Katy Bourne

What Is Mastery?

POSTED ON October 05, 2011 | POSTED IN: My Blog | 11 Comments


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



11 responses to “What Is Mastery?”

  1. kw says:

    I think one of the reasons I’ve always sung choral music or opera is because I like the structure. There is a level of mastery that you have to have for the music but except for my personal intonation and interpretation of the piece it should sound very much the same each time you perform it. It’s one of the things that always scared me a little bit as a bass player playing jazz. I much prefer to play rock or play in a band for a musical. Obviously, I’m probably more like Singer, who probably likes more structure and less improv. So the fact that Singer sings jazz is sort of interesting. I love jazz standards but I would never sing jazz in public because I can’t improv worth shit and I know it’s expected by the audience.

    • admin says:

      Thanks for the comment. I appreciate the mastery involved in choral music and especially opera. God, I can only imagine how much vocal athleticism it takes to pull that off. I don’t think there’s anything inherently wrong with structure and don’t even know that is always incumbent on us to improvise if we’re singing/playing jazz. Ultimately, we play music because we love it & should take an approach that best serves the pursuit of joy, yes?

  2. lynette says:

    I’m no singer. My vocalizing is limited to singing along with whatever tune’s on the iPod while cooking dinner or driving down the road. My singing’s always spontaneous, motivated by a certain joyful impulse, and absolutely wretched.

    Do you sing just to present a workmanlike performance, a recitation of whatever the song is to be sung? I can’t really imagine it. I think you’re too creative for that. Wouldn’t you ultimately be bored nearly to death going every night to do the same thing, the same way, with the same grand level of accomplishment?

    It seems to me that the risk of performing badly (or at least not up to your undoubtedly very high standards) would be worth it to experience the joy of innovation and creativity, of pushing yourself beyond where you imagine you can go. Again, I don’t know the terminology for singing, but I know well the hideous boredom and living death that comes with doing the same thing again, again, again, the same way, ad infinitum ad nauseum to the point that you want to run away shrieking at the very sight of a stage and microphone.

    As you explore these innovations, perhaps you’ll one day come to master these changes and then you’ll want to explore further. At least I’d hope so. My brother-in-law is an accomplished guitarist. He’s made his living as a musician and is now semi-retired. He was called one of the world’s greatest living guitarists by some big time singer back in the day, and it was great, so exciting. And he’s done the same thing since, every day, nothing different. When he plays, he plays the same things the same way in the same order goddess help me, I’m no musician, but I can’t abide even thinking about it.

    The sameness would be death to the creative impulse, wouldn’t it? You an artist, not just a performer. I’ve heard your glorious voice. I expect you could perform to perfection just as often as you wanted to given sufficient repetition. But is that what you want? Lord, I hope not. The world needs more artists, more out of bounds creativity, not less.

    Bless you and your imperfection. I think you’re on the right track.

  3. Arindam says:

    Kenny Werner says mastery is the ability to play something, no matter how complex, perfectly every time. Maybe the artist in question is a master of that particular style, and that’s what makes the artist comfortable. The ability to stretch oneself doesn’t necessarily make one a master, although I certainly like to see it.

  4. Juicy says:

    Good one Katy….Kenny Werner’s book, “Effortless Mastery” is great, but I think mostly for quieting the critic within. Good, bad, better, worse- those are the words that kill our creative spirit, and can let our inner critic go to town on our sensitive nature. I like what I heard Miles tell other players (paraphrased): “Play where you’re comfortable, and then push yourself a little further than that.” I guess I really feel that mastery is a life long process- a work in progress. Mastery of one aspect of your technique should lead to discoveries of other aspects that need to be ‘worked’ on and mastered. This is why music is so exciting to me. A never ending growth of mastery. 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. Great questions, for sure!

    • Larry says:

      The issue of mastery is one of those ‘conundrums’ that we’ve always wrestled within philosophy – In the West starting with the Greek philosophers. As a simple modern example: From the inside, a Honda Civic is nothing special but works perfectly for a long time. A Porsche 911 Turbo is exciting and (might I say) sexy, but the clutch pedal can be a real workout for the left leg. From the outside the Honda Civic is plain but not grotesque and performs moderately well for a long time, the 911 Turbo is a beautiful beast, will tempt you to take risks with every drive, will get one into trouble, and is terribly expensive to maintain. As with one’s opinion of these autos, excellence is perspectival. Which car do you want to drive? Which do you prefer for yourself ‘Arete’ or ‘Sophrosyne’?

  5. Aria Prame says:

    This question brings many many ideas to my mind. It seems that there are several different elements within your question. There are the elements of technique, practice, rehearsal, spontaneaous creativity, and authentic expression. As vocalists within the jazz culture, we rarely have the opportunity to rehearse with our band(s) and therefore do not have the opportunity to refine our sound and ideas (as a band) anywhere except on the bandstand, so some gigs become rehearsals of sorts within themselves. This, from a “great performance” standpoint is less than ideal (though it can be great fun and is often inconsequential).

    The true master ( from my perspective) has mastered (through extensive risk taking, exploration and plain old boring repetition during personal practice) all elements of his/her personal technique. They are not practicing on the bandstand and the risks they are taking are not technical risks because they have full confidence that they have the technique to execute their ideas.

    Now, on the other side of things, I also believe it is a fallacy to equate music that is pre-composed with being lacking in authentic expression. I guess it’s what a classical soloist or lover of such music would mean when they say to “bring the notes off the page”. Each note or phrase is infused with the love and spirit within a person and on that level it is the most complete mastery of technique that allows a person to express something deep within the human soul in that one note.

    So, I guess what I’m saying is that, for me, true mastery is to posses 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.

  6. admin says:

    Hello All!

    Many thanks for all the thoughtful commentary. I’m having a bit of a glitch this morning & WordPress is not allowing me to make individual replies to each of your comments. Thus this collective one.

    Two people mentioned “Effortless Mastery,” which I have indeed read. However, it’s been many, many years. I’m inspired now to reread it. Many thanks.

    As I follow the comments, I am definitely seeing that mastery-how it is defined and what meaning it has-is different for each artist. Many colors here. I would have to agree with Jose that it is a “never ending growth.”

    I think that I’ve always felt that the ultimate of any art that we pursuit- jazz, painting, writing, acting, etc.-is the expression herein. In my mind, to whatever extent we are able to refine what we do, the better vehicle it becomes for our self-expression. So therein lies the mastery. Mastery should serve our expression and not the other way around.

    Someone commented on Facebook that he had seen technically brilliant performances that left him cold. I’ve had that same experience. At the end of the day, I feel that the spirit we bring to the music is the ultimate, whether we’ve reached our own definition of mastery or not.

    Many thank again to all for generously contributing to this thread!

  7. kb says:

    Someone, I think Eddie Jefferson, said, “If it’s too perfect, it ain’t jazz.” We all can probably cite examples of jazz artists who weren’t always technically perfect in their execution, but who communicated great feeling and expression: Miles, Billie, Monk, etc. Of course, it’s good to have both, and in classical music you have to, but as a listener, I’d much rather listen to someone who has a few “rough edges,” but great expression, than someone who has perfect articulation, intonation, sings/plays a million notes per chorus, but doesn’t make me feel anything.

  8. Hi all,

    Just my 2 cents as a jazz harmonica player and contemporary composer. I would like to ask the question if the question “What is Mastery?” is a good question in this context … .

    To my understanding, one masters “something” and one works on “the mastery of something”. Kenny Werner is about the mastery of something which is “effortlessness”. Some here point out the mastery of “expression”. Some the mastery of “creativity”.

    The question “What is Mastery?” is more a philosophical question I think. A more practical question for us musicians would be something like:

    – “What do you want to master?” (your goal to master something) and
    – “How do you think to master something?” (your strategy to master it) and
    – “What are the conditions for you to decide if you master it sufficiently?” (your belief that you have mastered it)

    Since music is such a rich art form, there are a lot of things we can think of that we would like to and/or should 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 (is the music any good).

    For me, my list of most abstract values in music consists of “lyricism”, “depth” and “moments of trancedence”. These are the high level things I want to master in order to have the feeling that I succeed in mastering music. Both as a harmonica player and as a composer.

    To make things practical and more specific, one has to find out what elements these values consist of. Lyricism could be “strong melodies” and depth could be “harmonic complexity” etc.

    In the end, what I describe here is just Anthony Robberts’ Personal Power applied to music, I think.

    Very warm regards,

    Wim Dijkgraaf

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Katy Bourne is a Jazz Singer and Writer.