Jun 26 2015

On Developing Mastery

Published by at 12:00 pm under Documentary,Skill Development,Thoughts & Musings

The development of mastery has a language. While every different thing we may hope to master in a lifetime may have many specifics that are unique to each, there is a path to all of it, and the path itself isn’t so unlike the others.

The reason we read what others have to say about woodworking, is because we are hoping to learn tips tricks and methods that we can employ for our own development. It can be about tools, methods, style, materials, joinery, etc. We need to develop a well rounded knowledge of all these things to develop our understanding of the entirety of it. Practice is the part where we develop the ensemble of all this, as we make the things we make.

I would like to present an analogy to you for this discussion, because I think it will help us understand the parts, and the whole of it a lot better. I would like to present some ideas about woodworking mastery, using music and the playing of music as a musician to you as an example of how mastery develops, and becomes our piece of kit, in us.

For this analogy I would like to present the following 12 minute video featuring three players who are amongst the very best musicians in New Orleans. It is an excerpt of a show that was put on in 2011 at the Bear Creek Music Festival in Live Oak, Florida. I have chosen this video because the jazz, funk and blues of New Orleans is out of a musical style that isn’t played anywhere else. The musicians that hail from that area really have to steep themselves in the local approach to music to fully play it. There are truly only a few hundred people at the top of their game at playing this style of music in the world. It’s very unique stuff.

Allow me to provide a little background. This is important because it highlights some of what we will talk about regarding mastery. Please keep in mind what I said a paragraph or so ago. The fact that these players are from New Orleans is part of their piece of kit – part of their mastery.

The band on stage is being led by a piano player named Jon Cleary. He is performing at this show with two sidemen. And this is where it begins to get interesting. The bass player is James Singleton, and is hired as a member of Jon’s band. The drummer is not a member of Jon Cleary’s trio, he is Johnny Vidacovich, and he has only been invited to the stage to play with the band for these two songs. He has not rehearsed with this band, and so to some degree he is having to play along as best he can.

In earnest, all three of these guys are masters of their craft. Both their instrument, And as musicians. They are also masters of the New Orleans sound. Cleary, 52, the keyboard player is originally from England but has deeply studied music of New Orleans for more than 20 years. Singleton, 59, is a New Orleans native and one of the highest demand bass players from the area. Vidacovich, 65, has been a mainstay and master of the rhythm of New Orleans for over 40 years.

If you’re not a musician don’t worry. I hope you will enjoy the video. There are two very musical songs, and both are extremely difficult to play. It takes mastery over the instrument, Mastery over the body, understanding and mastery over playing together in a song. These guys are to this music what Philip Lowe, and Frank Klaus are to furniture making.

Vidacovich sits down behind a drum kit, and has no idea what he’ll be asked to play. This is not his drum kit. He has to completely adjust to drums and cymbals that do not belong to him, and in a very limited way, he can’t adjust them to his liking very much either. This is a lot like jumping into a car you’ve never driven before and being asked to drive off at 100 mph. It’s time to start, and so Cleary speaks into the microphone; “shuffle” and accounts it off. It’s a fast shuffle. Any drummer will tell you, a shuffle isn’t the easiest thing to play. The second song, is something Cleary tells Vidacovich from across the stage will be “sloppy funk” but Vidacovich is a master, and his eyes and ears tell him what to do. Singleton is a master of the upright bass as well, and Cleary quite simply is amazing on a piano. An added plus is that the video was filmed where we can see the drummer play. It’s not a featured view we always get to see.

Please enjoy the video, and will talk a bit more about mastery afterwards.

At the end of those two songs Johnny gets up and leaves the stage returning the drum kit to the original drummer to the drummer who was hired for the show.

I can tell you, that Singleton does not ordinarily perform with Cleary. At least not routinely. Singleton and Vidacovich are very experienced at performing with each other, And have been together in bands for years. The important thing here is that we all understand that they have mastery over their instrument mastery over their own body’s ability to control the instrument they play, they have mastery over the musical style that they’re performing, and that they can take what is in front of them, What ever that may be to a very high-level from right where they are.

There is something else about these guys and these two songs. Quite a few people might say that this was a blues song and a funk song, and so it could be considered rather pedestrian. This is a raw, unproduced live performance and the players took it to a very high level of play. Recall that the drummer is not playing his own kit. What makes this performance special is that not only are these players masters of their craft, but they have an extremely deep understanding of the eclectic way these songs are played in the New Orleans style.

The bass and drums are handled very uniquely in that area of the world. The approach to playing drums are almost uniquely played the way they are in no other part of the world like they are in New Orleans. A lot of this has to do with the history of New Orleans. A lot of musical style has originated from there. Marching brass bands, blues, jazz, funk, and how this single drummer on a drumset has combined many of the parts that were formerly played by separate people. 

The bass, while ordinarily is a stringed instrument is often A brass instrument in the New Orleans style, and all who play in that style must think in both the string and the brass instrument method in order to play the music. 

And for the piano, a quick study the history of jazz and piano will quickly let us A large number of very influential artists who took the piano to an entirely new level, and whose talent originated in the New Orleans area.
Consider this possibility. As woodworkers and our own mastery, we become the best at the things that influence us the most. As you look around and learn what you like, it will influence the way you make, it will become inherent in your style.

Consider Vidacovich and his position. He was walking by and invited to play on stage. And so within moments is playing a song, and then another. Neither one of those songs are at all pedestrian to play as a musician. Whether the music you just listened to was A kind of music you enjoy or not, I can assure you it was very amazing, and there are only a handful of people who can do that, the way those guys do that. Think of Frank Klaus grabbing a monster bowsaw, and without any layout lines at all, cutting amazing dovetails from a piece of wood that he has just been handed, while making jokes and visiting with others as he cuts those dovetails faster than most of us could ever hope to imagine.

So you may be thinking how does this apply to us? Woodworkers who are hoping to develop skills over tools and wood, joinery and furniture styles… think of our tools as being the same as an instrument. Think of the wood as being the same as music. Think of the joinery as being the same as our talent and skill the ability to use the tools as well as a musician plays an instrument with all of the rudiments and dynamics, and think of the furniture style as being the same as a musical genre. The ability to play jazz well or blues well may be the same as knowing how to make period furniture or Danish modern furniture or craftsman furniture. The Idiom. Because what we make and the level of craftsmanship we bring to it, is the our artists statement. Are we masters? Can we execute our statement? Yes, we can, if it is our goal to the be the best we can be.

And so we see that we must practice. It’s important to have good tools, Just like it’s important to play a quality instrument. It’s important to understand how the materials we use work, wood and all of it’s idiosyncrasies, just like we must know music and all of the mechanics behind it to really play at a high level. And we must practice joinery and the usage of our tools which includes sharpening and wielding so that we can use them to make just like a musician needs to acquire proficiency with their instrument. Finally we must come to understand the various styles behind the things we make in order to understand not only how to make them but why we make them, and so that we can use that knowledge to go in a completely unique direction if that’s what we choose. Because the musicians we just watched perform not only have a breath of knowledge from where the music they play came from, but they are also writers of original music in their own right. The deeper our understandings the better we can be.

Don’t worry, this isn’t about pressure. I can assure you that these musicians are having fun, And they had fun getting to where they’re at today. As woodworkers, we have this very same freedom! We are having fun acquiring tools and building skills. We are learning from what would has to teach us as we work with it as well as when we read about how to work with it. And we learn from style – from what our eyes see, and how our personal tastes develop. Almost in its entirety this is about a journey not a destination. We only look through a window at where we are for a particular moment, but that doesn’t mean we stop progressing. And so most of all of this comes down to one thing. Continued practice. Your continued practice is the quality of your craftsman skill. The ability to simply do without having to think too hard about it. We truly can be as good as we want to be. Vidacovich proved it. All he brought to the table for the presentation in the video above was himself and his skill. Most of it was “in him” his body and mind knew how to do it.

There are people all over the world practicing any number of different skills. If we do what we love, The rest will come. So practice! Mastery is just around the corner, and believe me when I tell you when you ask people who you think are masters, they will digress. They will tell you that there is much they still feel they need to practice. But like tying shoes, your fingers know what the routine is without having to look. Muscles get memory and will do a lot of it for you. That’s why doing what you love is important. If you don’t love it, you might not ever achieve it.

For one to go out on, It’s about music, but has parallells in any mastery. In 2003 Clint Eastwood produced a documentary called Piano Blues. It’s 88 minutes of Eastwood interviewing Piano Players who are masters of their art, and what it was from the past that influenced their mastery. If we listen to the things they share, we learn of what influenced them and how it drove their passions.

Perhaps if we can make the jump to woodworking with their observations, we’ll better understand the nuts and bolts of what influences us with the things we are working towards mastery with. What if Art Tatum played a piano made by Henry O. Studley? Virtuoso’s Both. See? Who knows. Wood has had a big influence over music. How could any artist express themselves with an instrument that won’t allow them to put all of it out there? It is all a form of craftsmanship, walking with and towards mastery has a walk that is unique to each of us no matter the path, but it’s mastery all the same.

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