Sunday, September 1, 2013


I've just finished reading a wonderful little book whose message parallels my own philosophy. The book is Mastery by George Leonard. Mr. Leonard is an aikido (Japanese martial art/spiritual practice) master and uses aikido for many of his examples. But the philosophy applies to any area of life that one wishes to attain mastery, from sports, to the arts, to virtually any task, any job, any career, and, perhaps most importantly, to personal relationships.

We would all probably agree that our society tempts us with instant gratification at every turn. Even more problematic is that we seem to expect constant and rapid successions of greater and greater rewards -- the next promotion, the bigger house or car. Movies, products advertised on TV, new technologies, even some "inspirational" speakers, promise that the excitement of the next experience around the corner will surpass anything and everything experienced previously. If our lives don't go from one peak experience to another we may feel we are missing out, or that there is something wrong with us. We are told to have goals, to write them down, to do everything to achieve our goals in the quickest possible time, and once they are achieved, to set new, even more ambitious goals. We are always living for the future and are rarely in the present.

But most lifelong pursuits don't pan out like that. Every athlete or musician or novelist who attains any degree of mastery knows that there are long hours in the gym, at the piano, or at the desk, doing largely the same things we did the day before. While we would like to see the improvements, the new levels of mastery, come fast and furiously, the opposite is usually true: there are periods, sometimes long ones, where we seem to be on a plateau. It feels like we repeat the same practice day after day, work on the same techniques, but the mastery of it eludes us. Then, often unexpectedly, we wake up one day and find we are able to do the new skill with ease. We are elated. A breakthrough!

And then comes another plateau.

My students all experience this, as do I. We work on a piece of music, using the best possible methods of practice we know, yet for days, maybe weeks, it seems to go nowhere, to be stuck. One is tempted to give up, or at least move on to a different piece. But if you truly love the music, and the experience of playing the instrument, you will just keep going, practicing it again, day after day. We need to come to realize that we will have greater peace, greater satisfaction, if we practice for the sake of practice, and not get obsessed with goals. Of course there are milestones along the way -- learning a piece by memory, playing it for a group of friends, playing a concert or recital. But even after the triumphant recital, the path of learning and mastery resumes. There is no end to that path -- it goes on forever.

If we are only working towards goals, we may feel a great deal of frustration when the improvements don't come according to the schedule we desire. And we are missing out on an important element of mastery and self-development, which is to not only accept, but to embrace, the plateau. This was, for me, the best take-away from the book -- to love the plateau. Of course I would love to sight-read through a Chopin Etude and master the technique in a day or a week, but I know this won't likely happen. Instead, I just enjoy my daily "visits" with it. For quite a long time now I have accepted the plateau; now I will see if I can learn to love it.

Our piano practice needs to have the highest level of energy, alertness, awareness, and listening that we can muster. We need to make sure we are not just going through the motions because we think we are on a plateau. But see if you can take the attitude that you are on a life-long path of mastery; you may experience greater joy and satisfaction. Be grateful you are on the path, not just looking at it from the sidelines.

Here is my favorite passage from the book:
"Goals and contingencies... exist in the future and the past, beyond the pale of the sensory realm. Practice, the path of mastery, exists only in the present. You can see it, hear it, smell it, feel it. To love the plateau is to love the eternal now, to enjoy the inevitable spurts of progress and the fruits of accomplishments, then serenely to accept the new plateau that waits just beyond them. To love the plateau is to love what is most essential and enduring in your life."

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