Throwback Thursday: Musicians Institute & Putter Smith

Today’s Throwback Thursday is about some really helpful lessons I got when I was at Musicians Institute that I still value to this day. When I was gong to BIT, there was a fantastic teacher name Putter Smith.  He was an upright player and at first, since I didn’t play upright, I thought there was not much I could gain by sitting in on his classes. I thought since I was so busy, I would just skip him on the schedule and head to a practice room and do my Racer X practice.  Putter had played with the likes of Thelonious MonkDuke EllingtonArt Blakey and Ray Charles amongst many others. I decided I would go to at least one of his classes to hear him play upright, and check how good a player he was. I remember one of the first things he spoke about was sleep patterns on the road.  I believe he must have recognized how exhausted all us students looked so he took it upon himself to enlighten us.

Photo credit: puttersmith.net

Photo credit: puttersmith.net

Putter shared a road story about touring.  He got our attention by asking if any of us had toured.  I don’t think anyone had seen the road so he offered us his advice with this story.  He said when he toured, he had been to Japan and he mentioned that a lot of the younger players of the orchestra he was playing with had been not sleeping, choosing to stay out late and party.  He said the entire trip in Japan, these younger musicians were all getting sick and eventually not enjoying their trip.  He chose to grab sleep whenever he could. Putter explained, even if you just get 20 minutes of rest through all the jet lag and the hard traveling schedules, that sleep can keep you healthy and make for a more enjoyable tour.

I really thought this was pretty genius because I love traveling and nothing sounded worse than being sick on the road…and in my experience, there is nothing fun about laying in your hotel room, knowing you are missing out on experience a city/country.  Putter’s words spoke volumes to me so I decided to go to more of his classes.

I decided to engage in Mr. Smith’s classes more.  They were sight reading classes and I came in to BIT as a low intermediate reader.  I figured this was a guy who could probably jump me from one level of reading to another, faster than any other teacher there and I was right.  He had such great ideas on how to tackle reading and gave us his tricks he used to keep pace with the timing of a piece, no matter how challenging.  He used this technique of using your tongue as a metronome guide.  The class would use there tongue to click like a metronome, pressing it up against the top of the mouth and make your own clicking sound.  This always gave the player a reference to the time of the piece and your own playing.  I still use this technique to this day. When I feel unsure about and odd time signature, I use this technique as a base for where the timing is.  It also works wonders in ballads, where a player’s timing can get lost in the space of slow tempos.

Photo detail: Musician’s Institute Professors of the first graduating class Photo credit: musiciansfoundation

Photo detail: Musician’s Institute Professors of the first graduating class

Photo credit: musiciansfoundation

One more thing I coincidentally learned from Putter is how not to judge a class or an instructor by the curriculum or one’s resume.  The things I learned from him are still with me and I will always be a fan of Putter Smith for that. Education is invaluable, you never stop learning and its a great trait to always pursue new things it makes you better as a musician, and as a person. Who are some teachers or instructors that inspired you? 

-Juan