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Chops: Teaching Adults to Play Jazz

Gerald Veasley and Scott Houston address a new and expanding market

Gerald Veasley’s Bass Boot Camp the way it used to be. (Courtesy of Roxanne Veasley)
Gerald Veasley’s Bass Boot Camp the way it used to be (photo: Courtesy of Roxanne Veasley)

This column usually focuses on the needs of more advanced or professional musicians. But what about all of us jazz fans who don’t play an instrument, or haven’t played since band practice in high school or that basement band with our college friends? Two musicians, using different approaches with different instruments, are addressing this new and expanding market.

Bassist Gerald Veasley initially created his Bass Boot Camp in 2012 for the usual workshop/clinic audience: younger, early (or pre-) professionals. “It was really a challenge for them to sign up; they didn’t have the money or they didn’t have the time, or they needed to really focus on just playing,” he explains. “Then we noticed who did embrace it—the older students. We just pivoted to offer it to the folks who were really interested in it.”

Until the pandemic, the camp was an immersive weekend experience, held annually at a Philadelphia hotel with noted bassists serving as instructors. Attendees, nearly all adults, came from many backgrounds with varying goals, but all wanted to play the electric bass. “I think it is a bucket list kind of thing,” Veasley says. “For a lot of folks, it’s something where they might’ve been in bands and they put the music aside to pursue their careers and build businesses and raise families and now that they’re in that season of life where they have more time, they’re coming back to it. That’s one typical camper, and the other is folks who always wanted to play, dreamed of playing and would admire bass players and just never got a chance.”

Gerald Veasley (center) makes a point to his Bass Boot Camp students. (Courtesy of Roxanne Veasley)
Gerald Veasley (center) makes a point to his Bass Boot Camp students. (Courtesy of Roxanne Veasley)

That Bass Boot Camp student profile is similar to what Scott Houston—known to PBS viewers as “The Piano Guy,” and the creator of the “Piano in a Flash” online program—has found over more than two decades developing and popularizing his teaching method for adults seeking a new kind of piano lesson. “It was clear that there was this giant audience of non-children that had absolutely zero interest in becoming good classical piano players,” Houston explains. “They were beyond doing it for the ‘because their parents wanted them to do it’ reason and they just wanted to do it for self-enrichment. There couldn’t be any more direct, straight-ahead, clear reason. People just said, ‘Look, I’m doing this for fun.’ It became so obvious that this is probably not a bad thing to help people have fun making music.”

Basing his program on lead sheets (which present abbreviated song notation consisting only of basic melody and chords), Houston started with instructional books, moved to videos, and in recent years developed a robust online system that enables students to work at their own pace. He believes that one of the greatest obstacles for adult learners is the concept of the weekly schedule. “We all do it because it’s what we’ve always done: ‘Hey, let’s have a weekly lesson,’” Houston says. “Well, that doesn’t make any sense because some things that are absolutely critical may only take you 15 minutes. Then there’s some other things that may take two or three weeks. Now no one’s on the clock, they can come and get it in any amount they want and at any time. It’s much more student-centered for adult students to not have to force them into a weekly schedule.”

“It’s not like the folks who appreciate what we do disappeared just because there’s a pandemic. We just have to serve them in a different way.” —Gerald Veasley

Another challenge for adult learners, Veasley notes, is that they know too much. “They know the difference between good and bad, right? They’re focused on that part and to get them to not do that is tough. A younger student, whose ear is not educated to know what’s good or bad, can enjoy playing music just because it’s fun, because they’re not critical yet and they have nothing to compare it to. But adult learners who have been listening to music for years and years and know what good is supposed to sound like—when they don’t sound like that, it can be discouraging.”

Once an adult student overcomes some of those inhibitions or fears, the rewards can be astounding. “It’s super-rewarding that people are just having fun and they’re doing it for the right reasons,” Houston says. “They’re not getting unglued and stressed out going to recitals, unless they want to. We get a lot of videos of people going to nursing homes to play for the residents, just to play for somebody. That’s a huge step for a non-musician.”

Scott Houston
Scott Houston

When a student is having fun and learning, it’s inevitably satisfying to the teacher as well. “The thing I like about what we do is that we’re teaching someone who has never touched an instrument before and they’ve been wanting to do it for decades,” Veasley adds. “It’s pretty rewarding because they get almost instant satisfaction from doing something they only imagined they might be able to do.”

For both Houston and Veasley, the pandemic has created challenges and benefits. Veasley was forced to postpone and eventually cancel the in-person version of his camp, normally held in March. However, turning to a virtual event, he tried to retain the basic elements of the experience. “It’s not like the folks who appreciate what we do disappeared just because there’s a pandemic,” he points out. “We just have to serve them in a different way. We brought in four instructors and had a day-long program, which people loved. Part of the Bass Boot Camp experience is that it’s hands-on, so we replicated that online using Zoom and using breakout rooms based on level. For the most part it’s pretty satisfactory, but we’re still learning what online can and can’t do.”

There were also a few distinct advantages to going virtual: “First of all, geography becomes less of an issue. We had an attendee of our virtual camp from Germany who probably wouldn’t have come to Bass Boot Camp otherwise. Also, we’ll be able to get instructors who ordinarily may not be able to travel for an in-person event but could offer instruction online. That’s one of the silver linings that would make us want to keep part of the virtual format.”

“It’s super-rewarding that people are just having fun and they’re doing it for the right reasons.”—Scott Houston

In Houston’s case, he had already moved to an online interface for “Piano in a Flash,” which he and his team have been tweaking for years. “As you know, people are home and realizing, ‘God, I really have been wanting to do this forever and now that things are slowing down and I’m in front of a computer, let’s take some of this time at home and knock this off my bucket list.’ That’s been heartwarming. I’m getting a lot more people sending in videos to me. Part of our goal in 2021 is to really work on the community aspect that we have.” 

Houston sums up why he loves teaching adults to play the piano: “If I get hit by a bus tomorrow, I will leave knowing that there are a lot of people having a lot of fun making music that weren’t before.”