Sunday, September 13, 2015

The Three T's of Mastery


Yesterday I had the great pleasure of going to a master violin maker’s workshop. Francis Kuttner, to be exact, a fellow Antioch college student from back in the day. We used to play basketball together, hadn’t seen him in 42 years and miraculously, we recognized each other!
But the visit was much more than mere nostalgia. With five other Antioch alums, he talked to us about making violins and showed us a couple of steps in the process. It was a peek into a world so far beyond my capacity, his intimate familiarity with a community of tools, different types of wood, varnishes and the subtle differences between this one and that one and the difference a degree in temperature or this wood’s response to moisture can make. Really, the precision of his knowledge, the depth of his passion, the height of his mastery to make an instrument that a master musician can make sing was breathtaking. He said it takes about 200 hours to make a violin. That's delayed gratification! The time and attention not only to make it, but to make it well.  Not to do anything slipshod or sloppy or just “good enough,” but to spend an hour on something that might make one note bowed sound 1/100% more rich than one not so lovingly cultivated— well, it’s an inspiration.
And that got me thinking about mastery, in any field. He could just as well have been talking about cooking or cabinet-making or music-making itself. Or Orff teaching, for that matter. As I listen to my colleagues James, Sofia and myself talk to our Interns about the thinking and work behind each minute of the classes they are witnessing, it doesn’t feel so different.
What does mastery require? Walking home from the violin shop, I came up with three T’s.
Talent: This one is given for free, no effort required. It’s what had Salieri cursing God (at least in the movie Amadeus) because all his hard work couldn’t come close to the way Mozart seemed to effortlessly toss off his compositions. However, recognizing one’s talent does require some effort on our part, some attention to what seems to call out loudest as we go through school’s or life’s curriculum. (It also helps to have an opportunity to discover one’s talent. If we’re meant to play piano and we never have access to a piano, that’s a problem.)
Tenacity: Here’s where effort comes to the fore. So many talented people who don’t fulfill their promise because of insufficient effort or discipline or lack of staying power. Tenacity. Determination to go to the end of the road. Effort plus discipline plus commitment. Nothing significant occurs without it and it’s all in your hands.
Time: While some masterful workers seem to spring full-blown from the head of Zeus, a truly mature master needs time. Lots of it. It takes a long time to know how to bend that wood just right, to get the feel of it just right. There is just no substitute for time. Not time alone, put time plus talent and tenacity. In my 41st year, I’m finally having consistently inspired classes that seem to give kids what they need and take them beyond where they thought they could go because time has revealed many secrets— about kids, about music, about community and now I’m more in control. Never completely—the master violin maker has stubborn wood as difficult as some of the kids I teach— but with enough experience to engage in the proper conversation.
Talent. Tenacity. Time. A potent combination.
Back to work.

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