Tuesday, March 21, 2006

Effortless Mastery

Spring-cleaning is about renewal. During my cleaning spree last week, I came across Kenny Werner’s “Effortless Mastery” hidden amongst many a book.

Juanito Pascal, my truly inspiring guitar teacher, introduced me to the book years ago. Though Werner’s book is largely touted as a text for musicians looking to play without fear and negativity, his words go much deeper than that.

The back cover explains:

“While Mr. Werner happens to be a musician, the concepts presented here are applicable to every profession, aspiration or life-style where there is a need for free flowing, effortless thinking”

I agree.

Students looking to master any skill would benefit from his thoughts. His main point being that all skill comes from practice in a relaxed state. This relaxation promotes us to be appreciative of what we are doing instead of being harshly judgmental. We perceive excellence through each moment that we fully give to our activity. Through this excellence we love what we engage, building on positive associations.

I would call this profuse moment, mindfulness.

I see my students struggle with this as they criticize themselves for what they have yet to learn -- especially writing. They have so many ideas about what a writer is and should be that it blocks their ability to try. Negative thoughts of “I’m bad at writing” are often heard during the first session.

Often times, students are trying to build a bridge without the supports in place. To break way from these habits of negativity, I bring a student to what they can do. Feeling comfortable here, I can slowly help them to build on their existing skills.

I often recommend for parents to end any signs of frustration before they start, even if it means stopping the activity altogether. It is always better to start from a tabula rasa than a mind imprinted by negative experiences.

Though I struggle with mindfulness daily, I experience it teaching. Part of why I love my work is that it requires a relaxed focus with my student and myself. I have to be very present to optimally teach them in just the right way. Hardly ever do I find my mind racing to other ideas or inquiries that will not benefit our interaction.

And now that I am thinking of positive interactions, play comes to mind. The idea of play is so important to my work. I realize now that during play it is easiest to be mindful. We’re in an activity that we love, so we appreciate and indulge in it. This loving indulgence is the way to mastery.



  • I'll be a bit contrary here, if I may. I believe that the whole idea of "all you need to do is relax" is one of the worse things you can tell someone trying to learn a physical task. It's really a Big Lie. I've had numerous teachers tell me this in quite a varied number of persuits: music, martial arts, juggling, dancing etc.

    The reality is that you need to train your muscles and mind what to do first, then you can relax. Note that relaxing is still part of the process, but it's the final stage - not the beginning. Telling people to relax too soon just causes frustration.

    I suspect that writing needs to be approached the same way. Sometimes you have to muscle your way through a sentence or paragraph. Get the words down even if they're somewhat awkward and stilted. Then you can move on to just letting the writing flow. I do believe that making the conscious switch from analytical or muscling mode to relaxation mode can be useful.

    In all of these persuits, you're going through the same process: creating a new part of your brain that takes over complex tasks for you. You can not "relax" (or in other words, let the new part of your brain take over) until it actually exists.

    Gary Godfrey
    Austin, TX, USA

    By Anonymous Anonymous, at 8:08 PM  

  • Hi Gary,

    Thanks for reading. I think that you are right on that "all you need to do is relax" is a bit simplistic. And, that's why I didn't say that here ;)

    "Students looking to master any skill would benefit from his thoughts. His main point being that all skill comes from practice in a relaxed state."

    I too have practiced many physical skills such as martial arts, dance, and music. Learning the motions is key, however if you're doing it through clenched teeth, then you're probably also learning poor form. When this poor form is repeated (since it often results in short term gratification), long-term problems occur (sports injuries, tension, etc.). In all of my experiences I have always valued technique over raw power.

    I think what your teachers should have said, to be clearer, is to relax so that your full attention and focus is at the task at hand. It's when we tend to be focused on the goal and not the actual process that things get muddled.

    In my case, students get so focused on the outcome of their writing that they can't even begin because they're too worried about the results.

    One perfect example of this is in handwriting. Most of us learn to "muscle" through it in elementary school by bending our index fingers at a ninety degree angle so that the ink is transferred onto paper (our hand ends up looking like an angry duck!). A few things happen here. In the short term, the job is done and the brain has learned the task. In the long run, students have trouble writing for long amounts of time because it is painful.

    One of the first things I teach students (no matter what subject I'm there for) is proper hand position so that they learn that writing (& learning) is not supposed to be painful. Our fingers are built to support our tool usage, not hinder it! The basic technique (though I plan to outline it later in more depth) is to round each finger in its natural position so that (minimal) pressure can be applied to the index finger.

    Students notice an immediate difference in there writing. At first it takes some time to get used to (I even ask them to only practice it a few minutes per day and not "muscle" through the new technique). Once they feel more comfortable writing in this manner (some feel better right away while others can take up to a month) they notice that they can spend more time physically writing because they are not in pain any more. Writing no longer equals pain.

    It's pretty amazing. So, I'll take form over function any day.

    By Blogger HeightenedLearning, at 10:07 PM  

Post a Comment

<< Home