Like nearly all working musicians, Covid-19 completely turned my life upside down. The world slammed the emergency break on my career while going 70 mph on the freeway. I didn’t know who I was without the constant grind of running from recording session to rehearsal to gig. In some ways this car crash of a year was a blessing in disguise. I had been burning out fast. I worked too hard for too long without taking care of my personal wellbeing. I was becoming jaded and lost from years of overworking. The connection to my inner teenager was getting lost. I couldn’t reach the punk kid inside me who just wanted to shred Chuck Berry licks like Marty McFly. I was starting to show the battle scars of a world weary working pro. My self worth had become wrapped up in my career and I hit rock bottom. Surely MUSIC was not to blame, but my relationship to it. Cue Kenny Werner.
I first read Effortless Mastery in college. As a lowly Philosophy major, I wasn’t allowed to take music classes from our prestigious music program (even though I was gigging more than the faculty). Undeterred, I spent countless hours in the stacks of the extensive music library. One day I saw Kenny Werner’s book poking out from the shelf and pulled it down. I had heard about it before. Older musicians would mention that Werner’s book was the key to unlocking their stagnant playing after years of gigging. I took these reviews seriously because they came from monster players. I decided to check it out.
My first read only resonated on a surface level. In hindsight, I wasn’t really ready for it. I got from it what I needed to at the time, but my experience was less profound than those who recommended it. I returned the book to the library with only a small fortune in late charges.
Fast forward to March 2020. My year long theatre gig had just ended and all my freelance gigs were getting cancelled. I had a lot of time on my hands and nothing to work on. I was stagnant and wanted to move the needle. I remembered Effortless Mastery and half-heartedly ordered it online. When I finally sat down with a pencil and dug in, I was ready.
Each page spoke to my experience as a young working pro. I related to each chapter in ways my younger self could never have understood. It was as if Werner could personally see through my struggles and frustrations as a player. I felt like I was handed the DSM-5 for my own musicianship. I began to feel unstuck and passionate again. My excitement was overflowing and I began to record a new album. Marty McFly eat your heart out! I took tons of notes as I read and could wax poetic on any number of insights I stole from Werner. Instead, I want to focus on a few specific ideas I can bring into the practice room this week.
I am taken aback by the realization that the very desire to play well often causes us to play poorly. Werner explains that musicians self-sabotage by bringing fear and expectation onto the bandstand. We think when we should flow. Many of us ride rollercoasters of emotion and judge ourselves when we should be feeling the music. This self-esteem based playing is part of a vicious cycle that harms our mental health and performance. I've been guilty of this and it led to the burnout I talked about earlier. Something had to give. The road to mastery requires a pattern interrupt from these harmful habits. Mindfulness and inner stillness should ground our playing. The inner critic has its place, but that place is in the practice room, not the stage.
It’s easy to intellectually know that it’s better to play from an alert, mindful place than a self critical one. It’s a lot harder to know what you can actually do about it. I never realized that you can methodically practice finding this mindful space. In the book, Werner includes guided meditations (easily found on YouTube) and exercises to help the musician find their flow and attain greater mastery. I'll use this as my starting point. My goal is to use the guided meditations to practice finding stillness before I play. Then I will try to stay inside this stillness as I practice. As a twice daily meditator already, I’m curious to see what effect this will have. I’ve also committed to putting down the instrument everytime my inner critic takes over. I will literally put my guitar down, walk around the room, and sit back down so that every minute of practice is mindful. I might get less done quantitatively, but I’m hoping the quality of my practice is improved.
To summarize my practice goals:
1. Daily use of Werner’s guided meditations before practice
2. STOP PLAYING when I sense my inner critic take over. Put the instrument down and come back after recentering.
Time to shed! I’ll be back to update you on what worked and what flopped.