Creative Mastery

Padmasambhava Statue, Nepal
Creative Commons License photo credit: Wonderlane

Today we’re going to talk about mastery. Thats right, you heard me. Mastery. Not ‘being pretty good at something’ or ‘knowing more or less what you’re doing’ or even ‘being in the zone’ or ‘feeling the flow’. Mastery. Being a master of whatever it is that you do. You in? Good. Buckle up…

So. I have a few piano students these days, and while the lessons are largely focused on practical pianistic things, I try to teach from the same kind of holistic perspective and approach that informs my composition and performance work – and of course, this blog. So from time to time some of the more abstract and philosophical stuff does find its way into the lessons.

Recently I found myself trying to convey something which has become very central to my whole thinking about music and piano-playing, in a kind of subconscious way, and I think it applies to creative work more broadly. It concerns, as you may have guessed already, the concept of mastery.

I suspect that many creative people tend to have a vague idea of mastery as something unattainable, or at least attainable only by an elite and supremely gifted few. Something for the rest of us to strive towards, perhaps, but never attain. And what would it feel like to attain it, anyway, since we never really sit down and define exactly what it means? How would we know that we’ve arrived?

Some of us are even uncomfortable with the whole idea, mistrusting perhaps the elitist overtones… And yet there are masters, undeniably – those whose abilities seem to transcend normal limitations, whose confidence and poise match their technical command, who make it seem easy.

I believe that coming to terms with this word, and what it means to us, can have a profound impact on our approach to creative work. So I’m going to try to get very specific about what it means to me (and as always, you’re heartily invited to join me with your comments at the end!)…

Master of what?

Before I get into it, I should probably give credit where credit is due: the germ of what I’m about to say comes from a wonderful book called ‘Effortless Mastery’ by Kenny Werner, a jazz pianist, composer and educator who I hold in very high regard (as do many others – he recently won a Guggenheim Fellowship). However, it’s filtered through my own philosophy, and my experience over the 12 years or so since I read the book.

OK, so what is mastery? When we think of someone as having ‘mastered’ their craft or their art, what does it mean? A standard answer might be that they can do anything they want within that field, perfectly and consistently, with profound and sublime expression. OK, but does that actually mean anything at all, concretely? And if so, is that all there is to it?

I think it’s kind of self-evident that all ‘mastery’ is limited. For example, is it possible to have absolute mastery, in the sense proposed above, of, say, playing the piano?

Let’s take two of the greatest ‘masters’ of the piano in the last century: Vladimir Horowitz and Art Tatum. Both virtuosos of the highest order, almost unbelievably great. And yet, Horowitz certainly couldn’t play everything Tatum could play, and vice versa.

Can we say that Tatum was the ‘grand master’ of jazz piano, then, and Horowitz of classical? No, for there were and are many other ‘masters’ in each field, each with their particular voice, their own version of transcendent brilliance.

There is no such thing as ‘absolute’ mastery, then; there is only mastery of your art, your craft.

So what does that mean, and how do we get at it, or at least get closer to it? Can it ever be more than a vague and unexamined carrot we dangle in front of ourselves while we plod along?

Diamonds are forever

In Kenny Werner’s book, he offers a little technique called the Practice Diamond. At first it seems innocent enough, a handy system for breaking things down into chunks in order to get better at them more efficiently. However, I have come to think that, in a quiet and unassuming way, this method encapsulates a perfect definition of mastery, a clear way to approach it, and a profound and empowering artistic philosophy.

Here’s what it looks like (as usual, I don’t have the book in front of me and I’m working from memory, so apologies to all concerned if I’ve deviated from the original terms and format):

If the image is not coming through, imagine a diamond with four corners, each representing an aspect of how we play what we are trying to play (or paint or dance or sing, and so on – while this relates most specifically to musical practice, the underlying idea will translate to other arenas. We’ll get to that shortly, but for the moment please bear with the piano practise context).

The four corners are: a) play the whole example; b) play it at the ‘correct’ (or desired) tempo; c) play it perfectly, i.e. without technical errors; and d) play it effortlessly, without strain or anger or self-criticism. I tend to add to the last one ‘with good technique’, which of course incorporates many things – but the one that’s key, to my way of thinking, is relaxation.

The idea is that when practising something, a skill or a piece (or part of a piece) or a technique we want to learn – to achieve mastery of – we need to leave out one or more of these things in order to refine our focus. But the one we never leave out is the last one. Everything depends on coming from that effortless attitude all of the time.

We want to be in that space whenever we are at our work, whether we are creating or performing or ‘just’ practicing. Because doing our work from that place of effortless non-judgement is what we are really practicing – and the more we do it consciously, the easier it will be, until it is second nature, automatic. Effortlessness becomes effortless.

Leave something out

So again, we’re leaving out one thing at a time in order to concentrate on the others. We might leave out a), which means that we’re playing very short segments of whatever we’re working on, but at speed and without mistakes. We might leave out b), so we’re playing the whole thing without mistakes but very slowly. We might leave out c), so we’re playing the whole thing at speed but not worrying about mistakes – useful for getting the ‘feel’ of something, and also for getting used to not beating ourselves up about mistakes. But we never leave out d) – it’s the essential part of the equation that makes the next bit work.

The specific terms might be different in different creative idioms, but the idea is universal. In marathon training, for example, the most efficient way to progress is to work on one thing at a time – so when you’re building endurance, you go slower than you could, and when you’re doing speed work you don’t put it in the middle of a long run, or incorporate hills.

So you may have to change the specifics of the model in order to make it appropriate to your particular creative work, but the underlying concept still applies, and more importantly, the premise that whatever we are ‘leaving out’ and whatever we are ‘focusing on’, it’s always essential to maintain that effortless, non-judgmental attitude and mindset. That’s a big part of what we’re practising, because it’s a very big part of mastery.

Are you experienced?

Mastery, then, is what happens when you can put all four corners together. When you can do the whole thing perfectly, at speed, without mistakes, effortlessly, every time. Like a concert pianist, or a circus performer doing the seemingly impossible and making it look easy…

And it bears repeating that this does not mean you’ve achieved total mastery of, say, playing the piano. It just applies to whatever specific thing you were working on. This could be as simple as a short piece, or a short segment of a piece, or a C major scale, or a particular chord progression or voicing, or a dance step, or a move on the turntables, or a tricky Photoshop technique…

Or, coming back to the piano again: it can be as simple as a single note. Yes, it is possible – no, scratch that, it’s essential – to achieve mastery of playing a single note. This is a big thing, and actually the crux of what I’m talking about. Break things down to their smallest components, and achieve mastery of those tiny things.

It’s not necessarily easy, because it has to come from that attitude of effortlessness, of total commitment, that peculiar mix of confidence and humility (let’s call it ‘gracefulness’, shall we?) that seems to characterize so many of the masters we revere.

And that can take a lot of work to find and to allow ourselves to feel. It’s a lot easier said than done (it’s taken me 40 years to get as close to it as I have, and I have much more to learn). But it’s achievable.

And that’s really what we’re practicing, more than the specific skill we’re focusing on. We’re practicing mastery, and we can practise it within the space of a single note, or brush stroke, or dance step.

It’s mastery, by a real and measurable definition, and it’s achievable, approachable, not unattainable or reserved for the preternaturally gifted. We can experience it.

Baby steps

When we do this, when we ‘get it’, a funny thing happens, and a very important one: we know what mastery feels like. We have a definition of it, and we can experience it, albeit in a very small package. We can sink into the beauty of that single note, or single brush stroke, or whatever, and we can say, yes, I can play that or do that perfectly, consistently, effortlessly, with complete commitment and confidence and humility and presence. I can master that very small thing, and I know what it feels like.

It feels GOOD, just in case that wasn’t clear. Luminous. Magical.

And the little secret which I suspect that all true masters know? That’s all mastery is. You just need to build on that, get better at accessing it, in bigger chunks and in more contexts. It takes practice, but it gets easier, because we know the feeling and we trust it and we know how to move towards it. Eventually, it becomes second nature – our default way of approaching our work. Voila: mastery.

I’ve certainly felt it, and I’ve gotten a lot better at locating it and moving towards it, though I can’t claim to have it all the time yet, or to always practice in this way. But I can attest to the fact that knowing this and experiencing it, in however small a package you need to start with, is like a lightning strike. It blasts open the doors of possibility. And that’s a good place to start!

* * *

I’ve been working a lot more on my Manifesto, which delves into some ways to clear out the junk that we put in the way of feeling and experiencing this, and offers a kind of blueprint for the ‘fearless creativity’ that is the focus of this blog… So, expect more on that front soon (I know I’ve said that before, but still).

In the meantime, I’d absolutely love to hear what you have to say about this whole mastery business… so please head on down to the comments area below! What does ‘mastery’ mean to you? Is it something available only to a specially gifted few, or is it something tangible that we can take definite steps towards? Have you experienced something you would call a ‘moment of mastery’?