Saturday, May 28, 2011

Entry 70 5.21.11

Entry 70, May 21st, 2011, 8:10pm (ship time GMT +2)

I just finished “Effortless Mastery” by jazz pianist Kenny Werner. For those who haven't read it, it is a fascinating book about forging a connection between musical performance and the inner self.

The book has left me conflicted in one area – namely, practice. Kenny tells the story of his own journey to Brazil after attending Manhattan School of Music and Berkley. He stayed with a saxophonist friend and his twin brother, who was a classical pianist. His friend's brother, by placing intense pressure to himself, had reached a very high level of performance in European competition before suffering a mental breakdown. He moved back to Brazil to recuperate, meeting with a therapist and a series of piano teachers. Kenny Werner, also a pianist, soon become friends with him, and starting picking up the method that he was studying.

The classical player was practicing two things. First, whenever he started to resume the cycle of self-torment that had led to his breakdown, he repeated “I must be kind to myself” over and over again. Second, the only thing he was practicing was a five-finger exercise – playing from thumb to finger on one hand and back again, concentrating on releasing each finger onto the key absolutely effortlessly. He started with five minutes of practice a day, stopping as soon as he was unable to play without thinking. Gradually he had built his practice time back up to about eight hours a day, except this time it wasn't driving him crazy. In fact, it took no effort at all – he felt as fresh at the end of eight hours of playing as he did at the beginning.

Mr. Werner took this method and applied it to his own playing. He rebuilt his entire practice routine around only playing what he could play with a still, empty mind, and it worked for him. This is of course what he recommends in his book, and this is what has me confused.

All of my teachers up to this point have emphasized a pretty similar method. Step one: learn something (scale, transcription, etude). Step two: apply. Step three: be great. The amount of material you learn has a direct relationship with how good of a musician you are, and if you aren't learning at a certain rate you're lazy. Mr. Werner is the first person that I can remember talking about a separation between musical skill and personal self-worth. He also says that the constant drive to scrabble together more knowledge is usually driven by the fear and panic inspired by the vast amount of knowledge that exists to be mastered. No one stays on one project enough to really master it, and so very few actually become master musicians – they just become very practiced mediocre musicians.

Mr. Werner lays out a four step practice plan to help fix these problems. The first (and most important) step consists of first quieting the mind and then picking up the instrument. This usually stirs up the mind, and so after quieting it again the horn is placed to lips. This usually stirs up the mind once again, and so after quieting it for a third time the player takes in a deep breath. After holding it for as long as possible, the breath is released through the horn. The drill is regarded as a success if the student is able to release the breath without trying to control it in any way, and accept the sound the emerges with love, immediately forgetting it and returning to a quiet mind. As soon as the student can no longer do this, they put down the horn and go do something else.

This is so counter-intuitive to everything I've been taught that I don't know what to do with it. On one hand, it makes perfect sense. The next three steps involve expanding this sense of playing mindlessly to improvisation and finally practice. I can see how it would work, but I would have to devote myself entirely to this one system. I am afraid to do this because the practical part of myself (a part that has been cultivated by many respected teachers over the years) scoffs at the ephemeral and mystical nature of Mr. Werner's system. Play five minutes and then put the horn down for the day? That's lazy! I'll never get anywhere if I do that! I'm not a serious musician if I use his method as an excuse not to practice!

This is exactly the fear he talks about – Buddhists call it the fear of loss of life, the fear that I would waste my time here on Earth. I'm afraid that I'm not a good musician (and by extension not a good person) if I am not working hard at my instrument. It would be easier if I could practice as Mr. Werner says, and then practice all of my usual stuff afterward, but I feel as if that would defeat the point. No, it's got to be one or another. We're talking about a significant amount of practice time here, too; probably several months. The book says it usually takes this long to begin laying the new patterns in your mind.

On the other hand, it reminds me of the way the master teaches in “Zen and the Art of Archery.” There is very little, if any, discussion of theory or how to shoot a bow. Instead breathing, meditation, and focus are taught. Once the author is able to let go of the desire to shoot well, he begins shooting well, but he spends several years (years!) shooting poorly week after week. Mastery comes to him, but only once he stops searching for it. This is the path I've been looking for, but now that I've found it I'm not sure that I am brave enough to take it. I have no idea if it will work or not, and it runs so against everything I have been taught before . . . I need to keep thinking about it.


I've been fasting all day today, mainly to see if I could. It has been surprisingly easy – some mild discomfort, but easily ignored. I actually felt the loss of pleasure much more strongly than the loss of sustenance. I feel as if my eyes have been opened as to how much I eat purely for pleasure.

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