Book Club: Effortless Mastery by Kenny Werner
Effortless Mastery by Kenny Werner
Part 1 is a summary of Werner’s process . Part 2 is an overview of matching psychology principles. Part 3 has discussion topics about the book with my answers. Part 4 shows my notes and details on applying Werner’s Four Steps to Effortless Mastery. Feel free to skip to headings that mean the most to you (especially if you are reading on the go or haven’t read the book yet).
Part 1: Summary
Werner begins with a personal and relatable experience of struggle and fear as a music student. If you are experiencing that now, the first chunk of the book can be very validating. This is most of the book’s length. At the end he describes the process he used to change his relationship with music to one of effortless joy as well as of more tangible performance success. He calls this state, mastery.
Mastery is the goal for us when we practice. But we achieve mastery by detaching ourselves from our desire to reach that goal. On the surface, we practice because we all want jobs. Letting go of the goal of a job is actually a more effective way of achieving that goal. And arguably a better way to live. Already we are getting little “New Agey” sounding (as Werner says). So how does this spiritual-focused book about breathing, meditation, and self-acceptance bring results for people?
The short answer is by allowing you to make the most of your mental resources.
Now for the long answer.
Releasing your fears and staying present both allow you to use the astounding mental resources you already have as a human. When you use those resources consistently, across time, and with good resources, you will put yourself on the path to mastery.
Let’s start with what mastery is
Mastery “is playing whatever you’re capable of playing…every time…without thinking” 99
Mastery, “does not refer to how many things one can do, but rather the quality with which one does anything. If something can be done perfectly every time, without thought, it is said to be mastered” 99
“Mastery is comprised of two things:
1) Staying out of the way and letting music play itself. [this is a mental state]
I accept whatever wants to come out. I accept it with love. I accept the good and the bad with equal love. Without the drama of needing to sound good, I play from an effortless space. This takes deprogramming and reprogramming.
2) Being able to play the material perfectly every time without thought. [by developing specific skills]
I practice thoroughly and patiently until the material plays itself. The ego no longer terrorizes me. When the material is properly digested, it comes out in an organic way and manifests as my voice.” 117
Overview of how to achieve mastery:
Werner argues that you have to practice while in the mental state (1, above) in order to successfully develop and perform the skills (2, above).
Werner calls this mental state, “the space”
The space is a state of self-acceptance and detachment from critiques, fears, and goals. “Great patience and objectivity emanate from the inner space” 117.
Without being in “the space” of calm acceptance, learning is impossible.
And once you can get to the space, you are better equipped to improve. You need the space to be able to develop your skill-set. “You can see clearly what functions well and what doesn’t. Also, from that space, you don’t berate yourself for lapses in your playing. Without indulging in useless drama, you systematically chip away at your weak points. Longtime problems start to clear up, and you feel on track, perhaps for the first time. The thing is, it’s okay, no matter how long it takes. If, in trying to move faster, you learn on mediocre levels, what can you expect? Mediocrity, of course.” 117
His four-step process allows us to gradually build from finding the space at all to practicing from the space every time we play.
Achieve the “space,”
Begin to play (simply, non-intentionally) on your instrument while maintaining the space
Play actual music while maintaining the space
Add to your skill-set/improve your playing while staying in the space.
In step 4, you improve this by choosing small changes to address without faulting yourself for needing to change them. Werner says mastery consists of 4 elements, which he combines to form a “diamond.” The four corners of the diamond are: play fast (or in time), play effortlessly, play perfectly, play the whole thing.
When something is mastered, you can play the diamond. When you are in step 4, trying to increase your mastery, recognize that you cannot yet play the diamond. To do so, cut one of these corners temporarily and deliberately so that you have achievable mini practice goals. The only one you should never cut is “play effortlessly.” [more directions here in part 3]
Vital to Werner’s process is learning to value and love yourself first as a person, then as a person who performs, regardless of your performance.
“How many people are willing to get up on stage, play their instruments, and sound awful?
And then, after sounding awful, how many people could say, “I love myself?”
It may sound like “New Age Philosophy,” but if a true acceptance of oneself–if not actual love–is present, the fear of failure will be gone!” 39
And it’s the freedom from fear that is powerful. (Met Timpanist Jason Haaheim and Noa Kageyama have a great chat about this on Bulletproof Musician (check out 18:14 or search “long game” in the transcript)).
In my most panicked practice times, I thought: “If I could just improve enough and sound good enough in this practice session, I would be less stressed later.” But you have to go the other way around. Start without being stressed and integrate your music practice into that feeling. From there, you will may be surprised at how much easier and less painful it is to improve.
Quick Note on Terminology: God, Science, Spirituality
“After all is mastered, the inner being may manifest, unimpeded by the vehicle’s (i.e., the performer’s) lack of knowledge. In this light, training oneself to the highest possible level may be regarded as an act of worship to that inner being.” 100
You’ll notice Werner uses some religious terminology. If that works for you, great. If you prefer it as a metaphor, also great. Whatever worldview you have, the process Werner describes aligns well with some psychology principles and theories about learning. I find understanding the science behind things makes everything clearer, more beautiful, and easier to apply. That’s what we’ll be doing here.
So, what are some reasons this self-love process might actually work?
Werner does not address this other than anecdotally, but here are some of my favorite examples of psychology and cognition concepts that can support Werner’s approach.
Part 2: Potential Science Reasons
Werner’s process as deliberate practice
Deliberate practice is a path to expertise made famous by Dr. Anders Ericsson. It says the path to expert-level performance involves identifying, then, systematically and strategically, changing, aspects of your playing that prevent you from realizing your ideal performance. In order to do this, you must have learned to identify your ideal performance, get immediate and accurate feedback about your performance, and know how to make changes to get closer to your ideal. This functions much like step 4 of Werner’s process, in which you slowly improve specific and small aspects of your playing while staying objective and judgment-free about evaluations.
A. Developing what (your version of) “correct” looks like
B. Accessing immediate unemotional feedback about what is different (and the same) between what you have and what you defined as “correct”
C. Identifying what is preventing you from reaching“correct”
D. Knowing exactly how to change what is preventing you from being “correct” and then changing it
According to both methods, improvement in skill level only occurs with a specific type of practice. Deliberate practice describes this type of practice. Effortless mastery (the final step) implies the same type of work, but points out there is a lot of preparation work. You’ll notice Werner’s step 4 is the only place where your skill level changes. This is the only place you are really practicing in this sense, and if you want more instruction on the best way to utilize Werner’s final step, deliberate practice point you in the right direction. But Werner says you cannot be effective in practicing without being in the appropriate headspace.
Deliberate practice tells us what the best way to improve looks like. Werner gives a bit more emphasis on what it can feel like. “Effortless Mastery,” aligns with deliberate practice but includes overt instruction on how learners can achieve a judgment-free attitude and neutral or positive affect.
Werner’s process says: remember you don’t have to be cruel to yourself to improve.
Self-compassion does not mean you will lull yourself into complacency.
He then gives you a possible path to self-compassion.
If this is something you have trouble believing, check out Kristin Neff’s work on self-compassion. Releasing yourself from fear is safe to do when fear is not your motivation for practicing, learning, playing your instrument.
It can be easy to follow the deliberate practice steps while berating yourself for every mistake and fearing you don’t know how to improve. But that’s not really applying the steps effectively. Deliberate practice, like Werner’s method, calls for detaching your worth from your progress, and evaluating playing from a place of openness and curiosity (as opposed to desperation and fear). In “Effortless Mastery,” Werner overtly describes steps to releasing self-loathing and achieving this judgment-free state.
Werner treats the self-compassion and self-acceptance, not just as components of skill-development, but as prerequisites.
He gives an example of what it really feels like for the learner to successfully and healthily practice deliberately. As you go through the process of assessing your skills, practice staying curious and open rather than judgemental and stressed.
Just like any other skill, self-acceptance in the face of “flaws” must be practiced. Just like anything else, whichever state you practice (judgmental/anxious or self-accepting/detached) is the one you will foster.
As you can imagine, relieving yourself of judgments and anxieties can feel better. It also has some ramifications for actually helping you improve.
It is not only possible to be self-compassionate while practicing, but arguably better.
Why does being judgement-free work?
Cognitive Load/Working Memory and Fear
“A fearful mind won’t allow you to concentrate and absorb. Even while focusing on one thing, the mind is exerting subtle or not-so-subtle pressure with the thought of the other things that need tending to. This creates a very anxious and insecure feeling.” 60
As humans, we can only hold so much in our working memory at once. When you are stressed, fearful, or managing anxieties, those thoughts are taking up that limited memory resource.
Instead of giving all the attention you have to learning a skill, some of this energy is managing your worry. You literally cannot process as much material while also being worried about whether you are doing well. When your working memory is overloaded it makes it harder to put things into your long-term memory and makes it harder to perform an action well in the moment. Learning this way is more difficult, and can even reinforce your fear that you aren’t “good enough” (also, spoiler: you are).
“Effortless Mastery” describes a process in which you practice releasing that stress, thus providing more attention to actually learning or playing. This makes you both better able to perform in the moment and better able to move things from your short-term memory to your long-term memory. And from your long-term memory, you can access it at any time in the future without needing to relearn it (or repractice it). Even better news is that your long-term memory does not have the same limits as your short term, so there is room for whatever skills you want to add.
Fear and Attitudes about Learning
As we go through this process, we will be searching for and focusing on things we cannot do. For some of us, that can be very scary.
This is especially painful if we worry that our “inadequacies” at any given moment are a sign that we cannot succeed in the long-run. (They are not.)
This fear can reflect a “fixed” mindset. This mindset may be interfering with your learning behaviors on top of limiting your working memory (as described above).
Here is a short overview on research by Dr. Carol Dweck, who found that your mindset (and fears) about learning affected your choices during learning scenarios. (Here is a longer overview)
You can have one of two attitudes about learning something:
In a fixed mindset, you believe that, while you have to work to develop abilities, you either have talent worth developing in an area or you don’t.
In a growth mindset, you believe that anyone can improve in any area with the right work and resources.
This research is not really about which attitude about learning is accurate (though I think growth mindset is). More important than that, is how your mindset unconsciously affects your actions and how those actions then affect your learning.
Learners in a growth mindset seek (and those in a fixed mindset avoid) accurate feedback about what they should improve, ways to improve, and help in general. All of which are vital to learning and improving.
By avoiding these, people in a fixed mindset actually impede their own improvement!
Why would they do that?
If you have a fixed mindset, you think people succeed because they have an aptitude for that area (eg they are naturally talented). And being naturally talented means you learn quickly and rarely make mistakes.
Under this logic, any perceived flaws are signs that you do not have the natural talent in an area. And if you don’t have any natural ability, it is pointless to work to improve because you can never be successful. Thus, mistakes are very scary signs that you are doomed to fail.
In a fixed mindset, learners are ruled by a fear of being untalented. Rather than spending time trying to improve, they desperately search for proof that they are talented. But they never find enough proof to reassure themselves. “Even a single failure, despite many prior successes, may be enough to govern their self-judgments” (Dweck, Chiu, & Hong, 1995 p.275).
So instead of learning, they spend their energy trying to confirm that they have talent while also being terrified that they don’t. This fear makes it very difficult to follow the paths Werner and Ericsson describe.
This is also often a terrible, stressful way to live.
However, if you adopt a growth mindset about learning, you might see flaws and failures as opportunities to learn. Instead of trying to prove to yourself that you are talented, you devote energy to actually learning. And you probably recognize that no one is good at anything without working towards it, and that we all as humans have great potential.
Flaws here are actually positive! Finding a flaw is the next step in a game or puzzle of figuring out how to do something. Because once you have identified a problem, you can take steps to change it. And in this mindset, you believe in your power to change it. Therefore, flaws are a vital step to and sign of success. Better yet, they might even be considered a fun opportunity to learn more about an area you enjoy.
Growth mindset allows for the self-compassion and release from fear during learning that Werner fosters. Effortless Mastery, Growth Mindset, and Deliberate Practice all say we have to be honest and open with where we are in our playing–because that is the first step in changing it and also because there is nothing wrong with (or even unusual about) not being able to do something.
Be compassionate to yourself when you don’t get better. But also, recognize that it is totally normal, expected, and probably necessary for improvement to have this “zig -zag” “two steps forward one step back” experience with learning. 173
“Understand that progress is not linear” 173
And if you have been struggling to fix something for a long time (as often happens in music), it’s not a sign that you don’t have talent. Not knowing the right strategy now will NEVER mean that the right strategy is beyond you.
More on Working Memory:
Complex, Unfamiliar Tasks Overload our Brains
It makes sense that it takes a long time to play music well because music is a very complex task, made up of many interrelated complex skills. Ear training, air, embouchure, musical style, scales, and innumerable other interrelated concepts. There is way too much involved in these tasks for our working memory to handle.
But each of those skills can be broken down into smaller steps that are, on their own, attainable for everyone. So when you think something is too hard for you, you are really just trying to process too many components at once. But the more familiar you are with a concept, the easier it is to process more information at once.
This is why Werner asks us to reconceptualize difficult things as unfamiliar things. If you are struggling with something, it doesn’t mean you can’t ever do it or that your pace is too slow or whatever else you are worried about. You just need to make the components easier for your brain to process.
How does this work?
One theory about how humans do this deals with schema and cognitive load.
Consider this example by researcher, Dr. Laura Stambaugh.
G A B C D E F# G
Beginners look at the above sequence as at least 7 different notes.
But learners more familiar with classical music, will see that as a G major scale. That is, they see it as only 1 thing.
Now that they only have 1 concept to consider, they have much more of their attention available to consider other elements. This makes playing it feel easier for them.
They can think of it as one thing because they have successfully learned (aka mastered aka become familiar with) the concept of a G major scale. They have developed a mental “schema” for it.
As I described above, your working memory has limits. When you see 7 or 8 things at once, that takes your full working memory and attention span. When you see 1 pattern (G major), you don’t find that sequence overwhelming. The load your brain must handle seems smaller. The demands we place upon our mental resources make up “cognitive load.”
When we pick material that is too complex to work on, our cognitive load is too high. We overload our working memory, and we cannot effectively learn. We also probably experience stress.
This is why we learn scales, practice fundamentals, etc. in isolation from repertoire. We are limiting the information we have to consider so that our brains can attend to the fundamental technique we want to practice.
(Note that figuring out cognitive load is not so literal or straight-forward–counting seven notes doesn’t equal seven things in our memory. The example just represents learning patterns and concepts to make complex tasks more manageable.)
Similarly, when we play pieces in chunks, play pieces slowly, etc., we are lowering the “difficulty” by lowering the demands on our attention.
The Diamond and Unfamiliarity
This is the underlying principle of the “diamond” (play fast (or in time), play effortlessly, play perfectly, play the whole thing).
The learning diamond is an example of ways to adjust cognitive load. When your cognitive load is too high, you have to work really hard (mentally).
(Quick side note: if your cognitive load is too low, you may get bored, and your learning can also be impeded. Learning happens best when you have the right cognitive load–enough to keep it interesting but also manageable._
Werner’s unfamiliarity and fixed mindset
Another reason reframing difficult as simply unfamiliar matters, is because when you think something is hard, it reinforces a fixed mindset. Thinking it is beyond your ability sends the message that, “I am not a master,” or that it will always be too hard for me p. 102. Instead, it is just that, “the material has not been practiced at the proper level of ease” 102. Aka, you are not yet familiar enough with the material. Aka you can someday become familiar with the material. Aka learning can make things feel easier.
However, “Believing that playing is a difficult, painful process, we shun anything that seems easy” 54 and get in our own way.
Part 3: Questions for During and After You Read
Question 1: Is effort bad? Doesn’t it take effort to learn? How does “effortless” reflect that?
I think the problem is we have multiple meanings for effort. This book highlights how this semantic ambiguity fails us and creates miscommunication and confusion for learners.
You can acknowledge the effort or work that went into your skill-level. But that effort is distinct from (and unrelated to) this painful, fear-based effort from which we want to free ourselves.
Like martial arts, playing requires “great concentration rather than strength. To focus the body’s energy into one act, there is no extraneous tension. That’s the key. Most musicians play while holding tension in parts of their bodies that don’t need to be tense. That tension is the result of their basic relationship to playing: A pattern of struggle. In karate, to break a board, you have to be very focused and very relaxed. Doesn’t that seem like a contradiction? You have to be so focused that your movement happens by itself. There is great tension, but it is purposeful attention focused exactly where it is needed. ” 109-110
The mental effort of improving is the same. Ericsson writes about how deliberate practice is often not enjoyable or fun. It takes great mental energy to develop and coordinate an understanding of musical language, technical skill, artistic expression, and innumerable interrelated concepts. Thus, you might say mastery in music requires focused effort. In the deliberate practice model, improvement only happens through focused effort centered around specifically chosen areas.
“In contrast to play, deliberate practice is a highly structured activity, the explicit goal of which is to improve performance. Specific tasks are invented to overcome weaknesses, and performance is carefully monitored to provide cues for ways to improve it further. We claim that deliberate practice requires effort and is not inherently enjoyable. Individuals are motivated to practice because practice improves performance” (Ericsson 368)
There are different types of activities on our instruments. “Work includes public performance, competitions, services rendered for pay, and other activities directly motivated by external rewards. Play includes activities that have no explicit goal and that are inherently enjoyable. Deliberate practice includes activities that have been specially designed to improve the current level of performance. The goals, costs, and rewards of these three types of activities differ, as does the frequency with which individuals pursue them” (Ericsson 368)
The energy required to learn and practice deliberately can be draining, but I don’t think it should be painful. It may be that healthy and efficient practice can borrow some of the positive aspects of child-play (eg enthusiastic, resilient, open-minded, curious, experimental), simply more directed, more intentional, more deliberate.
That doesn’t mean deliberate practice will be easy or fun.
But deliberate practice effort, to me, is categorically different from berating yourself for not learning well, pushing your body through pain when you play, living with frequent and intense fear of playing poorly, routinely pushing through exhaustion, feeling guilty for not practicing, over-practicing, or any other way your fears may manifest. Kenny Werner spent about 100 pages sharing his experience with this kind of effort. This effort is painful (I can tell you from personal experience) and unnecessary (as Kenny Werner tells us).
It is also worth noting, in the deliberate practice process, the first phase to expertise is play within a field. Experts move gradually from time on a topic only for fun and completely without goals to very deliberate and goal-oriented. Even though most of us are now committed to improving in our field, it doesn’t mean we have to forget that we started this process because we were very interested in our field. But our interests have to be funneled very specifically if we want to improve.
The point here is that, while we have to invest some effort into learning to be successful, all effort is not the same. And just because you are putting in the effort, does not mean you will give yourself something beneficial. As Henry David Thoreau noted, “It is not enough to tell me that you worked hard to get your gold. So does the Devil work hard.”
Question 1 b:
What is the difference between effortless and mindless?
“We’re not talking about the kind of relaxation you experience slouched in a chair watching a football game. We’re talking about relaxed focus–having the discipline to form arduous tasks while remaining soft and supple on the inside, as muscles not needed for the task. This is the intent and spirit of yoga” 110
This further reflects the ambiguity of “effort” and “effortless.” Effortless here means freeing yourself from mental stress and physical tension in order to focus and perform at your best. You can repeat passages or exercises over and over without thought on how it went, or what you want to keep or change, or how you can make changes. Ignoring feedback in this way is the opposite end of the spectrum from ruminating on everything you perceive as wrong. As younger students we probably all practiced this way, just doing it over and over again and hoping it magically gets better. Depending on our attitude at the moment, this can be fun (so we may choose to do it sometimes), but is more often boring, and sometimes frustrating. It is rarely productive.
Question 2: Fear and Tension
Could Mental Stress (aka fear/the bad effort) and physical stress (aka tension/the bad effort) be related?
In addition to the mental space fear and self-doubt hold (discussed above), fear induces physical and physiological responses that may not serve us well here–eg tension.
Fear can cause tension which impedes tone which makes you sound worse which confirms your fears that you aren’t capable which makes you tense and so on… This is a terrible cycle.
It may be worthwhile to supplement work addressing physical tension with mental self-acceptance. There are lots of wonderful approaches to healthy playing we can all learn from and practice (Alexander technique, hand-position work, stretching, yoga, physical therapy, etc). But freeing yourself from fear may also help reduce some of our physical pain and tension in coordination with those practices.
Proper hand position can only get you so far if you are having an anxiety attack as you play.
You have to take care of your mind here to allow your body to release tension.
Players, “often don’t let their arms move freely because they’re afraid to play poorly,” which causes poor and painful playing 40. “These restrictive movements are the main cause of the tendonitis and related physical ailments. It isn’t piano playing that causes them. Piano playing feels good to the muscles if you play freely.” 40
I wouldn’t say that Werner’s process can solve every instrument-related medical issue, but it is certainly worth incorporating into your body-care efforts.
Playing should not be physical painful in the same way that it should not be mentally painful.
Question 3: Patience and Assessing Progress
How do I know if this method is working?
“Don’t judge your progress by daily measure, but notice improvement in your playing over time. More maneuverability, more freedom and more creativity will result” 161
Sometimes it can be hard to get a sense of whether something is learned (and permanent) or part of our working/short-term memory. Like when you play something well at the end of a practice session, but it doesn’t sound as good the next time. Using a longer time-frame (days and weeks) for assessing improvement may be more accurate and helpful.
In the moment, we may not always be good at evaluating whether our practice is effective. Have you ever practiced something so that the 10th time in a row felt easier than the 1st time? It might feel like that means you have mastered it, but sometimes that feeling is deceiving. Sometimes, you come back the next day and you don’t retain most of your progress (meaning your work never turned into permanent learning).
Similarly, the effortless mastery approach may feel slower than your old practice style. But it matters more if your progress is permanent than if happens quickly. Conversely, other types of practice may make you feel like you are improving more quickly than the effortless mastery method, but those improvements may not be permanent.
Even if effortless mastery is slow, it is never a waste of time as long as it is permanent. As Werner notes, having to relearn and repractice something over and over is the only way you will actually waste your time.
And if you are successfully in the space, you likely won’t be concerned with how fast you are improving. You’ll just be playing and learning.
Dr. Christine Carter found this effect while researching practice schedules (more here). When you have the right cognitive load conditions (not too heavy), rotating through the things you are practicing can be more effective than doing each activity in one long chunk before moving on to the next. Or alternating passages can be more effective for learning than playing them twice in a row. But it can also be more draining to rotate through, making it feel like you aren’t improving.
Practicing in block chunks can be like cramming for a test just to forget it all by the next week. It may take longer to study every night, but you will likely remember it further down the road. (Note that this seems to work best when you allow yourself just the right amount of time and right amount of difficulty level for what you practice.)
What does it look like to patiently and persistently shift my practice to effortless mastery?
(AkA What does it look like to practice this process in a world with very real demands that we move quickly because our time is pressed?)
“You must have a “secret compartment” in your day of five, ten or twenty minutes. It could be several pockets of five minutes each. These compartments are reserved only for practicing from the effortless space.” 170
“You can’t practice everything on this level–there just isn’t enough time. Many things come up in your career that require you to practice as quickly as possible and hope for the best. You cannot–repeat–CANNOT consciously force this focus in your playing or practicing. The mind creates a funny twist on the situation, and you start trying not to try, and get caught in the middle. It’s Hell! The results are usually disastrous, and wills care you into diluting the methods greatly.” 170
“Enter your secret compartment and for that time, let all deadlines and pressures cease to be. The only thing that matters is the quality of your focus and concentration” Note he did not say the quality of your playing!
4b The 5 minute technique
Making large-scale and long-term changes comes from short but consistent sessions where your attention can really be on employing the change well. That may be hand position or embouchure or your actual focus/attention. Do it with patience and acceptance in small chunks and it will slowly carry over into your playing. “You will notice, after some time, that even when you’re not practicing in the space, you are almost in it anyway” 171. You can tell yourself to just focus in 5-minute spurts.
You can also tell yourself you only have to practice for 5 minutes.
The thought of practicing for two or three or four hours can feel overwhelming. And sometimes you feel like you shouldn’t bother practicing if you don’t have that much time. “The problem is often not practicing, but starting.’ 177
Tell yourself it’s just going to be for 5 minutes. If at the end of 5 minutes you feel like continuing consider it a “bonus.” Eventually you’ll start seeing that time expand.
”However once you start expecting longer periods, you may stop practicing again! That feeling of being overwhelmed will return. Always make it five, and consider any more to be a bonus. As I expressed it earlier, five minutes can be most useful indeed. You can reach your goal with surprising efficiency through a series of five minute practices.” 177
Consider that if you really were able to focus for those 5 minutes, and really induce permanent learning for something however small, everyday or most days, total some of those 5 minute sessions could be very powerful
Part 4: My take on each of the steps
Here are my notes and highlights for the process, which I will be referencing myself when I want a refresher.
A note on using this book at your own pace:
I am someone that likes to know the big picture before I do the smalls steps well. So I experimented with each meditation and step as I read. But it took me reading all 4 steps (and reading 4 twice) before I really felt like I understood the details of the message enough to begin applying this whole-heartedly. Sometimes I had the book in front of me, and sometimes I just did my best to allow myself to be in the space. Then I felt ready to go back and do each step more purposefully. Being ready to really start the practice took me about 2 weeks with the material.
Perhaps you will move faster or slower. Just go at a comfortable pace.
Here is the outline again
- Achieve the “space,” a state of peaceful acceptance where you are judgement free
- Begin to play (1 note or comfortable rambling notes) in the space
- Play actual music while maintaining the space
- Add to your skill-set while staying in the space by choosing small changes to address. This step includes not faulting yourself for needing to change them or for needing multiple attempts to change them
Our intention is to be able to work from 4 frequently and consistently. That is, we want to be in the space every time we practice. But to practice without stress and anxiety, we have to exist in the world that way first.
That’s step 1
Step one is practicing staying present and detached from judgement while in some proximity with your instrument or playing. This includes physically releasing tension as well as releasing negative or judgemental thoughts from your mind.
Be in the space while just playing 1 note. Or while being in a practice room. Or while just considering the concept of practicing. Start wherever you need to for your level of stress.
Stay on this step for a while (maybe several days, maybe longer)
“You are not trying to play. You are just trying to stay detached, to stay in the space while playing anything. Repeat this a few times and put the horn down. That is the end of step one.” 140
“It may seem like a heavy or difficult thing you’re doing, but it is not. Keep it light. Treat it as a moment to relax and tune in gently to your inner self-while touching the piano. You may actually feel invigorated from these little moments” 137-8
Remember, too, what you are practicing is the process of letting go–not necessarily the ability to exist perfectly within this state.
As he advises, let go of any judgements you make about how well you are doing this. This is not just another thing for you to be bad (or good) at.
It is normal (at any stage of practice or after any duration of months practicing this method) to have trouble staying detached, or to have some days be harder than others, or any other combination.
“Begin the whole process again, but if you are short of the patience, awareness or stillness necessary for this exercise, then please STOP! It would be better to do only two fingers [or one note] completely from the space than all the fingers [or many notes/repetitions] from a compromised space. You can always break up the exercise into little two-to-five minute practices in your day. That way you can avoid frustration or burn-out from such concentration.” 137
This is a great time to practice letting go of the need to be a great player.
This is hard to let go of.
Bonus: Possible Precursor to Step 1
Meditation/The Space without your instrument at all
I have some basic beginner-level exposure to meditation and mindfulness that I found very helpful in this process. Without that (and even with it), practicing detachment from your feelings and thoughts in general is really step 1.a. Then step 1b is practicing this detachment with your instrument (or with your instrument in front of you or some other triggering concept). So if you want to spend a few days just practicing being in the space without incorporating anything musical, I think that is reasonable and valuable.
This is just expanding step 1.
“Moving around the instrument without trying, without caring” this is the state we are practicing 147
See if you can stay in the space while playing multiple notes or repeating the same note. But don’t play a thing. Not a scale or an exercise or an excerpt or a warm up. Just play randomly and freely. “There will be no intentionality” 145
You aren’t trying to do any particular thing on your instrument. Just doing while using your instrument. What we are practicing here is the headspace, and what comes out our instrument during that headspace is irrelevant.
(It seems reasonable that a scale or common pattern may come out just because we do them a lot, but that is different than attempting to stay in the space while doing a scale–that’s step 3.)
He emphasizes (and I agree) that this is difficult to do and to sustain. We’ve had lots of conditioning for playing while not in the space.
If you find yourself leaving the space and thinking or worrying or deciding, “take your hands off the instrument!” 147. See if you can get back to the space without your instrument (step 1). Perhaps try step 2 again.
“We have to re-program the urge to control. We are so used to analyzing everything that we play in narrow, unforgiving terms. Some people think that this is dedication and humility, but it is just plain inhibition. There is a very positive way to analyze what you play, which will be discussed in the third step. But for now, let me just say that analysis should not come during the playing, but well after the whole experience is over. Music should occur totally devoid of thought” 147
Tools for Step 2
Positive brainwashing/Positive Affirmations
Play a sound “and before the mind has a chance to evaluate it, you say to yourself, “That is the most beautiful sound I’ve ever heard.”” 148
(say it as a declarative statement, not a question)
Practice giving yourself kind mental experiences while you play
If you can’t let fear go, Werner says to start by just pretending. (paraphrase p. 135). I can’t always release my fears yet, but pretending does seem to help me. (Thinking, “I play beautifully. My sound is beautiful” even if I don’t really believe I am capable of it just then)
This pretending feels like retraining my brain to think positively about practice. When I was worried about my sound quality, starting from a place of expecting it to go well probably had many benefits. The biggest one I noticed, was supplying a positive, concrete action in terms of redirecting or releasing my anxious thoughts. Instead of “try not to worry,” it says, “literally think this instead.”
Widen your attention
Imagine the back of your head and the back of that head and the back of that head for several rows back. This is a technique to help you step back (pun!) from yourself and make room for the phrase “that is the most beautiful sound”
play quickly but just as freely (as the rest of step 2), just moving your fingers as fast as you can with no goal. You will likely find that they can move very quickly and fluidly. This ease is “what fast playing should feel like” 149
Play actual music while maintaining the space. Stay detached and full of self-acceptance.
“Step Three is about doing what you can do and no more” 155
Our intention is to play without judgement, not actually to play well!
Therefore, our attention is on playing without judgment not on how we sound.
You might observe your opinions about how something sounded–perhaps things you wanted to fix. Just accept them.
Even as you take inventory, “You have to stay focused on the space and not on the playing” 153-4
When we consider our playing, “this inventory should be taken dispassionately as if checking on our supply of groceries or toilet paper. We just want to find out what works and what doesn’t, and design our practicing accordingly. This is why we have been cultivating detachment in the previous steps. We need to detach so that we can be honest without becoming depressed.” 152
“Don’t worry if some of your problems are very basic. It is actually a boon to find the basic flaws that are holding you back” 154. As someone with a growth mindset can tell you, discovering a flaw is the first step to changing it to something you like better.
As in Yoga: be with your body today:
“Also, you don’t always have the same abilities at all times” 156. Let your playing and mind reflect where you really are at any given moment–not where you were last time.
“Just as water seeks its own level, relaxation seeks its own tempo” 155. Don’t force anything.
“Just remember to be very gentle with yourself during this process. Don’t think of it as some kind of test of your past achievements, or it will invalidate you in your own mind. Instead, think of it as the beginning of coming to terms with what’s been holding you back, and taking powerful, positive steps to correct that and move forward. Be brave, be patient, and most of all, be loving to yourself throughout.
I can start dispassionately, but after days or weeks or years or months with the same technique issues, it’s much harder to keep faith in myself. It’s not just that I couldn’t do it then, it’s that I haven’t been able to do it for so long. And then I worry I’ll never be able to. I suspect now that those issues are self-esteem, self-competence, and fixed mindset, and that they need to be addressed, first, outside the clarinet so that I have a better foundation for trusting myself on the clarinet. That is, I need to go back to steps 1 and 2 (and maybe my therapist).
“Step Four is the most conscious, perfection-oriented method of practice you could adopt. Its intention is nothing less than mastery. Mastery is the standard to achieve over more and more material. It would be difficult to imagine students in most cases being able to practice on this level without the foundation of the first three steps.” 169
This is where we work on improving while staying in the space. This is where we really practice our instruments.
We do this by first being comfortable getting into the space from practicing steps 1-3. Then by choosing small, achievable changes to implement in our playing or digestible elements to learn.
“As I said before, anyone can tell you what to practice, but there is almost no guidance as to how to practice” 169
The secret is that we do the work to improve, but without caring about whether we succeed. We have to stay focused on the process, not the product!
But focusing on the process will actually give us the best product.
“The feeling that you should be practicing more should be ignored! Know that the level of concentration you are employing is changing your playing in the fastest possible way! That is why learning to work from the space is so important; you have to reach the zone where time is timeless and effort is effortless, Becoming great is not important!”
Try it once, notice the glitch;
Take your hands off the instrument;
Take a deep breath and go back to the space;
Approach the instrument with Detachment again and;
Try less.” 165
Practicing this process, particularly step 4, on a section of music is different than practicing that section of music using this process. Using these steps is a skill that we need to practice in itself. It is okay to not do either perfectly
The question it’s not what you practice, which can be found everywhere, but how to practice. 164
Go for that depth, and don’t rate the practice in measurements of time. Try not to even be aware of the time. 167
“You are not wasting your time as long as you stay with it!” 167
“If you weren’t so concerned about your level of playing, you’d hang in for as long as it took. It would be like a hobby. That’s why this book stresses again again developing a detachment to what you’re doing while you are doing it. However, it is so easy to become discouraged. All you need is one night when you didn’t play what you wanted to hear, and the ego says ‘ screw it! It’s not happening.’ Again and again, this needs to be said: you probably cannot develop this level of patience if you are thinking about your playingI” 167
Using the Diamond
(play fast (or in time), play effortlessly, play perfectly, play the whole thing)
Werner notes that play effortlessly is the most important and should not be cut when pursuing mastery!
“This one consideration is more important than the others. If the example isn’t practiced from the effortless space, you can’t be sure you’ve mastered it. So no matter what you were practicing, we will agree on this consideration” 161
If you can’t play it without panicking, something in the diamond needs adjusting (or you need to go back to an earlier Step).
Play in Chunks
“How much of it should you play? As much as: as much as you can play effortlessly, perfectly, and very fast.” 161-2
Can you do the first note without panicking? The second? Now both in time?
If it’s a run, can you improvise with this pitch set or play it in different patterns?
Stay right on the cusp of where things get hard, or unfamiliar, but don’t go too far.
“It may sound strange, but there is a therapeutic value in letting your fingers rip on a difficult passage while playing many wrong notes. It gives the feeling of what effortless execution will feel like. Admittedly, this should only be done occasionally, but it does have a purpose.” 162
Sometimes I sacrifice playing perfectly, as Werner describes, but I will note that I usually do this without sacrificing playing musically. I think this is a great tool for practicing the gesture, effect, or energy of the passage and for accessing effortlessness in a passage that is currently very effortful for me. This uses the same principle as step 2C above.
“Understand that progress is not linear” 173
Be compassionate to yourself when you don’t get better. But also, recognize that it is totally normal, expected, and probably necessary for improvement to have this “zig -zag” “two steps forward one step back” experience 173.
You made it to the end! Great work!
Thanks for reading with me!
Purpose of Book Club Posts:
All of this information is my reflection of conclusions and research by other people. As I read these books I couldn’t wait to share and discuss this information with other people who might benefit from it. These posts are a virtual book club that you can explore at you own pace so that we can consider how to harness this information in a productive way. If you enjoyed reading this book with me or you have any thoughts, let me know! Feel free to suggest books you’d like to see in the Book Club as well!
Jessica is a classically-trained clarinetist based out of Florida who loves cats, vegan chocolate chip cookies, psychology, and working with as many different types of artists as possible. She has a BA in psychology and BM in clarinet performance from Northwestern University, her MM in clarinet performance from BGSU and began her DM in clarinet performance at Florida State University in fall 2019.
References and Resources
Dweck, C. S., Chiu, C., & Hong, Y. (1995). Implicit Theories and Their Role in Judgments and Reactions: A Word From Two Perspectives. Psychological Inquiry,6(4), 267-285. doi:10.1207/s15327965pli0604_1
Ericsson, K. A. (2008). Deliberate Practice and Acquisition of Expert Performance: A General Overview. Academic Emergency Medicine,15(11), 988-994. doi:10.1111/j.1553-2712.2008.00227.x
Reading on Cognitive Load:
Stambaugh, L. A. (2016). Implications of extrinsic cognitive load on three levels of adult woodwind players. Psychology of Music,44(6), 1318-1330. doi:10.1177/0305735615627206
(more science-y and a bit less directly music-related: Sweller, J. (2010). Element Interactivity and Intrinsic, Extraneous, and Germane Cognitive Load. Educational Psychology Review,22(2), 123-138. doi:10.1007/s10648-010-9128-5)
Interleaved Practice and Cognitive Load
Carter, C. E., & Grahn, J. A. (2016). Optimizing Music Learning: Exploring How Blocked and Interleaved Practice Schedules Affect Advanced Performance. Frontiers in Psychology,7, 1-10. doi:10.3389/fpsyg.2016.01251
for more in depth:
Simmons, A. L. (2011). Distributed Practice and Procedural Memory Consolidation in Musicians’ Skill Learning. Journal of Research in Music Education,59(4), 357-368. doi:10.1177/0022429411424798
Stambaugh, L. A. (2016). Implications of extrinsic cognitive load on three levels of adult woodwind players. Psychology of Music,44(6), 1318-1330. doi:10.1177/0305735615627206
Stambaugh, L. A. (2012). Differential effects of cognitive load on university wind students’ practice. Psychology of Music,41(6), 749-763. doi:10.1177/0305735612449505