As Daniel Pink confirms in his excellent book Drive, the urge for mastery is one of the great human qualities that we all share. It’s what drives us to work each day, the fuel in the car that gets us up in the morning determined to move from where we are to where we yet might be. It feels good to be able to do things well and there are few things so satisfying as that feeling of arriving further down the road from where we started, moved there by our own persistent efforts. It is good to pause and notice that we have improved, but dangerous to linger too long in that place of pride and accomplishment. For our restless dissatisfaction with our achievements is the foot on the pedal that keeps us moving around the bend to the next possibility.
I’ve been dabbling at improving my piano skills for 61 years now simply for the pleasure of greater expression. It’s a small part of my job as a music teacher, but since I’m not a concert pianist or a jazz professional, there is no motivation beyond the pleasure of playing well and getting a little bit better. Yesterday at the Royal Conservatory of Music in Toronto, I got to play a Steinway piano that simply was extraordinary in the sound it gave back. It was at once gratifying to get such a beautiful sound coming back to me and daunting to realize that if it didn’t sound as good as I wanted—and there were many such moments—it was entirely my fault. Couldn’t blame anything on the instrument. Darn!
That night, I stumbled on some Youtube treasures of some of my favorite jazz pianists playing solos that were transcribed and you could follow the written notes while listening. A perfect blend of ear and eye and a chance to see more clearly what I was hearing and admiring—chord voicings, phrasings, scale choices and such. Part of me was feeling happy that I could somewhat follow their thinking and that my own playing had progressed to a point where I had narrowed the gap between my own emerging playing and their genius. I must admit I was feeling that sliver of pride until…
Brad Mehldau’s version of the be-bop tune Anthropology. Damn! Just as I felt like was able to walk the same path with him jogging just slightly ahead, he turned a corner and started sprinting and I was left eating his dust. I mean really! He just left me breathless with his phrasing, rhythm, technical mastery, all at a breakneck pace.
So it’s back to the drawing board. Put that pride on the shelf and get to work! While I abhor the star system of mindless adoration, I am a big fan of choosing wisely those inspiring folks further down the path and enjoying the double duty they do as models and teachers to affirm you and then kick your ass. That’s my own hope as a workshop teacher, not to do so much ass-kicking that people get discouraged and give up the way so many pianists did after hearing Art Tatum play. And not to do so much affirmation that people leave feeling good about themselves, but are not challenged to dig deeper and teach a little better. And note that the kicking is not direct and mean-spirited or overblown with my own ego, it’s simply the mastery I’ve achieved from four decades of teaching kids and adults displayed side-by-side with the encouragement to go from where you are and keep going. It’s the style of “all your answers will be questioned” rather than “all your questions will be answered.”
Thanks, Brad. And Keith Jarrett and Fred Hersch and Bill Charlap and Chick Corea and Herbie Hancock and Gerald Clayton and other contemporary pianists I admire, alongside Joey Alexander. No room for shame that a 13-year old (the latter) can kick my butt. And if I ever get too discouraged, I can always say, “Yeah, great solo. But let me see you teach a class of 3-year olds! Bam! You better go back to the drawing board!”