Effortless Mastery by Kenny Werner
A few years ago, a professional musician I interviewed recommended
Kenny Werner's wonderful book Effortless Mastery to me. I
took his advice and read the book with great interest. The book is written with
musicians in mind but Werner's ideas can be applied to any slices of life and
inspired me very much in my teaching. I was blown away by his
philosophies about being able to let go of our fears to better perform. Last
summer, I had the opportunity to go to Kenny Werner's lecture. I watched him play jazz and I later sat down
with him for an interview. I feel that fear often prevents students to
take chances and get ahead. I hope sharing this interview with you can
bring you inspiration in a different approach to dealing with writing block,
self-confidence and imagination. Enjoy!
Interview with Kenny Werner (Part 1)
Valerie: Can you tell us a little bit about yourself
since some of our readers might not be familiar with your work?
Kenny: I have been doing concerts for many years with my own group and
I also performed with Ari Hoenig, Joe Levano and some other jazz
musicians. Also, some people familiar with Broadway might know this
arranger and pianist for many years I’ve worked with: Betty Buckley. I
compose, I play, I teach and I do a lot of lectures about my book Effortless
absolutely loved reading your book Effortless Mastery in which you talk about being able
to let go of the ego in order to unite with the Divine and give the best of yourself.
Within the first few pages, you mentioned something about being just a drop of
water in the ocean, which I instantly recognized as a Sufism principle…
Kenny: When I wrote the book, I started out with my own ideas but when I
started to go back and read other philosophies, I realized that these
philosophies were as old as humanity itself. I just applied them to something
it hadn’t been applied to yet, which is performance improvising… and now
any other arts. The spiritual side is entirely optional because it
depends what your belief system is. There is one thing we all have in common
with though: If you can’t surrender your
need to sound good, you’re not going to be able to go with the flow and get
that creative flow. That can be a problem.
Valerie: Did you come up with those philosophies based
on your experience then or did you actually research them?
Kenny: No, I
wasn’t much of a researcher! I actually researched it after the
fact! I wanted to have a little bit of scholarly background. It was
great to do that just to see how firm and universal these are. I was
teaching for over ten years before I wrote the book and I was just teaching
those steps without thinking anything of it! I thought everybody knew
this stuff. When I was teaching, I could actually see the anxiety.
I could see the blocks. I could see what was in their heart. I would comment on it and then people would be
just like, “What? How did you know that?” And then I would just
come out to them and meet the need of that moment. So by the mid-90s somewhere,
I was doing lectures and workshops. And
a lot of what I was saying is the same thing because in real time, you test the
most effective things. When you see how they communicate, you keep going
that way. It was just cool advice that I thought—and people would follow
me around with tape recorders, so I started thinking, “This stuff must be hot!
I should write a book before somebody else does.”
Valerie: In your book, you talk about how fear paralyses. Fear-based learning
and fear-based teaching: Can you tell us
learning is not practising with good focus and being in a whole because of this
fear that you’ll never become good. It drives you into a diluted state
where you’re to yourself being toxic, skimming all these things and hoping
something works for you. That will be one of the main reasons why you
won’t achieve your goal…
Fear of practicing is practicing
things in bulk and just skimming the surface because you’re afraid that you
will die before you achieve your thing.
Fear-based playing is playing and
being afraid of how well you’re gonna play by questioning. There is
absolutely no room for questioning during a performance. All the
questioning should be done during practising.
Fear-based teaching has to do with
teachers that suppress something in others. Some people are not secure in
their musicianship and hide behind the teacher. In that way, not only the
teacher doesn’t enjoy but the students are not well-served.
Valerie: In our
society, we have a tendency to focus on our weaknesses rather than celebrate
our strengths and diversity. Why do we do that?
Kenny: I don’t
think I’m qualified to say why we do that but we do do that! I think it’s a battle of the mind. If
you can surrender the attachments when the mind is talking to you, it’s not
going to quiet down necessarily, but the question is whether you allow it to
answer. Do you realize that it’s just trying to complement the day or do
you take everything it says and try to do something about it, which is like
purgatory? Listening to your mind becomes like a parasite. When
you’re working from your mind, problems arise and the mind seems to like to
chew on it. When you work from the space, problems dissolve because they
don’t really look like problems.
But our society is more mentally
based. If we were all operating from that space without solace then every
religion wouldn’t fight for a name for that space. If we were operating
like that, it would be heaven on earth. Generally, certain aspects of Western
religions promote that we are damaged goods but somehow, if we’re sorry enough
we can be forgiven. I like the Eastern concept: “You’re perfect; your only sin is you don’t
know it!” I wrote that! That’s what I started working towards.
That is the truth. That is the sun and those limited thoughts we sought,
that are the clouds. The analogy is good because cloud formation changes
every day, and sometimes it seems like it disappears, but the sun is always
there. We can be as away of the sun on our own being rather than so
bewitched by the cloud formation. That would be detaching from the mind,
detaching from the delusion.
Valerie: Can you
tell us about some strategies to find that space and detach ourselves from our
playing or our writing?
Kenny: Basically, people can try to relax your mind.
Meditation is like that, Tai Chi is like that, yoga is like that, mountain
climbing is like that… People do these
things because the mind gives up and that’s the high—the runner’s high.
It stops thinking and all they hear is in-the-air anorexia.
My strategy is an ancient strategy
in your life that you practice on your instrument. As you start to attain
that space, all you have to do to be free with your instrument is literally go
in the space and touch your instrument. Keep learning not to lose the
space as you touch the instrument. I’ve met people that were so
spiritually aware and committed but when they get to their instrument, they lose
everything; they forget it all.
We are such a web of delusion that
somehow with music, people think that no matter what they believe in, it all
goes away and they’re just not worthy. Then they try to play some music
and they forget who they are. They forget the things that they have been
practicing all their life because they were spiritually motivated. What I
say in the book is that it doesn’t matter how you get in the space.
There’s a CD in the book that can help you get there but that’s for people that
haven’t even thought about how to get there. Many people have their own
way now with meditation, prayer, yoga… They
don’t need anything from me. They just need to know that however you
attain that space, welcome your instrument and play your notes. If that
takes you out of that space, take your hands off the instrument. Really
train your mind to stay in that beautiful space and not lose it because it’s
time to play your instrument.
You would think that’s what you
would go into by playing your instrument but again, we complicate things. So instead of the instrument being the
liberation, an escape, it becomes just another way where we can beat ourselves
up. So the way to do it is literally to find the space with whichever
discipline you like, go with the instrument, play a note or two—this is what I
call the first step in the book—and if you already feel yourself contracting,
take your hands off the instrument until you remain expanded. Then you
begin to play your notes. Then with the second step is that, of course,
you can expand what you can do. In the first step, you can actually
practice such difficult things with such efficiency that you still never leave
the space. Everything attained from the space is the only thing worth
practicing. If you can practice something and you play it with no mistakes,
it means it plays itself. Some people would say that’s impossible, some
people would say “that’s my aspiration.” I would say there is no other
option because music doesn’t really resonate until you achieve that. That
is why so many people are dry when they play because they’ve never really
experienced that kind of ownership of anything on the instrument. It’s
always on the outside looking in. Aspire
to achieve that realization in a one or single two-bar phrase and know that you
can own it that way is what you have to do instead of skimming all your life.
There is another play going on here:
We are all dealing with our career, our
families, money… It really is inappropriate
in our playing. That is how much our mind has control over us. It
is how much we are able to free ourselves from its limited vision. That
is really the core. A lot of people are unaware of that. They need
to make a commitment to that play or else the exercise will just seem minimal
and nothing else. The whole point is staying in a really expanded space
and letting the hands play whatever instrument you get ownership over. If
you don’t know what the space is, or you just think it is dropping your fingers
on the instrument, then you won’t get any of the magic of it.
The most important thing is to find
the space. Whenever anyone is in the space, it’s the greatest moment of
their lives. They will remember what they want but they can’t access it when
they want. It’s the concept of practicing it so you can depend on
it. It’s so relevant to musicians. Musicians that play from that
space play profound music. People don’t realize—they think that some of
us have it and some of us don’t. They don’t realize that there is a way
to get it, to tap into that space and touch your instrument. You can
become more of a delightful presence than you presently are.
There is a whole new age movement
that is predicated on that. With certain exercises, books, this
information, whatever, you can take your life to a whole new level of
enrichment. Why haven’t musicians figured that out? Well, we have
and I think this book helps that. As you do this work on yourself, the
feeling of a note vibrating inside you is something that increases that
awareness. It doesn’t have to be done in relation to music. You can
do it on something else and bring that to music.