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Defining Mastery

A degree of facility is required to express ourselves on our instruments. Improving our facility increases our ability affords us the opportunity to convey our thoughts and emotions musically with more subtlety, complexity, and specificity. Following this line of thought inevitably leads to the concept of mastery, but if it’s a goal we’ve set before ourselves it’s important to create a meaningful definition of what mastery is. In this article I want to explore how I define meaningful mastery, by example showing how you can define mastery for yourself, and how to use that to create a learning path on your instrument that moves you closer to it.

Unfortunately, modern culture has a trend of cheapening the meaning of words. This leads to a similar conversation I’ve had with many guitar students that goes something like this:

Me: “How comfortable do you feel with the master scale?”

Student: “Really good, I feel like I’ve pretty much mastered the major scale.”

Me: “Great, for my sake, can you quickly pick play a major scale through all of its intervals, triads, and seventh chords?”

Student: “I don’t think I know all that.”

Me: “That’s ok, let’s work on it!”

I’m not relating this anecdote to embarrass anyone, just to underline that this mode of thought is common. The issue here is that thinking in this way is harmful to a musician’s development. Too many novice musicians treat techniques or harmonic ideas like they are an item to be checked off a list and then move onto the next concept. They suffer from this as often what they are leaving behind was substantially more important than what they may be moving onto. This happens, in part, because it is important when first learning an instrument to attain a rudimentary facility of multiple skills to be able to play. Though the game changes from there, it seems many don’t understand why the same approach isn’t producing the same rewards it was before. The essential task has changed, and the approach must do so with it. The reason this is so important to understand is because it stifles a student’s growth and development.

So, what if we do understand that mastery has a larger scope? Then we might define mastery of something like the major scale by saying that it means to be able to play all permutations of the seven notes in every key, with comfort, and at a rapid tempo. This would be much closer to the textbook definition of what mastery entails, but this approach, in my opinion, is flawed as well. For one, it fails to take into account the larger picture, in that a pursuit like this would take an extraordinary amount of time, and a large portion of the work is likely not serving our larger goals to be a better musician. Creating mountains of work for yourself can be more of an impediment to musical mastery than it serves the concept.

With these two previous thoughts in mind, we can boil down to what I believe is an effective definition of musical mastery: A deep exploration of a subject that serves your musical voice, creates facility, and is meaningfully implementable. To keep going back to the well of the master scale, this means that there are concepts that are useful to musicians in every style such as being able to play all intervals and triads. If you are playing more complex musical genres this may extend to larger arpeggios, and so on. Sorting this out for yourself may require advice from a teacher or more experienced musician. Discerning what ideas are essential to your goals on your instrument will provide you a path forward. Some ideas may be approached more abstractly. Though it may not be reasonable to pursue every possible permutation of a scale, you may be able to approximate the benefits of it by practicing new patterns regularly, maybe even practicing patterns produced randomly. This sort of practice can be a lot of fun, and by means of doing this you are actually improving your capability for learning new patterns, and will likely find that you require less effort to execute unique patterns while improvising or composing melodies.

Understand that I’m not encouraging you to skirt around large bodies of work, I often say that musicians should be chomping at the bit to undertake large and difficult practice regiments. Every time you tackle these kinds of projects you are distinguishing yourself amongst many musicians who simply won’t do the same.

The key to all of this is emphasizing what can be integrated into your playing. If you can’t or, for aesthetic reasons, don’t want to use an idea or pattern in your music, then it is perfectly reasonable to not practice it. It can always be returned to if you change your mind in the future. Take a deep look at your favorite musicians. Most of them aren’t masters of everything but are very specialized in their technique and harmonic vocabulary. We want to develop the same way of thinking with our own musicianship. Once we have a clear understanding of the type of musician we want to be, we want to run narrow and deep with the concepts that will help us achieve our musical visions.

I’ll leave off this article in stating that no matter how accomplished I could ever become as a musician I would never feel comfortable in calling myself a master. I believe a perpetual growth mindset, a hunger for continual growth and development, is the healthiest way a musician can look at themselves. Though I’ve resigned myself of being a perpetual student of music and my instrument I’ll never stop pursuing mastery of my craft. I encourage you to do the same.

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