What Is Mastery?


Hello people.

I’m having a bit of a philosophical conundrum right now and was hopeful that you might be able to help me out with this one. If you would, please hang with me a sec while I explain.

Not long ago, I attended the performance of another jazz vocalist here in the region. (For the purpose of this post, I will herby refer to this person as the “Singer.” To avoid any identification by gender, I will use the pronoun “it” as needed. While this is grammatically a little lumpy, I really want to avoid any language that would identify this person. I’m not at all interested in casting a fellow vocalist in a negative light. I’m simply using the example of this performance to help me drive to the subject of this post. Thank you for bearing with me on the funky linguistics.) The show was outstanding and this Singer is very, very good at what it does. This Singer is impeccable, both harmonically and rhythmically, and is very pleasant to watch and listen to. However, I’ve seen this Singer a few times now and every show is the same, almost prescribed. The material is relatively tame and there is no sense of immediacy to the music. This singer stays within what I would characterize as a very safe framework. Within this framework, though, this singer is damn near flawless.

Seeing this particular performance got me thinking back to a recent performance of my own. While it was a perfectly respectable gig, at the end of the night, I felt unhappy with some aspects of my performance. There were some rough edges I wasn’t thrilled with and several things that, in my mind, just could have been better. The rub is that I took some risks on this gig; I was singing some challenging tunes and trying out some new and yet-to-be-refined improvisational techniques. I was willfully blasting beyond my comfort zone. To be fair, there were no train wrecks that night and the moments that were most troubling for me were probably negligible to the crowd. Still, I felt like I could have done better and I was bugged. So after seeing this Singer’s performance, a question began to bubble up in my psyche: If I played it safer and stuck to simpler musical pursuits, would I be a “better” singer? Would I have a greater chance of elevating what I do if I reduced the level of difficulty?

I took this question to one of my musical colleagues. He and I went around and around on it. We quickly agreed that comparing yourself to another artist is not particularly helpful and can often be detrimental. Also, comparison isn’t necessarily insightful anyway. (I will be tackling this very issue in an upcoming blog post. Stay tuned.) But the question remained. If you cut the risk factors and minimize the opportunities for trouble on the bandstand, does this pave the way for being “better?” My friend said that this depended on what your musical goals are, but concluded that he thought it would make one “safer…not better.” He also offered that he had asked himself that same question in the past but had ultimately decided that he would never be a “color in the lines” player because it isn’t who he is. One answer: Know Thyself.

Of course, I’ve been thinking about this question of mastery within the context of jazz. For me, immediacy is one of the key elements of jazz and is certainly one of the things I find most exciting about it. I’m not sure that I could ever comfortably remove that sensibility from my approach, even under the guise of becoming a “better” vocalist. Yet the aforementioned singer’s pristine performance stubbornly snagged itself on my psyche. Was what I’d witnessed mastery?

Can there be mastery without risk?

 This can, of course, be taken outside of jazz. These same questions can be applied to any kind of artistic expression. What is mastery? Is it even something tangible or achievable? What does it look like to you? How do you define it for yourself? How do you recognize it in other people? Do risk and safety factor in? In the grand scheme, does the concept of mastery even matter or is it a “fancy, not worth thinking of?”

You tell me.

I very much invite your commentary and insight on this. I even welcome more questions. By all means, please jump in. Many thanks!


Blissful Non-Mastery