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Dear Fred – Letter to a Potential Adult Student

Hi everyone, I came accross a letter that saxophone player and teacher, Greg Fishman of Greg Fishman Jazz studios wrote to a potential student. I thought it would be very helpful to my readers and it is posted here with permission. The post begins below with Greg’s explantation of the context of the letter and then goes directly into to the letter from Greg to the student. While you read the letter point by point, think about whether any of the areas that Greg points out generally apply to you. Are any of these areas holding you back?

Good luck,


Dear Fred, (Letter to a potential adult student)

A few weeks ago, I received an email from a potential adult saxophone student, asking about the possibility of studying with me. I love teaching, and I always look forward to helping new students. I responded to his request with an enthusiastic email, telling him that I felt I could really help him learn to improve his saxophone playing and his ability to learn the jazz language and to improvise.

He wrote back, stating that all of my words sounded good, but that he’s heard all these same claims from all of his past teachers as well. He asked why his lessons with me would be any different from those of his other teachers who tried and failed with him. I thought this was a fair and interesting question, and it prompted me to write this response below. It is a bit of a rant, and it should be taken with a bit of the tongue-in-cheek attitude with which it was written. I was laughing aloud as I recalled some of my more challenging students through the years.

I think that many readers will identify with the letter. For students striving to come to terms with the saxophone and with the jazz language, it will give a glimpse into the challenges facing his teacher. For teachers, it will provide a look at some of the traits possessed by some of their more challenging students through the years.

The following letter is meant to be observational, rather than judgmental. It’s not meant to place any blame for some adult (or non-adult) students being the way they are, nor is it intended to let teachers off the hook (myself included) by placing difficult students in an “unteachable” category to justify a lack of patience on their part with a difficult student. These are just some common traits I’ve noticed through the years.

From: Greg Fishman

To: Fred (the sax student Fred, aka Mr. Everyman)

Dear Fred,

As you’ve shared some skepticism with me about hearing all of these claims before, I can tell you, from my perspective, I’ve encountered many adult students in your situation over the past 25 years of teaching. Many times, adult students have been to dozens of teachers and music camps, and they own every book on the market. Yet, still they can’t play. I’m generalizing here, (just as you’ve generalized about all of your past teachers) but I’ve found that adult students often have many things in common:

1. They think there’s a single “answer,” as in “You just do THIS and then you can play great.” There is no single answer…. “I’ve always wanted to learn to speak Portuguese. Just tell me how, and I’ll start speaking fluent Portuguese right now.”

2. Misguided concepts. They cling to all of their well meaning, but horribly misguided concepts about playing from their past attempts at learning jazz. They refuse to let go of the way they’ve done things in the past, assuming that because they’ve played the same lick the same way for the past ten years, it must be right. They take this conceptual baggage to every new teacher they visit, failing each time and blaming the new teacher.

3. Lack of trust. Many adults simply have been burned too many times in the past to trust what I’m telling them is true and will help them. Perhaps a teacher in the past gave them some advice or suggestions that didn’t work out too well for them, so now when they go to a new teacher, they’re constantly disrupting the flow of the lessons, asking the teacher to justify his advice to them.

Questions from students during the lessons are fine (and welcome). Contradicting everything the teacher is saying? Not fine. If you don’t respect the teacher as a player and as an educator, based on his reputation and experience, find a different teacher.

4. Ego. Their pride gets in the way of them really getting down to business with something challenging, and they can’t stand to hear themselves struggling with something new, so they keep practicing what they can already play, instead of learning something new and moving forward.

5. Patience. Adults are the most impatient people I’ve ever met. They want answers and results immediately, often sabotaging themselves with their impatience for the learning process. For example, I could read a book on how to play golf in an hour, go out to the course and be no better than I was before reading the book. It takes time and experience and patience! There’s definitely a lot of trial and error involved.

6. Fear. They’re afraid. Afraid of failing, of sounding bad, of being embarrassed, of playing wrong notes, etc. When you learn to ride a bicycle, you fall a few times at first, until you learn how to balance yourself. You don’t fall once and then walk away, defeated, never to ride again. You get back on the bicycle and keep trying until you can feel what it’s like to have balance and not fall down. If you’re only willing to ride a bicycle with a 100% guarantee you won’t fall down a few times, you’ll never learn to ride a bicycle.

7. Misplaced self-confidence. These folks are the complete opposite of those mentioned above. These students play so horribly on the changes that they’re routinely being thrown over the “harmonic handlebars” (of their imaginary bicycles), yet, they think they sounded like they just won the Tour-de-France.

These students are often playing E naturals as whole notes on C minor chords, and they think it’s just fine! I’m often amazed at the utterly unflappable confidence of some adult students. If I call them “out ” on missing the changes, they’ll argue with me like I’m an umpire who just made a bad call at home plate.

8. Just Enough theory knowledge to be dangerous. Knowing all the theory in the world won’t do you any good if you don’t hear the sounds in your head. Thinking intellectually about fingerings and key signatures and scales won’t help you produce a great solo any more than thinking vividly about vowels or the number of syllables in each word will help you form a meaningful sentence.

These students like to try and impress me with their theoretical knowledge by trying to justify the fact that they’re simply not making the changes and not listening to themselves or the rhythm section.

The height of this was when an adult student was playing Body & Soul on a cassette he mailed to me, where he accidentally added an extra “A” section to the tune. As a result, he was still playing in Db while the bridge went to D Major. He did this throughout the recording, playing the last “A” sections of the tune in D Major, with the bridges in Db.

When the recording finally ended, he proudly announced on the tape that I should pay “close attention” to the way he integrated the various modes of the pentatonic scales during his solo. This would have been a forgivable offense had he been playing unaccompanied, but he did all of this while playing with a with a play-along track(!).

9. Lack of concentration. Many adults can’t focus their attention on the details needed to improve their playing. Often, it is necessary to break down the components to very small details in order to fix some problems, and some people lose concentration.

10. They don’t practice. They read books and articles about how to play jazz, they buy lots of gear, but they don’t put in the hours and years of practice necessary to learn how to play their instrument. It is important to note that learning to play the saxophone is a separate issue from learning to play jazz and learning to improvise.

To learn to play jazz, you really need to study the masters, absorbing the sounds and styles of the top players in history, such as: Charlie Parker, Miles Davis, Bill Evans, Stan Getz, Sonny Stitt, John Coltrane, Lester Young, Cannonball, Sonny Rollins, etc. You should be able to sing and play some of their solos right along with the recordings, or, even better, by memory. This is essential to learning the language. Many adults think that they can skip all of that listening and study, and just create a language all their own, with no ties to the tradition of the music. Essentially, they’re trying to reinvent the wheel! All top players have studied the greats of the past.


Greg Fishman

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  1. nicholas | Feb 18, 2014 | Reply


    Thanks Leon for the Letter. It gives me a new perspective into the “instant gratification” mind set that most Adult Students incur. Patience, Practice and Pain (not Physical either) is still no secret for Musical growth.

  2. derek | Nov 24, 2013 | Reply

    Great letter, i teach electric guitar and had an adult student recently who was exactly like the above description! He was reluctant to play during lessons as all he wanted was me to tell/show him how to play! He even turned up with a ‘new’ theory of modal playing but could not play a piece of fairly simple music satisfactorily. He went to another teacher…… Spot on!

  3. mihai | Jan 3, 2013 | Reply

    Nice one

  4. Rob | Aug 16, 2012 | Reply

    This was one of the best music related things I’ve read in a LONG time! I’m a classical guitarist but I think this applies to any adult students in general, great letter!

  5. andile | Mar 24, 2011 | Reply

    this is a very valuble letter to read, not only for adults but for all who strugle to learn jazz. this is very helpfull to me and i hope to recieve many more guides like these

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