The Conti Philosophy

The great guitar players learned to play by playing the guitar. That sounds simple and it is but then ask yourself why so many teachers make playing music among their lowest priorities. They assign all sorts of esoteric scales, modes, chord formations, fingerboard patterns, numerical mumbo-jumbo everything except the very music that the learner wants to play. This may build character and it certainly builds the teacher’s bank balance but does it do justice to the learner? Robert Conti is a teacher with a difference. He is a pioneer in jazz guitar teaching who early on discovered that the way to learn to play jazz guitar is to play real jazz lines, not to study scales and modes endlessly. By playing real jazz that is just beyond the player’s current ability, Mr. Conti provides an attainable goal that increases both technical proficiency and a sense of achievement in the student. Nothing succeeds like success, and no one practices so willingly as a learner who is making progress.

Many types of learning bear out this methodology. Consider language. We learn it by hearing others speak and gradually using it ourselves. We do not make 3-year-old children sit through courses on grammar and syntax. We do not correct them by insisting that they use only certain structures. “No child, don’t say ‘ma-ma’; say ‘Good morning mother, how are you today?’ ” In fact we only become concerned if they do not learn to speak this way. And when a child does speak, we do not just hear our own words parroted back to us – soon the child can form his or her own ideas in sentences which are completely original.

Wes Montgomery tells of his start in the music world. He learned the solos of Charlie Christian note-for-note, and played these in a band, but that is all that he knew. “I’d lay out until time came for my solo, play it, then lay back out again.” After months of this, and at the insistence of his band leader, Wes discovered that he could come up with his own ideas, and as time went by he sounded less like Charlie Christian and more like Wes Montgomery. He learned the language of jazz guitar and became able to “speak it.”

In refining his teaching approach, Robert Conti soon realized that this was the most effective approach. Like spoken language, music is an aural art – we hear it, and are heard when we produce it. To learn the language you had to hear it, become familiar with it, then produce your own. To learn to play jazz guitar, you had to play jazz guitar, starting with simpler but real jazz lines and progressing to more complex ones. The student starts by copying real examples and progresses to producing his or her own.

The Conti Approach is what academics classify as experiential learning. You learn by doing something, starting simply and gradually increasing complexity. This may be more precisely defined as Situated Learning, which means that the skills are developed in and for a specific milieu. With jazz guitar that would be the jazz world in general, and jazz gigs in particular. From this viewpoint, if you only practise scales then they are all that you will be learning to play. If all of your practice is just for your next lesson, you will be learning to play for a teacher, which is why Robert Conti produces solos that he urges the student to “take to your next jam session or gig.” The materials and context are aimed toward performance, not toward a lifetime of lessons as a perpetual student.

My own expertise is in a refinement of situated learning called Legitimate Peripheral Participation, coined and explained by Jean Lave and Etienne Wenger. It may sound daunting, but the term is very precise. Lave and Wenger pointed out that many activities are best learned when the tasks leading to them are real, authentic actions that someone proficient in the field would perform (they are “legitimate”); that the learner works in the field, but at its “outer edges” rather on the cutting edge or center of activity (peripheral); and that the learner is a true part of the community, say by playing at jam sessions or gigs (participation). From this viewpoint, a jazz guitar learner would become a jazz guitarist by carrying out authentic learning activities as a junior member of the jazz community, maybe as a regular at jam sessions or as a sideman for an established player. Think apprenticeship. Think comping in a band until you learn the repertoire of songs. Think playing someone else’s lines until you are confident enough to come up with your own.

The Conti Approach To Jazz Guitar

Robert Conti provides just this approach to learning. All of his soloing courses, from beginner to pro, feature his full performance of the material along with a bar-by-bar breakdown and explanation of the material. This is an updated version of a traditional learning method where beginners would go to a gig just to watch a master’s hands as he played, to “cop a few of his licks.” In this case, the master himself shows the student every lick, speeding up the process considerably. Most importantly, these are solos for some of the most popular standards in the repertoire, which means that the learner will have solos to play at a jam session, and thus get valuable real world experience. By choosing songs with common chord progressions, Mr. Conti ensures that the student has a repertoire of phrases or licks that will fit in hundreds or even thousands of similar songs.

Robert Conti’s approach is a hands-on practical guide to playing real jazz. Rather than begin with theory, he lets the theoretical issues arise from actual playing situations, so that the solutions are put in a meaningful context. For example, after playing some of Mr. Conti’s chord melody arrangements, a student might want to learn how to harmonize melodies on his own; or after playing a solo from the Ticket To Improv series a learner might want to increase the speed or precision of his picking. These kinds of issues are covered in the Source Code series of courses which are targeted to a specific need. Again, all of the lessons are geared toward musical solutions and the examples are presented from actual songs that the student will learn.

Of course different people learn in different ways. Fortunately the Conti Approach is flexible, and driven by the student’s own learning goals. A learner may begin with chord melody, or single lines; with jazz or blues; with beginner solos or more advanced : these are just some of the options available. Even those who prefer to start with a more theoretical bent are accommodated with the full Source Code series. The common thread that links all of the courses is the backbone of the Conti Approach: you will learn to play jazz guitar by playing real jazz that is just slightly beyond your current ability. From there, the only limits are your own time and effort!

– by Dr. Dave Walker

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