Last week, I wrote a blog post that asked the question “What is mastery?” The responses were plentiful as they were thoughtful. Many thanks to all who jumped in and helped me wrestle with this unwieldy bear.
After reading through the comments, it’s clear that mastery is different things to different people. It’s a complex issue. For many, mastery equates to a certain level of finesse in technique and proficiency with one’s instrument. Of these, all agreed that mastery, by this definition, is an ongoing process for any artist. For others, perfection of craft does not necessarily equate to mastery; different factors such as soul and expression carried more weight. A handful of respondents did not feel that risk is essential to mastery. In fact, risk did not seem to be particularly important to most of the people who responded to the post. I was a little surprised by that. Several cited “Effortless Mastery” by Kenny Werner. I’ve read this book but it’s been a long time. I could stand to revisit it. All of the comments were intelligent and heartfelt. They also generated more questions to ponder. I’d like to reflect on just a few of the ideas that came up for me after reading the commentaries.
“Good, bad, better, worse-these are all words that kill our creative spirit and let our inner critic go to town on our sensitive nature…….Ease, fluidity of ideas and execution, pitch and control, dynamics, confidence-we get to work on all these, but it’s that unknowable and often times unworkable essence that takes performances over the top for me. All the practice goes into that moment of joyful expression.”- Jose
The importance of self-expression was the common thread that ran through most of the commentaries. In fact, self-expression or creative expression seems to be more meaningful than mastery to a lot of people. I would have to agree. To me, mastery should serve expression, not the other way around. The more refined my technique, the better vehicle it is for me to express myself. That said, I do agree with Jose. If we get too hung up on the idea of mastery, it can clamp down our creative flow. Clearly, in this scenario, mastery is not serving us at all. I have definitely encountered this phenomenon, especially relative to scat singing. I once playfully asked my teacher if I should refrain some scatting on gigs until I got it “right.” She replied, “No. You pretty much have to (scat).” I think she meant this a couple of ways. One was the simple suggestion that I have to scat to get better at it, thus going back to the “ongoing process” aspect of our work. But I also think she meant I have to scat because it’s part of how I express myself as a vocalist. When if it comes down to the pursuit of self-expression or the pursuit of mastery, perhaps self-expression is the higher goal.
“Since music is such a rich art form, there are a lot of things we can think of that we would like to master. That’s where I like the idea of having a personal ‘value system.’ These are the values a musician uses to decide if the music he/she plays or listens to has enough value to him/her.”- Wim
Interestingly, the idea of personal values has been coming up in a lot of places lately. I’m presently taking an eCourse with the amazing Michael Bungay Stanier (Box of Crayons). One of the first exercises in the course was to really drill down and define what my personal values are, especially in terms of work and career. One of my core values is authenticity, so it stands to reason that what I do on the bandstand (or writing on this blog) is a reflection of who I am. By nature, I am a risk taker. I always have been. I also have an innate proclivity to drive myself towards challenges. If I eliminate risk and challenge from my creative expression, be it music or writing, then I’m not being fully authentic. In many respects, for me anyway, mastery is about living in alignment with my own value system.
“I’ve certainly seen technically-perfect performances that left me cold and less perfect ones that moved me.”- Richard
I can certainly give a high five and an “amen” to that. A particular performance comes to mind. Two vocalists were on the bill. One was technically pristine but exuded no fire. The other was about as rough around the edges as a singer can be but filled the space with spunk and charm. It goes without saying which one I was drawn to. The spirit that we bring to the music (or the painting or the poem or the choreography) is huge. If I had a choice between wowing someone and moving them. I believe I’d pick the latter. It seems to me that spirit transcends mastery. We can have all the chops in the world but if we don’t infuse what we do with heart and soul, then why are we doing it? Ellington and Mills were right; it really don’t mean a thing if it ain’t got that swing.
We all have a unique relationship to mastery. I imagine that how we think about it is fairly fluid and changes subject to time, mood and experience. But no matter how we define mastery for ourselves or what level that we think we possess, it is vital that we don’t allow it to inhibit us as artists. We need to keep moving forward. Play. Blow. Paint. Dance. Scat. Write. Groove. Express. If nothing else, mastery is courage.
Thanks again to all who commented. The conversation is far from over.
“True mastery is to possess such complete technique that it allows a person to fearlessly express themselves, whether that expression comes through the jazz idiom of spontaneous composition or simply infusing an already composed piece with life, spirit and meaning.”