. But also, you have to be set up for success. Because too much too often, people haven't been set up for success. They're like, the student that I taught early on, who I kept forcing him to play the G and C chord until he got it. Right. And, you know, and, and so sometimes, it's sometimes an often your setup, I'll even say this to YouTube will set you up for failure. Oftentimes, it's a big statement, and I'm raising my hand saying, I create content on YouTube. I create jazz education, content, YouTube, I, we have a podcast, you have a podcast, I have a podcast, create tons of content, and it's all good stuff. But what can happen is you start getting lost in information. And it's not just jazz, it's everything, right? You get way too fast and information, right? And you can't you can't make any meaningful progress. You can't decipher what's up and what's down what's left and what's right. And then you feel overwhelmed, then you lose motivation. You don't make forward progress. And it's done. Right. So it's like, you have to know what tools to use at the right time. And you have to know what teacher you need at the right time.

Dr. Bob Lawrence  58:07  
I think, yeah, it's you're absolutely 100% Correct. YouTube can have you have you heading in about 1000 different directions simultaneously. And and it can get very overwhelming very, very, very quickly. Heck, it was overwhelming. I remember it being overwhelming. Long before the internet when I was trying to find books and materials just on my own to study and learn it was overwhelming then. Now it's like overwhelming on steroids. It's believable.

Brent Vaarstra  58:36  
Exactly. It's an assault. And so 100% Are these things? Great things? 100? Yes, of course they are. They're good. There's there's lots of right. I mean, right, you can find the answer to how to play your shell voicings on the piano, right, you can find the answer. It's there on YouTube, you'll find it? Yes. Could be you could be somebody else, right? Yes. And it doesn't they're not hard, right. And that's a good thing. And you can keep doing that for a while. But eventually you need some guidance, you need some help, or forget about that. Maybe you don't need help at all. Maybe you just again, you need to become your own project manager. And figuring out what it needs. I mean, so one big thing that we really started talking about a lot this year is auditing your playing. So doing self audits. So for example, that a jazz audit would look like this, you first of all, we believe in recording ourselves a lot. And the reason we believe in that is because a we're documenting our progress, but the secondary effect of it is a lot of people are afraid to play with other people. And what this kind of does is it simulates a performance environment because if you've ever like, recorded yourself, you feel like a spa even though it's just you and your room. You feel like there's a spotlight on you and planning. No one's watching me play. It's just me. No one's even need to listen to this. I can delete this. You're still nervous and freaking Right? Right. Right. So you're simulating that environment. So you're working on that side, but you're also documenting your progress. So once you record, once you record your solo, right, and anybody can do this, right, this can be your own teacher, once you record your solo, you, first of all, only one take only take one take, we don't. So an optimal recording environment is you only do one take of the solo. Because you're not interested in trying to impress yourself that you're interested in hearing where you're at right now. And you're practicing accepting that Right, right. And you're acting as if no one is there, right? Like you're acting as if like, it's just you were just experimenting, all these things. So you just take one take. And so after you recorded yourself, you listen to the recording, and the first time you listen to it, you ask yourself the question, What did I love? And what did I love? Is? It's an emotional question. By the way, it's not an analytical question. It's an emotional question. What parts when you were listening back, we like, there's some hope, or, Oh, I kind of liked that. And it could have just been one note, could have just been one phrase, right? It could have been preceded by a part you hated, right, but it's there, right? It's there. And so, you know, not really likes writing things down. I think this is a good idea, write down exactly what happened, it'd be specific. Well, I really liked how I was in this register on my instrument, and then I moved up there. And by the way, I noticed I did that a little bit later, which must be something I'm doing naturally, you know. So something about that feels really good to me, right? So you go in, you write down all the things that you love. And then these are the things you want to double down on, you want to double down on it. So it's kind of it's like, it's like, wine, it's in the barrel. Right. But now it needs some time to age, right? That's right. It needs time to age. And so these are the things that are more important than working on your weaknesses, honestly, is double down on the things that you're actually already good at. Because these are more likely to occur naturally to you for things to pop out. And most importantly, it's the things you feel inside are great about, you're playing already. And you just need to improve it and get even better or think about doing it more or even just bringing it to your consciousness, which is part of this exercise. By the way. It's just awareness. Right? Then you go and you listen to it again. And what did I not like? You asked that question? And again, it's a motional question. Because not that I do not promote at all feeling badly about your playing. I think that's mostly detrimental. But you still have to be honest and say something didn't feel very good about what I just did that that part, right? When you go through and you write what all you've heard, get very specific. I didn't outline the the five chord going into the one chord. And so it sounded amateur because it didn't sound like the great jazz musicians do. It just didn't sound I was putting the quarter cake every specific. Oh, by the way, it was at this particular chord because I heard myself doing it right on this other chord. So what it is about that, that that section, so you get really specific about what it is you're actually doing, right? Instead of just soloing, going on to YouTube, put up a backing track and just zoom. Okay, one year later, I'm like, 1% better, right? We're trying to like that make our gift that we're trying to get ourselves like, you know, yeah, one, we're trying to get ourselves like 10% better every single month. Right? That's more we're trying to do, right? Yeah. So once you do that, again, there's the overwhelm part where it's like, well, you may have written down a lot of things. So which ones do I double down on? And which ones do I work on that I didn't like about my solo, right? So you pick one of each? And you're like, Hey, check this out. I'm learning a jazz standard, right? Because that's a high leverage activity. But there's this thing I'm really good at. So how can i What's something that I one strategy I can implement on this one thing will apply to the jazz standard, because that has context to it. And we'll work on that. And then what's the one thing that I'm just like, that's if I could just get that one thing just a little bit better? You know, my Rybnik point my time is off or something something right? One strategy and so you simplify it and there you go. You're your own jazz coach right now and you don't need you technically don't need anybody's help it just it can be easier if you get someone's

Dr. Bob Lawrence  1:04:25  
Yeah, and sooner or later we will and sooner or later we all have to become our own jazz coach. Yes, somewhere along the line we have to become coach and the one thing I want to add and I think you would agree with this, the one thing that everyone all listeners listening right now, take this to heart. The one thing that you cannot write down that you do not like the one thing that you cannot write down is that Oh, I I play the same thing or the same idea over and over again. That is not a not like that. Right, because I hear that all the time from students I always respond. Well, so did Oscar Peterson. Right? So did Joe pass. And I can go down. This is why you can drop a needle on an album and say, Oh, that's Oscar Peterson. Why? Because you're hearing, you're hearing the same things, right? He has a language, he has a vocabulary that he uses. So one of the things I try to stress to students, when you're repeating an idea that's that is coming to you again, and again. That's part of your vocabulary. You refine it, hone it, love it, double down on it, double double down on it, right? This is not a lot of times people make this mistake of thinking, jazz improvisation has to be 100%, spontaneous. 100% new every time I play, right, that is just That's a myth.

Brent Vaarstra  1:05:48  
It is a myth. And I think I mentioned earlier in the show, just saying that my definition of improvisation is, it's where what you're hearing in your head and muscle memory meet, right? Yes, where those things meet together. And so naturally, when you're playing, and I'm using my guitar, but whatever, piano sax, right, whatever. So right, naturally, whenever you're learning language, and you're internalizing it, like you are going to, you are going to naturally start playing the same things. And to your point, all the great jazz musicians did that too. What sets them apart from that and who they are, is the ability to the ability to evolve an idea, right? The ability to mature and idea the ability to really honestly listen to their musical environment and respond to that environment. Right. But are they playing something new every single time? No, it's that botch quote, again, the preparation meets, blah, blah, blah, blah. And that's what creates success. Yeah, so I should look that up.

Dr. Bob Lawrence  1:06:53  
We'll find it we'll put in the show notes. So now all really good stuff. Brent, really good stuff. So share with listeners before we wrap it up today. What's in store for them? I know most people probably listening already know, have learned jazz standards. But if they don't know about learn jazz standards. So even if they do, share with us a little bit what's on the docket for 2023? How they can get involved and take advantage of the great resources and information that you have available for them. Yeah,

Brent Vaarstra  1:07:24  
well, I mean, you're listening on to a podcast right now. Just our podcast is the LGs podcast, learn jazz standards podcast. There's always great stuff there, too. We come out with episodes every single week. You do and you can head over there after listening to one of Bob's episodes. And yeah, I think I mean, we have a lot of there's a ton of things going on. But I think just for the sake of the listeners, that's, that's a good place to be. It's a good place, of course, to have a YouTube channel to you know, if

Dr. Bob Lawrence  1:07:52  
that's something you're interested in? Well, and I think you would, I know I don't think I know you would agree with this, I stressed the students all the time, they should be taken advantage. There are several great jazz resources out there, you know, sites like what you have in the material. No one teacher takes you from point A to point Z, right? No, no one teacher. And so I am I endorse students getting their hands on great materials and great resources as as much as they possibly can, because they're going to walk away with a great benefit. Yeah,

Brent Vaarstra  1:08:30  
a diversity of ideas, with with anything that you're trying to learn, honestly, is always a good idea. You know, it's always a good idea to get different perspectives, especially because one might resonate with you a little bit more or an element that might resonate more. So that's what I do in my life. I don't read just one business book. I read a bunch of one coach, I get to

Dr. Bob Lawrence  1:08:55  
it right, right. Well, Brett, man, you know, it was it's long overdue. I had been wanting to reach out to you for a long time and meet you. invite you on jazz piano skills, and I'm so glad I did. And you know, I look forward to our continued friendship and getting getting to know you more and and I want to have you back on jazz panel skills again here soon. So I hope you will accept that invitation when when we yeah,

Brent Vaarstra  1:09:21  
we forgot to get you on. We got to get you on the Learn jazz standards podcast when these days we got to hook that up. Well,

Dr. Bob Lawrence  1:09:25  
I would I would love to be a guest. So in any anytime so. So website again, Brent. What's the website address for learn jazz? Learn jazz standards?

Brent Vaarstra  1:09:36  
Learn jazz? Yeah, that's what it was in 2010. And it's it's still the same.

Dr. Bob Lawrence  1:09:42  
Fantastic. Well, listen, enjoy your mom and dad this weekend. Thank you. modulations congratulations on your daughter. Yeah, Have you have you already started thinking about what instrument she's gonna play or?

Brent Vaarstra  1:09:55  
Honestly, I Not really. I mean, she has a little piano she has like a little pee. I know that like, right, she plays some times, you know, like, you know hacks at it and then I try to show her me playing the guitar sometimes. And then we dance a lot in the in the kitchen to like, different styles of music. So we'll let her take your pick, we'll give her the buffet and then whatever she chooses, we'll, we'll run

Dr. Bob Lawrence  1:10:17  
well. Listen, I have four kids, three boys, and I thought they'd be musicians, but they're, they're all in the baseball man. So you know, their baseball player. So you know what, you know, knows what's going to happen.

Brent Vaarstra  1:10:29  
It's kind of like me, I was the lone musician in my family sometimes up. I mean, it just is what it is.

Dr. Bob Lawrence  1:10:36  
All right, Brent. Hey, on behalf of all the jazz piano skills, members and listeners, man, thanks so much for giving up your time this afternoon and, and coming on jazz piano skills. It's been such a thrill and I can't I can't begin to thank you enough. Thank you.

Brent Vaarstra  1:10:51  
Thanks, Bob. appreciate having me on.

Dr. Bob Lawrence  1:10:53  
All right. Talk to you soon, my friend. Well, I hope you have found this jazz panel skills podcast episode with special guests. Brent Vaartstra. Try to be insightful, entertaining and of course beneficial. One of my mentors and teachers, our friends and used to say to me after every lesson, never forget the greatest thing about music is the people you meet through it. And the privilege of meeting and spending time with Brent simply confirms our sentiment 100% And don't forget if you are a jazz panel skills ensemble member I will see you online Thursday evening at the jazz panel skills masterclass. That's 8pm Central time to discuss this podcast episode featuring Brent Vaartstra, in greater detail, and to answer any questions that you may have about the study of jazz in general. As always, you can reach me by phone through the Dallas School of Music. My office number here is 972-380-8050 my extension is 211. You can email me Dr. Lawrence, drlawrence@jazz Or you can use the nifty little SpeakPipe widget that's found throughout the jazz piano skills website to reach out as well. Well, there is my cue. That's it for now. And until next week, enjoy the journey. Enjoy the pearls of wisdom shared by Brent Barstow. And most of all, have fun as you discover, learn and play jazz Piano

Brent VaartstraProfile Photo

Brent Vaartstra

Jazz Musician, Author, Podcaster, and Entrepreneur

Brent Vaartstra is a professional jazz musician, author, podcaster, and jazz coach living in New York City. coach living in New York City. He is the director of the internationally renowned jazz education company Learn Jazz Standards, which helps musicians of all instruments level up their jazz playing without the overwhelm. He actively performs and teaches in the New York Metropolitan area and is the author of the Hal Leonard publications “500 Jazz Licks” and “Visual Improvisation for Jazz Guitar.” Outside of music, he’s a foodie and travel enthusiast.