Whether you’re a student, teacher, or parent, I think you’ll appreciate this story of how one teacher can completely and permanently change someone’s life in only a few lessons.
I met Kimo Williams when I was 17 — the summer after I graduated high school in Chicago, a few months before I was starting Berklee College of Music.
I called an ad in the paper by a recording studio, with a random question about music typesetting.
When the studio owner heard I was going to Berklee, he said, “I graduated from Berklee, and taught there for a few years, too. I’ll bet I can teach you two years’ of theory and arranging in only a few lessons. I suspect you can graduate in two years if you understand there’s no speed limit. Come by my studio at 9:00 tomorrow for your first lesson, if you’re interested. No charge.”
Graduate college in two years? Awesome! I liked his style. That was Kimo Williams.
Excited, I showed up to his studio at 8:40 the next morning, though I waited outside until 8:59 before ringing his bell.
(Recently I heard him tell this same story from his perspective and said, “My doorbell rang at 8:59 one morning and I had no idea why. I run across kids all the time who say they want to be a great musician. I tell them I can help, and tell them to show up at my studio at 9am if they’re serious. Almost nobody ever does. It’s how I weed out the really serious ones from the kids who are just talk. But there he was, ready to go.”)
He opened the door. A tall black man in a Hawaiian shirt and big hat, a square scar on his nose, a laid-back demeanor, and a huge smile, sizing me up, nodding.
After a one-minute welcome, we were sitting at the piano, analyzing the sheet music for a jazz standard. He was quickly explaining the chords based on the diatonic scale. How the dissonance of the tri-tone in the 5-chord with the flat-7 is what makes it want to resolve to the 1. Within a minute, I was already being quizzed, “If the 5-chord with the flat-7 has that tritone, then so does another flat-7 chord. Which one?”
“Uh… the flat-2 chord?”
“Right! So that’s a substitute chord. Any flat-7 chord can always be substituted with the other flat-7 that shares the same tritone. So reharmonize all the chords you can in this chart. Go.”
The pace was intense, and I loved it. Finally, someone was challenging me – keeping me in over my head — encouraging and expecting me to pull myself up, quickly. I was learning so fast, it had the adrenaline of sports or a video game. A two-way game of catch, he tossed every fact back at me and made me prove I got it.
In our three-hour lesson that morning, he taught me a full semester of Berklee’s harmony courses. In our next four lessons, he taught me the next four semesters of harmony and arranging requirements.
When I got to college and took my entrance exams, I tested out of those six semesters of required classes.
Then, as he suggested, I bought the course materials for other required classes and taught myself, doing the homework on my own time, then went to the department head and took the final exam, getting full credit for the course.
Doing this in addition to my full course load, I graduated college in two and a half years — (got my bachelor’s degree when I was 20) — squeezing every bit of education out of that place that I could.
But the permanent effect was this:
Kimo’s high expectations set a new pace for me. He taught me “the standard pace is for chumps” — that the system is designed so anyone can keep up. If you’re more driven than “just anyone” — you can do so much more than anyone expects. And this applies to ALL of life — not just school.
Before I met him, I was just a kid who wanted to be a musician, doing it casually.
Ever since our five lessons, high expectations became my norm, and still are to this day. Whether music, business, or personal – whether I actually achieve my expectations or not — the point is that I owe every great thing that’s happened in my life to Kimo’s raised expectations. That’s all it took. A random meeting and five music lessons to convince me I can do anything more effectively than anyone expects.
(And so can anyone else.)
I wish the same experience for everyone. I have no innate abilities. This article wasn’t meant to be about me as much as the life-changing power of a great teacher and raised expectations.
Kimo knows how much he means to me, and we’re friends to this day. Read the Wikipedia page about him.
P.S. On a related note, see my talk to incoming first-year Berklee students.