Practice Makes Personal
Helping his students improve has made Victor Lin a better musician and human being
By Jonanthan Sapers
Victor Lin has recorded, performed his own compositions and drawn high praise from the jazz supernova Kenny Barron. Yet his musicianship has been equally galvanized by his students at the Stanford Jazz Workshop, the Mark O’Connor Fiddle Camp and Columbia's Louis Armstrong Jazz Performance Program—including one who inspired Lin’s TC dissertation.
“He asked me, ‘What do I practice?’” recalls Lin, an accomplished violinist, bassist and jazz pianist who is graduating this spring from the College’s Music and Music Education program. Without quite articulating it, Lin had pondered that issue his entire musical life. “I said, ‘Well, there are standard set of things everyone does, but just because I did things a certain way, doesn’t mean it’s most effective for you.’ And then I started to wonder, how did all the legends practice? What did they do?” And above all: how to make improvement a less “blind and self-propelled” process for his students than it had been for him?
Lin was made to play classical piano and violin by his parents at an early age. He was blessed with an ability to recreate what he heard, a gift he used mainly to impress his friends by playing themes from video games and the latest pop songs. He joined his high school jazz band “because it was cool”—but resolved to take music seriously only after a friend laughed at his first attempt to solo.
“I started listening to the music that we were playing and stealing everything,” he recalls. “It wasn’t until the fourth time I’d played the same solo that I realized I should change it. I had stumbled onto the way you’re really supposed to learn music.
“A lot of my early experiences were like that,” he says. “You have this chip on your shoulder and you think, ‘I’m going to show them.’ Then something else knocks you down, and you have to match that, too.”
That was the sequence when he went to the University of Washington at age 17 after Stanford had turned him down. Unsure whether he wanted to be a doctor, a lawyer or a professional musician, he spent his first year taking math, physics and music theory.
“I’m at a huge university, feeling overwhelmed and taking classes that I hate, and my bubble gets burst,” he recalls. “It was humbling to discover that I was the worst jazz pianist there. I was so bad I didn’t even get into a group. I barely qualified for lessons. It was the ultimate reality check.”
Lin became a Christian and spent the summer after freshman year working at a Salvation Army Camp, where he discovered music could really help him reach people. “Kids there don’t care about your training,” he says. “But they can sense if you care about them.”
Lin focused harder on music, and when he discovered Barron’s album People Time, with saxophonist Stan Getz, he knew he didn’t want to be a doctor or a lawyer. After graduating, he moved east to study with Barron at Rutgers.
He took lessons with Barron once a week for three years, a process he found fascinating and frustrating. “He’d have a piano, I’d have a piano, and we’d kind of go at it back and forth. I didn’t like that for a while. I wanted him to tell me what to do. He had only two pieces of advice—‘You just need to go and play’ and ‘You’re ready.’ We’d play for thirty minutes, and he’d say one thing, and we’d play another twenty minutes, and I was out the door.”
In retrospect, Lin says, Barron was right: he needed to play to discover how to get better. After Rutgers, he spent a year teaching lessons and doing gigs in hotels and bars. In 2000, filled with new ideas, he came to TC.
Since then, he’s followed two distinct but related paths.
Lin the performer and composer met jazz impresario Cobi Narita, got gigs, assembled a trio and recorded an album, Live at Cobi’s Place, at Narita’s Manhattan venue.
Lin the teacher joined the faculty of The Calhoun School, a progressive private school on Manhattan’s Upper West Side, in 2002. His goal: to create a dynamic environment for students of all levels to learn how to play jazz.
“What if we taught kids from the get-go that excelling on a bunch of different instruments was the most ordinary thing, and you were expected to do it?” Lin says. “I’m conducting that experiment here at Calhoun.”
Lin taught himself to play bass after discovering he could support students less intrusively on that instrument than on piano. His teaching has paid dividends for his composing, too: perhaps the most compelling track on Live at Cobi’s Place grew out of the children’s songs Lin taught to third graders at Calhoun. He took several of the songs, changed their key, stretched them out and turned them from happy ditties into a softly unfolding jazz ballad, aptly titled “Wonderment.”
A few years ago, when Lin started helping with ensemble auditions in what is now the Louis Armstrong Jazz Performance Program at Columbia, he wondered, “Why are we turning people away? Isn’t the idea to help people improve?”
During that first semester, Lin and fellow TC music student Josh Renick taught what they called the TC Jazz Workshop for 12 Columbia students rejected from the program. For the students it was a chance to get better. For Lin and Renick, it was a laboratory for teaching ideas.
The following semester, Columbia accepted three of those students. Then the program stopped rejecting applicants and hired Lin to teach two beginner jazz combos.
For some musicians, such a heavy investment in teaching might have diminished their own musicianship. For Lin, the result has been just the opposite.
“To hear Victor play now, you would never believe that he struggled as a musician,” says Sara Snyder, an ethnomusicology doctoral student and former jazz program assistant at Columbia. “But he really did. He has fought his way to being one of the best musicians around. So he empathizes with students, and he never gives up hope.”
Kenny Barron offers a similar assessment: “Victor Lin was and is a very talented, creative, disciplined and above all enthusiastic young musician. He has a wonderful way of interacting with young students that gets them to open up.”
With the guidance of his advisor, TC music faculty member Randall Allsup, Lin is finishing his dissertation this spring. His topic: the learning experiences of four jazz piano greats--Barron, Joe Gilman, Mulgrew Miller and Taylor Eigsti--and a newcomer, Columbia student Michael Hardin.
“It’s not really a question of what do you practice. It’s more like why do you practice?” he says, “Who are you practicing with? When are you practicing? How are you practicing? It’s this idea of a dynamic environment. Because music is not learned in a vacuum. It has to be part of the social fabric of your everyday life. It’s not meant to be an isolating experience. It can’t be.”