There Are No Wrong Notes

| June 9, 2013

no wrong notesThere were two monks in a monastery doing their daily rituals.  They were about to bow to their deity.  One got on his knees and said “Oh master, I am nothing, I don’t exist, all there is is You.”  The next monk bowed down even lower and said, “Oh great one, I am less than nothing!  I don’t exist and I never did.  You are all there is!  In the corner, a janitor was sweeping the temple and watching the monks.  He thought to himself, “Hmmmm, that looks pretty good!  I think I’ll try that.”  He walked over to the deity and bowed while the monks watched him.  He said, “Oh, mighty one, I too am nothing, you are everything.”  As the two monks looked on with disdain, one said to the other, “Humph!  How dare he!  Look who thinks he’s nothing!”

This joke is from a book I’ve been re-reading lately titled Effortless Mastery – Liberating the Master Musician Within by Kenny Werner.  I like to go back to this book every so often because it’s such a classic on opening up the creative pathways, and musicianship in general.  Werner’s primary message is that opening up the creative pathways is mostly about not closing them – not delivering those internal messages to ourselves that say we’re no good, or somebody’s better, or we sound bad.  Werner relates a feeling that probably resonates with many musicians:

“I was always either very high or very low.  When I would hear a pianist play better than me, I would want to die!  I would literally feel worthless.  I had come to rely so heavily on my talent for validation that I couldn’t face not being God’s gift to music.”

Most musicians got into playing an instrument because of their love of music.  But their joy of listening to music is often trampled by the pain of hearing someone who plays better than they do.  As Werner relates:

“One day we were listening to Horowitz playing – I don’t remember which piece but my friend was listening joyously while I was biting my fingernails.  I was thinking so much I could barely hear the music.  Thoughts like “Oh, that playing is so great…it’s really painful to hear it!…This means that I am nothing … unless … if I practice eight hours a day for the next 20 years …” raced through my mind.  My mind often behaved like that.  Just at that moment my friend put his hand on my shoulder, and I jumped.  He startled me.  When I turned around he was smiling.  He must have been reading my mind, or at least my body language, because he said “BE KIND TO YOURSELF!”  This statement uttered at that moment was revelatory.  It showed me the folly of my thoughts.  At that moment I was able to let go, and suddenly I HEARD THE MUSIC!  Horowitz was playing so exquisitely !  I felt reborn (at least temporarily).  I was sitting there enjoying the music for the first time as a listener rather than as a compulsive musician, one whose self-worth was on the line every time he heard someone else play well.”

This reminds me of books on golf psychology where much of the work is learning how to separate ourselves from our shots.  The mentally weak golfer reacts to a bad shot by thinking “I’m a bad golfer.”  The mentally tough golfer reacts to the bad shot by thinking “That shot was bad but I’m a good golfer.”  It ‘s the learning to separate and protect the person from the action that creates the strength to not collapse when things aren’t going well.

Werner’s message is part psychology and part Zen philosophy, and he integrates them in a compelling manner.  He examines many of the paradoxical conditions that musicians confront, such as when we most want to sound good, we probably won’t because we’ll be afraid to commit to what we’re about to play.  When you don’t try as hard to be good, you play better.  By not caring, you play better.

That’s the heart of the book – that fear robs our strength as musicians and gets in the way.  For music to be real it has to come from a deeper place than the little critical mind, and listeners can hear the difference.  As Werner says “You’ll find yourself more free and more powerful if you assume that all of the notes you play are the most beautiful  sounds you’ve ever heard.”  In other words,  “There are no wrong notes.”

Getting to No Wrong Notes

So what does Werner recommend we do to achieve this more enlightened condition?  Werner lays out a set of guidelines, exercises and meditations to use with an accompanying CD.  From my own experience with it, I can say that the approach works.  No, I haven’t achieved the fear-free musical existence of a Zen master, but it has markedly increased my ability to “let go” and disperse the fears when they arise in a playing or practice situation.  Some of his exercises are right out Zen 101, such as detached observation, but he makes them very workable in a musical context.  He provides tips on specific conditions, such as a fear of practicing.  And the meditations provide a means of focusing on positive thoughts, and being able to draw on those when in a pressure situation.  Overall, a classic for musicians with an interest in achieving their most creative potential.


Category: Random Notes

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