Leonardo da Vinci once said, “Poor is the student who does not surpass his master.”
I am glad I was not one of da Vinci’s students! This quote seems to inspire me to do my best to improve upon my teachers, but it also seems to lift a standard so high that I cannot live up to its challenge. Like many great sayings, I think this one could benefit from some contemplation.
First of all, it exhorts us to do better than the previous generation. I know that I frequently hear the voice of one of my teachers when I am practicing. Bernard Adelstein will admonish me to play it more crisply or get off the ties quicker. Charles Gorham will urge me to be more lyric or creative.
I have heard jazz trumpet players talk about their teachers or mentors with a mixture of a desire to emulate and a hint of competitiveness. Louis Armstrong said, “It was my ambition to play as [Joe “King” Oliver] did. I still think that if it had not been for Joe Oliver, Jazz would not be what it is today. He was a creator in his own right.” Dizzy Gillespie said, “Many critics always saw and heard that my style comes from Roy Eldridge, which is true. But for many things, not only how to play the trumpet but the way to choose the notes, how to play them and how to phrase all of them, I took that from Sweets [Edison]. He really brought something new to the trumpet.” Also, Wynton Marsalis said, “The musicians I respected were much older than me. I expected them to cut my head, and they did.”
But Da Vinci’s quote also seems to to tell us that we are not worthy unless we surpass our teacher, but I do not actually think that this is what we should take away from the Renaissance painter’s quote. Rather, I think he was trying to make us understand that it is usually inevitable that the student, who is open to the ideas of his or her teacher, who will try hard and for a long enough time, will surpass his or her teacher. Da Vinci was helping teachers everywhere to understand that their art helps the next generation to fully develop, and that it is entirely okay that the student surpasses the teacher at least in some things. Obviously, the teacher retains his or her individuality, as Miles Davis seems to say in this quote: “You can’t compete with Sweets’ sound and time feel. It’s impossible.” [referring to Sweets Edison]
A student from the days when I taught trumpet in Evansville, Indiana, Benjamin Wright, now plays in the Boston Symphony Orchestra and teaches at the Tanglewood Music Festival. He is a truly marvelous player. Here’s a video of Ben co-teaching at Tanglewood. He has some excellent things to say about the importance playing as a section in an orchestra, by the way, in this video:
I am also very proud of Patrick O’Connell, who studied trumpet and cornett with me at George Mason University. Tonight we rehearsed and performed some 16th and 17th-century music at the Basilica of the Holy Shrine in DC. In this video, you can hear us practicing the obbligato parts from Monteverdi’s “Et resurrexit” on cornett:
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