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Montreal, Quebec, Canada

Thursday, February 4, 2010

On the art of hair growth

Recently a piano student of mine emailed me for some encouragement. He asked me "I was wondering what you do when you don't like the way you sound on the piano?" This is definitively a question that most students have but few dare to ask. It's a good question for several reasons the most important of which I believe is that it goes to the heart of the reason why a musician makes music. It also says a lot about this student's attention to the process of becoming an accomplished musician. 

There is a paradoxical nature to the pursuit of educating one's self to be a creative musician. When we're young many of us look at great jazz musicians and assume that the mind-blowing, creative sounds coming out of their instruments are being created entirely in the moment. Jazz, when it's really happening is so spontaneous, exciting, and off-the-cuff that it seems as if it is literally bursting out of the air molecules. For me the sign of maturity in a developing player is when they give up trying to be completely breath-takingly in the moment and develop an appreciation for the craft of being a musician. They begin to distill their creative musical ideas and work them over and over again refining both their ideas and the execution of their ideas.  At this level of artistic evolution a student looks up to their mentors not only as "geniuses" but also as craftsmen (craftspeople?) and develops an appreciation for the refinement and taste that exudes in their playing. However the pursuit of the craft of music inevitably takes us through the thoroughfares of drudgery.  The hours of practicing some very non-creative things as a way of unlocking our creativity seems paradoxical and it becomes easy to lose the energy and inspiration that initially was driven by this perceived spontaneity.

Acquiring the skills of a master can take a lot longer than we had initially hoped. Our practicing can seem even futile. It's almost as if we got up every day, stood in front of the mirror and tried to "will" our hair to grow. This would be a depressing way of growing one's hair and yet for many students (myself included) it becomes part of our process of developing our skills as a musician. It would be silly for any of us to obsessively wish we were at a different hair-length since worrying about it would have no effect on the process that is already occurring at its own rate. (incidentally we all grow hair at different speeds!) Hair length is also neither good nor bad. It's just shorter or longer. This is the same for our development as musicians. We are all developing at our own rates and it only serves to inhibit our development to use our limited energy judging ourselves. 

Once when I took a lesson with Fred Hersch I asked a similar question to him. I don't remember exactly the words I used but I intimated the sentiment that I was often over-whelmed by the prospects of playing solo piano. Fred's answer was: "When you're playing music use what you know, not what you don't know". Over-simplistic as it seems this answer is profound because it requires one to be completely honest about what one "knows". This honesty is, in my experience, not very common and is what distinguishes the wheat from the chaff in terms of artistic integrity. Artistic intentions become quite transparent when it is clear that a musician is playing something that they don't grasp. It's innocent I know but it has the overall effect on the listener as music that is trying to be something that it is not; music that is perhaps trying to impress the listener by approximating something else rather than being simple and honest and what it is.  

Younger players are often mired in judgmental decisions about the "hipness" of what they play. In the case of my student I find it heartening that he is perhaps beginning to dig deeper for a meaning to what he plays. As long as this feeling doesn't turn into obsessive self-loathing this question is an acknowledgment of the deeper sometimes darker places within that must be faced with courage and honesty as part of the process of becoming a musician. 

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