S2E17 – Mentors

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How a mentorship differs from teaching and why it’s great for up and coming uke players.

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Edited for clarity.

Aloha. Welcome to the Live ʻUkulele Podcast. My name is Brad Bordessa. This is the first episode of September. I’m recording it kind of mid/late August in preparation for my absence of being home to actually record the podcast at a closer time. As you’re listening to this, I should be in Maui at Uncle George Kahumoku’s Slack Key and Ukulele workshop teaching folks how to play the instrument. And I won’t be around to create a podcast in that week leading up to the episode. So here we are planning ahead. It’s amazing.

But since the workshop is coming up and since so much of my musical learning has happened at, or around workshop environments, I thought I would take a minute in this episode to talk hopefully briefly about kind of how mentorships in music work – kind of in a Hawaiian style and how I think that it’s a beneficial alternative to having just a regular teacher, depending on your learning style and how you absorb information.

But before we do that, I want to remind you folks to be sure to go check out liveukulele.com/store and see if there’s any eBooks or course content there that floats your boat. Any purchases you make over there in the shop helps support the time I put into the podcast and the rest of liveukulele.com’s free learning materials. These eBooks and the course are the best of what I offer. So if you like this, hopefully you like that stuff even better.

When I think of a mentorship, I’m thinking of something that’s quite different from just your standard ukulele teacher or instructor. Because the teacher has a lesson plan, whether whether you’re studying with them weekly or monthly, or just, if it’s a one-off thing, usually there’s a lesson plan or there is feedback that you solicit and you run through a list of questions with this person, or they have, you know, an outline of what they think you should be able to accomplish, and they send you home with homework to work on. And then when you come back, next time you can present what you’ve done and get more and they will help guide you along the path. And that’s really great. I kind of envy people who have had the chance to have a steady teacher relationship with somebody who can help them improve in that very precise way. That has not been my experience.

I have been in another way, fortunate to have many mentors in my life though. And so what I think a mentorship is more so, is it’s just a role model, basically, in music. Somebody who is better than you and active in the music scene and doing things that you admire. And the mentorship is just the ability to have access to this person, whether it be once a year or every month, or maybe you’re super good friends, you see them a couple of times a week, whatever it might be. Having access to that person is part of the inspiration. And a mentorship isn’t really like lessons. I don’t think. It never was for me, at least. It would only be like a teaching moment when the time was right. And I either very much needed it or I specifically asked for feedback on something, or I asked a very specific question. But otherwise the mentorship is just seeing how somebody else does music, seeing how they exist in the musical world. And being able to be very close to it and to observe and watch and copy with the addition of feedback or a little bit of help for how something might go.

Like you’re sitting with someone who is kind of a mentor and you’re watching them play and they play something cool. And you like immediately try and figure it out. That would be one of those moments where instead of like teaching it to you, they might just like, play it again. It’s just that kind of the carrot that they hang out in front of you. And it’s that push to be better, that inspiration to want to strive for more. To match their level, even though it’s far beyond you. It’s just, you know, it’s a constant push, that constant carrot out in front that you’re trying to move towards.

And so my main mentor over the years is Herb Ohta, Jr. Who should be at the workshop. I’m hoping he’s at the workshop. He’d better be at the workshop! Because I’m planning on being there. With all this crazy COVID stuff, none of us are really sure whether it’s a good idea or anything, but we’re committed and going anyways and seeing these guys, these mentors of mine is getting to be one of the highlights for sure, being able to catch up with them. But anyways, I met Herb very early on in my playing career. I guess it’s a career when you just to start playing. But at first he was just an ukulele instructor at a workshop that I went to. And I took some of his classes and he was very obviously like the ukulele guy. if you were there to study ukulele, Herb was one of very few ukulele instructors and, you know, my friends and I, we instantly just, you know, glued ourselves to him. Cause he was the guy to emulate and idolize and had all the cool tricks that we wanted to learn. And that was cool. And for a couple of years, it was more like lessons. Going to the workshop and taking the lessons, taking the classes that he taught and learning through those. But then at a certain point, it kind of shifted. And this is where I think the mentorship and the teaching kind of differentiate themselves in that it’s sort of a level-based thing. If you’re just a raw beginner, having a mentor isn’t going to do you a lot of good because you don’t have any context and you’re not at a place where that can be useful to you. A mentor is something that’s a little more useful for, you know, high level intermediate players or maybe advanced players.

And so when I got to that place where I was pretty confident as a musician and competent, it got to a point where what he had to teach in the classes weren’t things that I needed to really internalize quite as much. And so the relationship shifted a bit. It went from being classes and teaching to mentorship kinds of things where we’d sit down just as friends and we’d hang out. And in being so close to somebody who is very involved in the music industry, I would hear about things that went beyond just playing the ukulele. You start learning things about how to be professional, how to, you know, what the process of recording an album is like, what it’s like to tour on the road and to be compatible with different people and just all the life details of being a musician that you kind of don’t think about when you’re just learning the music. That’s all part of a mentorship. And that’s something that is hard to get in a class because you don’t know what to questions to ask. Like “teach me how to be a professional.” It seems so vague that it would be hard to pin down in a lesson context, but when you just have access to a person and you can hear their stories and how they have gone about different things or different moments that they’ve experienced. It can just be a random thing. Like, you know, don’t ever do this, or be sure to always carry spare strings in your case because of this. And just having those little gems of information is what makes the mentorship interesting.

And I could go on and on about the different moments and different advice that I’ve gotten and the great joys I’ve had, being a mentee with some of these amazing folks. I just feel so super privileged to have landed where I did with the instructors that I did and to become friends with a lot of them and have them kind of take me under their wing and be there when I had a question or just to, you know, to be willing to hang out and just cruise, just to be musical buds and to allow me that closeness, just to observe them doing what they do best and allowing that to inform my own music and my own life and personality.

Another thing about a mentor or is that they can be a little bit more, I hate to say “harsh,” but maybe honest about you and in giving advice and sharing things with you. Because a teacher’s going to always try and critique in like the most positive of ways, but sometimes the duty of the mentor is to really have, you know, the whacking stick out when, when needed and be willing to give you a whack when you’re kind of off base or you need perspective, or you’re just kind of not getting the point. They can give you that harsh reality of what you’re doing wrong or what you’re doing that you can and should change.

And it doesn’t have to be mean, but it’s sort of, you know, the Karate Kid sort of thing, where you meet this person who is so masterful at their craft and they aren’t necessarily your teacher, but because they’re mentoring you and they give you these tidbits of advice, they can allow things to be a little bit more shrouded in mystery or less direct or more direct than an actual teacher would. A teacher tries to just like thread things right down the middle and make them really obvious, but a mentor can deliver harsh lessons in sort of a find-it-out-on-your-own sort of way.

And I tell this story all the time, but when I was maybe 15, 16, maybe even 17… I was getting pretty good at ukulele. I could play and keep up with a lot of the, like the cool songs that people would play and have a good time. And, you know, I was like seeing ukulele as a viable career because I was around mentors who were doing that. But I was at a workshop with Herb and he was, you know, I think I had a private lesson with him or whatever, but more than being like a Hey, here’s how it’s going private lesson, it turned into this thing where he sat me down. He had been watching me. He always just watches and pays attention. And that’s kind of what a mentor does is they sort of like see you out of the corner of their eye and they take notes on what you’re doing well and what you’re doing less well and how they could maybe influence you and help you grow. And what he said to me in that private lesson was “Brad, you have the tools, you just need to practice the basics.” And that was one of those, you know, extra, super honest mentor moments where I probably wouldn’t have gotten that from a teacher. A teacher would have just, you know, tried to teach me the things that they thought I was lacking. But, you know, because of our relationship, I was delivered that information in a little bit more blunt way. And it was given to me in a here you fix it kind of way, because it was, that was my part of the mentor/mentee relationship. In order for me to step up and do my part, I had to put in the time and sort of create my own interpretations of these different bits of advice. That’s part of the give and the take.

And so “you have the tools you just need to practice the basics.” It was like, oh, well, yeah… It sort of let all the air out of my balloon at first. But then it was like, yes, that is the next level that I need to reach. I need to work on this. This is a shortcoming of mine. I’m just trying to play fancy stuff. I’m not actually getting more comfortable with the music that I want to be comfortable playing. I’m just like la-ti-da-ing around making all kinds of fancy sounds on my ukulele. That aren’t really coming together in a complete package.

I think you can think of a mentor as being very kind of passive. At least the folks that, you know, I’ve spent time with. In that they’ll say something that will make you think. They’ll say something or make a recommendation that’s not really a specific recommendation, but it’s just like, you know, “if you were clever, you might try this.” Kind of a thing. I think that’s the value is that nobody in a mentorship role is really going to show you explicit things, unless it’s very obviously a class. But just in the general scope of having access to a mentor, what they give you is more just suggestions and guidelines and things that kind of, they plant seeds so that maybe in a year or in two years, what they suggested has bounced around in your head enough that it will become something. It’ll grow into something.

And so on the receiving end of a mentor myself, I feel like that is one of the most important things that an up-and-coming musician can have. It’s just amazingly valuable to have access to somebody who can give you those kinds of pieces of advice, that kind of insight, that kind of inspiration, and that kick in the pants when you need it to find your own path and to become better and better.

I think that finding a mentor is very tricky and not everybody is going to be as fortunate as I have been. Because I just happened to be one of few young people at a workshop where there were an excess of instructors who were excited to see young people playing music. You know, Hawaiian music is kind of a dying art. And the fact that there were these kids who were so stoked to be playing music and to be playing Hawaiian music that I think it was very easy for these instructors and these great musicians to kind of take us under their wing and to help us along because they saw the potential of what we could do in the future. And in Hawaiian culture, it’s very much sort of… The responsibility is to teach and to pass along what you know, and to help nurture the next generation.

But if you don’t have access to that culture or those instructors, it can be a lot harder. But what I’ve noticed over my life up to this point is that a lot of times the things that mentors say are pretty universal regardless of the art or the craft. It’s all kind of related. There are, very similar things in that maybe just a cool person that you know who is doing life well or living their best self, that person can be a mentor for an ukulele player, just in how they do things. You can apply a lot of that to your music if you can learn how to think about it in the right way.

But short of that, getting exposure to accomplished musicians is something that is fortunately fairly easy in the ukulele community. You can go to workshops and festivals. At least hopefully in the future. Once COVID is less of a problem, that will be more of a reality for more people. But by just being in the presence of these people, even if they don’t explicitly like give you their phone number, or, you know, you don’t have that friendly connection where it can be an ongoing mentorship, just being around better musicians can be kind of a passive mentorship. If you’re paying attention and you put yourself in the right situations and you just kind of absorb what they have to share outside of the classroom when possible. I think it’s one of those things that you’ll kind of know it when you see it.

But because that is something that’s kind of hard to find. To find yourself a mentor who can mentor you. I think something that a lot of people don’t think about is how they can be mentors themselves to other people. Even if you’re not a fabulously accomplished ukulele player or a musician, you can be a mentor to somebody who is, you know, still coming up the ranks below you, or even your equal. Because a lot of times the best mentors are your peers. And from where they are level with you, they have a different vantage point probably. And if they can share that vantage point with you, it’ll give you a new perspective to approach music or your playing. And so becoming a mentor to somebody can be also a great learning experience in and of itself because it’ll help you… You kind of see your playing and your music and yourself reflected in that person. And if you can help guide them along and, you know, share with them some of the things that you have experienced. Share these things directly or indirectly, that can be very valuable to them and to you.

And so, as far as becoming a mentor to somebody. I see a lot of really encouraging stories from the ukulele community in regards to this. Folks who maybe don’t even know they’re mentors who think they’re just teachers, but they’re actually giving players more than that. They’re kind of giving them the life component of music. So if you’re in a place where you can provide that to somebody. You know, I’ve talked about already how it kind of goes beyond teaching, or it’s like the anti-teaching side of things. But if you have somebody that you see that could excel, but just need a little bit more inspiration or a little bit more help connecting the dots, that’s something that most people can fairly easily do. Especially if you’re comfortable with that already. You can help show them the way to whatever their goal is.

Maybe you have a young person in your ukulele group who is, you know, obviously got the passion and the talent for playing music, but they don’t have access to maybe a venue. Maybe you could help show them how they could go about going to an open mic and presenting their songs. You know, if you have to find the venue or say like, “Hey, there’s this open mic happening. I think I’m going to go, do you want to come check it out with me?” And you know, maybe prepare a song for it. That’s not really teaching. That’s just like creating an opportunity and creating a context for them to have a growing experience and to think about how they want to present themselves at a higher level. Oh, I got invited to an open mic. That makes you think about so many things that you maybe you didn’t think about before. Oh, what am I going to play? How am I going to play? Have I practiced enough? You know, all these things that are… They’re related to the music, but they’re also kind of beyond the music in that next place of… The humanity of the music. The performance and the connection and all those kinds of different things.

And so maybe this person shows up at the open mic and you’re there and they get up on stage and they play a song and they play it pretty well, but they’re very shy and they never look up at the audience. That would be an opportunity to present them with a little bit of a lesson in a couple of different ways. A – You could get up on stage yourself and project your confidence out and show them how you would like to see them play or perform or present a song. So that they have a reference like, “oh, that’s how they do it.” And then, if you can figure out a way maybe afterwards to say, “Hey, I noticed that you played the song really great, but you were really looking at your hands a lot. Do you need to look at your hands? Do you think that is a necessary part of your playing? Or are you just doing that because you don’t know what else to do?” If you ask a question, instead of just giving the answer, a lot of times it means a lot more. “Hey, have you ever thought about this?” That forces the student or the mentee to really come up with their own conclusions and to interpret things in their own way while still getting the benefit of the lesson. They’re also going to personalize it because they’re interpreting it themselves.

There’s a really interesting concept in line from Victor Wooten’s the music lesson where he – the main character – talks about how I can’t teach you anything, but I can show you lots of things. I feel like that really captures the intention of a mentor. In that the job of a mentor is to show, but not to teach. You teach yourself from what they have shown you, from the context they have given you. And that is where the difference between a mentor and a teacher really comes into play. And it’s also the benefit of a mentor. It’s a completely different kind of presentation.

And I know not everybody has the gift of being like a Zen master kind of guru type. But even if you just do a little bit. If you have that interest in helping somebody become a better player or a better version of themselves, I think it’s very easy to encourage that just from insightful questions and insightful, thoughtful interactions with that person to encourage them, but also to give them a little window of your experience and what you’ve done. And help show them what’s going on.

In music there’s no competition. If you have that chip on your shoulder where you feel like, oh, I’ve got to always be one up on everybody. Then you’re probably missing the point anyways and you’re not going to be a good mentor regardless. But it’s the kind of thing where you just share as much as you can, everything you can. And you know, maybe if you’re recording your pinnacle album and there’s an opportunity to invite somebody to the studio to show them and let them see how it’s done, then that is a great learning experience for them. And if they have the potential to be a greater musician than you and record a better album than you, then that’s on you to become a better person. And to be able to let them have that victory and let them have that greatness and to encourage them and show them how they can do that as well. It’s really just the art of uplifting everybody around you, as much as possible. And together we all will, you know, rise to a place where we’re a little bit more accomplished than we were and we’re a little bit more caring and it builds community that way.

So I don’t know if I’m at all qualified to be speaking to this. But I am anyways. This was sort of on my mind a little bit when I was wondering what to record a podcast about. And then I was thinking, oh, the workshop’s coming up. I’m going to be hanging out with all my mentors. Ta-da! Then I thought, oh, I could just run my mouth about mentors. But anyways, I hope that is a little bit interesting and insightful. And I hope that you can go about your way and maybe if there’s somebody in your life who you feel like you could help. You don’t have… It doesn’t have to be obvious. It doesn’t have to be like, you know, here’s 20 bucks to go rent a studio or whatever it is. Not that a studio would ever cost 20 bucks, but just in an indirect encouraging way of showing and sharing and not trying to teach. Just showing. And opening that door for somebody so that they can teach themselves. That’s a really beautiful thing.

So thanks for tuning in. Hopefully I’ll come out of the workshop with a couple of interviews. I’m going to take a couple of little microphone devices. And if there’s a little bit of downtime, try and catch up with some of my friends and mentors and peers and see if I can get them to share some of their thoughts on the mic so we can bring it to you folks.

The Live Ukulele Podcast is published every first and third Saturday of the month. I’ll catch you in the next episode. Keep playing your ukuleles out there and be well and mentor when you can. Learn when you can. And be humble always. Aloha.