Mastery would seem to be a ridiculous goal. Isn’t being competent hard enough? Why go for anything that appears to be so grueling and painful?
When learning a new piece of music, there is a long phase in which I can only play a few notes at a time. I cannot do more than that. Sometimes, I need to run them over with different fingering, do something over and over slowly, in ever smaller circles of the piece, until I can finally have my fingers go through a movement easily.
These foundations are important, but they sound terribly tedious, don’t they? It may be difficult to imagine enjoying these phases of practice.
But they can be, and for me, they are. And through the enjoyment in these smallest of steps, I build into a reverie that not only flowers in pieces of music, but also flows into my home life, projects of productivity, and conversations with clients.
Certainly, practice was not always this way. I owe much of my beginnings to teachers and authors. One person I would like to highlight is jazz pianist Kenny Werner. His book Effortless Mastery: Liberating the Mastery Musician Within, was originally recommended to me by a client. (I’m always delighted by how much I learn from my clients, but that is another story.)
Throughout Werner’s book, he recognizes the emotional depths of anxiety that must be acknowledged. An example is the impact of practicing from fear:
“You feel as though there is a huge workload ahead of you with so little time. … fear has ruined your practicing by rushing you through the material, rendering you unable to absorb anything. You try to cover too much ground every time you practice, barely skimming the surface of each item, and then moving on.”
Being haunted by:
“You should have learned that by now”
… can impair us. The shame can prevent actual improvement.
In other words:
“Fear of not becoming great has kept you from becoming great.”
Kenny Werner defines mastery as:
“Mastery is playing whatever you’re capable of playing, every time, without thinking.”
He describes engaging from where we currently are:
“To be perceived as a master, one must stay within the boundaries of what comes naturally and easily. After we hear a great musician, we might be tempted to reach for things that we do not yet understand and play over our heads. It is at that precise moment that we lose our way or lose the inner connection. Tension and pressure have replaced flow.”
It would seem paradoxically impossible then to ever reach anywhere if all we do is “stay within the boundaries of what comes naturally and easily”. How do we improve if we do not challenge ourselves?
But the approach helps us to find the line between what we know and what we don’t. Instead of calling something “hard”, we can better call it “unfamiliar”.
He even provides a means of measurement:
“The effort it takes for you to perform music equals the distance between you and mastery.”
We can then simplify and generalize the quote beyond music with a few small adjustments:
“The effort something takes equals the distance between you and mastery.”
Whatever the endeavor, be it in piano, in managing others, in coding a program, and more, when we hit that moment of the unfamiliar, any number of feelings can arise, resonating throughout years of responses to mistake and error. Fear, frustration, shame, and more can easily throw us off course.
If we can instead, acknowledge such feelings, facing them with calm and resolve, we can then reflect that they are only the harbingers of things that are unfamiliar. We can then slow and break down whatever it is that is confounding us.
As we resolve the unfamiliar into smaller and smaller spaces, practicing them slowley, learning from the basics wherever we can find them, at some point, we can engage them in a personal window of challenge. We reach a point where the work is within reach of our grasp, as small as a step as it might be.
Such challenge invites play, as the slowed and simple work now becomes a series of playgrounds. Whether playing between two notes or playing within single ideas, at the piano or at the computer, with motion or thought, the essence of the work can then fold into our fiber, through the vitality of play, merging into a new creativity that is not only of ourselves, but of a type that can engage the world around us.
In other words, by engaging the unfamiliar in the smallest sense, playing with it, reveling until it becomes deeply familiar, we are on a path of mastery.