Peter Rubie, jazz guitarist, teacher, accompanist, arranger
By Peter Rubie
A friend asked me the other day: “What’s more important to artistic success? Talent, judgment, or perseverance?”
Now, I find questions like this one of those argumentative things people say to each other when they’re out drinking and run out of anything more interesting to say to each other. But it’s a kind of “brain worm” (cousin of an “earworm”) too. Once spoken it lingers, like an unwelcome dinner guest who won’t go home.
Although my friend’s nonfiction has been published, he had decided to quit writing (both fiction and nonfiction) because, after several years of hard work and rewrites, his novel has yet to find a publisher. His fiction would never get published, he said, because he just wasn’t talented enough, regardless of how hard he worked at it.
I disagreed with him. At one point in our discussion he said that if a less talented person could catch up with someone who had a genuine gift for their art form through hard work alone, it would mean anybody could sing like Frank Sinatra or play the saxophone like Michael Brecker if they practiced hard enough. “Some people can just do things that others simply can’t,” my friend announced. (Ironically, Brecker, widely held to be the most influential tenor saxophonist of his generation, was asked in an interview not long before he died, “What does it feel like to be the king of the tenor saxophone?” To which Brecker reportedly replied, "I don’t know, you’d better ask Jerry Bergonzi.")
There’s an appealing superficial obviousness to my friend’s observation, but I don’t buy it. I work with writers and musicians every day; I see the “talent” in my teenage son and I know, for that talent to mean something, the hard work he must choose to put in daily into mastering not just the violin but jazz itself. And I see the fulfillment and pride of achievement he feels when he performs well and is recognized for it.
The observation that some people can do some things better than others is why I quit playing music 30 years ago. I did it for a number of reasons, but the truth was I was in awe and also despondent of things friends did musically, many of them great players, that I could not. My friend told me he decided to quit writing because of that story, which I had told him casually over lunch some years before. But he wasn’t paying attention to the fact that when my son started playing the violin, I started practicing once more and found I enjoyed it so much I eventually started playing in public again.
My friend’s view of talent as some magic gift assumes that being the best singer, or the best piano player is synonymous in some ways with destiny. But it’s truer to say that some people have, for example, innately better hand-eye coordination than others. But so what? It’s why we can get into (somewhat pointless) beer soaked arguments about who’s the better jazz guitarist – George Benson or Pat Martino. It’s all just so subjective. What is true, I think, is that every artist or performer has a responsibility to develop and refine a uniqueness of vision that makes them special, regardless of whether or not others appreciate that vision. But saying it is one thing, and living it another.
In his book Outliers, Malcolm Gladwell cites a study done in the 1990s by K. Anders Ericsson (Dept. of Psychology, Florida State Univ.) on music students. In true British tabloid-press fashion, Gladwell overbroadly concluded from the report that elite musicians averaged 10,000 hours of practice each, while the less able only practiced 4,000 hours. It was the hard work that did it, was the message.
But this conclusion was disputed as simplistic by Ericsson in a letter to the NY Times. Ericsson’s letter made a better, subtler point:
Our paper found that the attained level of expert music performance of students at an international level music academy showed a positive correlation with the number of solitary practice hours accumulated in their careers and the gradual improvement due to goal-directed deliberate practice.
In other words, the most accomplished students didn’t just practice for hours on end in order to get better, they used that time to focus on mastering technical skills designed to improve performance and express their creativity; they developed their skills using external rewards as motivation, such as pay, or concert performances; and they participated in any kind of practice that explored their various skills and was inherently enjoyable, like jamming/playing with other people. So, according to Ericsson, it’s not talent, nor even endurance of long hours put into mastering your craft that counts, but what you practice that is so important. It’s also true that at some point fairly early on, true craftsmen and women usually fall in love with practicing to the point where it becomes a kind of daily meditation.
If my friend was right, then in Ericsson’s study the “super talented” should have risen to the elite level with less effort than their peers. No one did. In fact, the data showed a direct correlation between hours of correct practice, and achievement. Wise journeyman study wins out, it seems.
An example of all this can be glimpsed in the sad story of the (fairly unknown) brilliant jazz guitarist Billy Bean, who in the 1950s could play the guitar pretty much the way Charlie Parker played the alto sax. Bean was consumed by the demon of alcoholism to the point that he gave up early on a career in music that would have likely matched Wes Montgomery’s or Joe Pass’s, if you follow these things. For the non-musical it’s a bit like Picasso deciding he’d rather drink than paint. So what good does talent do for you under those circumstances? That said, I know Billy Bean must have worked hard at mastering his instrument when he was young, and studied with Dennis Sandole, the teacher who also taught John Coltrane. But Billy famously told a friend in retrospect of his early recordings, none of which he liked, “Oh, I was just goofing off.” But that is belied by one interesting kitchen recording he made of a rehearsal for an upcoming record date, when halfway through improvising on a tune he makes a mistake for four bars. What we hear, preserved for all time, is the genuine belly laughter of a likely sober young man delightedly doing the thing he loved to do most and best in the world, even when it doesn’t work out quite how he wanted it to.
The best definition of talent I ever came across was by the iconic jazz drummer Art Blakey, an equally great spotter and incubator of talented young jazz musicians. He said talent is the speed with which someone learns something. This instantly resonated with me. It’s the least elitist approach to talent, and the one that most emphasizes the need to do the work, rather than just rely on a “magical” ability that one is born with. Because the truth is, we are all born with skill sets buried in our DNA. Just as “Boo” said, some people pick up on that a lot faster than others, and some find it easier than others and progress faster as a result. But it’s all about a willingness to do the work.
Implied in my friend’s question is another that sets my teeth on edge — what do we mean by “success”? Financial success and fame require of the artist an overtly commercial sensibility that may appeal to the masses e.g., Justin Bieber, or Lady Gaga, but artistically in terms of talent are they really comparable to, say, Frank Sinatra or Rene Fleming or Aretha Franklin in their prime? Does it matter? And is that commercial sensibility i.e., a talent to sometimes cynically read what others want in entertainment and give it to them, sometimes pandering to the bottom line at the expense of real creativity? Don’t get me wrong, God knows there’s nothing wrong with making lots of money as a performing artist if you can. I would if I could as long as I could live with the music.
But I believe, even now, art should not be just about money, because inevitably then it becomes shaped by a fear of offending people. It makes sense to me that art has to be intellectually and emotionally challenging, because it attempts to ask interesting questions and make us think differently about the world we live in. So it’s likely to have a small audience at first, which will hopefully grow over time. We hope, further, that audiences will enjoy our work enough to look to see if there is more by us. Once in a while something may catch unexpectedly, and a new phenom is born from base clay, but you can’t really plan for that.
I’d argue that artistic success is true admiration from one’s peers. It’s hard won and not often bestowed on the popular (though there are obvious exceptions). Charlie Parker, for example, considered one of the greatest jazz musicians of all time, was not hugely popular among audiences at the time. Louis Armstrong had to completely reinvent himself from the hip “young lion” of Weatherbird and Struttin’ With Some BarBQ, to the entertainer famous for his role in the movie High Society, and Hello Dolly. But their art has remained relevant over time, a great test of good art.
In the end, I think talent is about the determination to discover who we are, and what we want to say. It is, what it is, nothing more or less. So the real challenge is to say something unique and honest, and say it with grace and energy. After that, it’s in the lap of the gods whether or not others connect with it.
There is no separating talent from the other qualities, it’s just one piece of a complex puzzle. And at some point, becoming the “best” at whatever you do becomes replaced by a realization that talent is really about our commitment to undertake an inner journey and share some of the treasures we find.
And I’m pleased to report my friend reconsidered his decision not to write any more, and has just finished the second draft of his new novel.
by Peter Rubie
I like to play squash, and the best advice a pro ever gave me was this: “Hit the ball in the middle of the racquet.” Do you have any idea how difficult that simple piece of advice is to master?
Recently, my friend Brent Vaarstra posted a great podcast about overcoming low self esteem as a musician. This is something that has plagued me on and off most of my musical career, and I’ve been playing for almost 40 years though I did stop practicing for about 15 of them, mainly because I decided I could never be a great player. (Yes, I know, pretty stupid right? But it made sense at the time and I had bills to pay.)
When I started studying again, with Peter Bernstein, I told him my goal was to improve enough to like how I sounded on tape. He replied, almost immediately, it wasn’t my job to like or dislike my playing, that’s for the audience to decide. And certainly, I’m sure most of us can empathize with the irony of people in the audience coming up to you after a gig and praising playing that you think sucked. It’s wonderfully summed up in a quip attributed to the great guitarist Wes Montgomery. Wes had been playing quietly but steadily during the 1950s in clubs in Indianapolis, and before that had toured with Lionel Hampton’s band in the late 1940s (a band that included a young Charles Mingus on bass). After Wes became what we might now call a jazz “rock star” in the 1960s, a fan came up to him and told him he played wonderfully. Wes smiled and told the fan simply, “You should have heard me in 1948.” (Others have quoted him as saying, “You shoulda heard me 20 years ago, when I could really play.” Take your pick.)
Every time I hear myself on tape after a gig I want to cringe and cry at the same time, despite people making nice comments about my playing (What kind of tin ears do these people have, anyway?). I force myself to swallow that indigestibly familiar feeling. I give it a few days for my traumatized ego to quieten, for my dose of humility to kick in, and then I remind myself that my job as a musician is not to be fabulous or brilliant or any other egocentric thing.
My job as a musician is simple -- find ways to creatively define a song’s harmonic and melodic possibilities when I improvise, and to just play the damn tune properly. And along with mastering rhythmic possibilities, for me that’s enough. My first serious music teacher, in England where I grew up, was the bass player Peter Ind. Peter moved to New York in the early 1950s to study and play with Lennie Tristano, one of the first great players to come up with a flexible system of breaking down how to improvise geared to the individual player, about how you teach improvisation to beginners. By the time I met him, Peter was a tall, thin man in his 40s with shoulder length hair and a ZZ Top-like beard, who grappled with the bass the way Ray Brown and Oscar Pettiford did, using a high action and powerful hands. He had an intense way of talking quietly, looking you in the eye as he spoke, that was both kind and intimidating at the same time. There was little room for bullshit.
Peter told me a story of a new student of his, a professional trumpet player who wanted to “buff up” his jazz playing. After several weeks of lessons the trumpet player quit, telling Peter that far from making him a better player, Peter had made him play worse! Peter’s point to me, and I knew it to be true because he was (and still is) one of the best teachers I’ve ever had, was that far from making the guy play worse, he had managed in a few short weeks to open up his ears, and the guy, perhaps for the first time, was able to hear what he actually played like. It was a shock to the system. The next step, the one the guy was not able to take, was to shuck the ego and listen to his playing as if he was teaching another musician not himself. So whenever I get into my “Oh my God, how can I sound like that,” mode, I essentially wait it out and then go back to that (current ) infamous recording thinking, “OK let’s start defining what it is that really horrifies me so. Because THAT is what I need to work on next.”
Another great influence on me is the remarkable west coast player Larry Koonse. I remember starting a session with him by sharing that I’d been struggling with some musical demons (of which this was one), and he immediately told me he’d been struggling with musical demons of his own that summer. I was quietly dumb-struck. How is that possible? I thought. How can you be arguably one of the great guitarists in the world, and still have musical expression problems you need to wrestle with? And of course, his demons are certainly not mine, nor are they yours either. But a dedication to honestly exploring musicality can open us up to this pathway if we’re not careful.
That led us to a discussion about perfectionism, and how debilitating it can be, and how it hit him so hard after he graduated music school (Larry was the first recipient of a Bachelor of Music in Jazz Studies at the University of Southern California), that he stopped playing for months before finally starting up again, a little bit each day at first.
Chick Corea has an interesting snippet of advice you can find on Youtube (https://www.youtube.com/watch?v=ED7liSX7zvY).
He breaks things down this way:
Step 1. Find a player whose playing you connect to and love, and play along with it as best you can. Try and mimic it. Get the flow and the rhythm.
Step 2. Turn the recording off and see if you can retain the groove and flow.
Step 3. Record yourself playing something. (The great English jazz guitarist Dave Cliff, another friend and formative influence on me, once told me he recorded all his practice sessions at one point in his life. It’s a tough school to attend though, be warned.) Chick says, after you’ve listened to the recording, you may decide “that’s too much this way, and not enough of that. So, now practice more of THAT towards your idea of what it should be.” Because only you will know when you’ve reached the point where you think, yeah, that’s working now. Who else is going to tell you? You’re not looking for admiration. You’re looking for what you’ve learned to recognize is right for you. Learn to trust your own judgment about your playing.
Step 4: Finally, there’s what Chick calls the Apprentice System. Find a Master to work with, someone who has an ability you’d like have, and go play with them, work with them, collaborate with them, make music with them. This is how we learn a trade, and a skill. We work with people with the idea that you want to learn something and they can help you figure it out.
At its best, music is something outside of us, an energy stream that we strive to somehow plug into using our ears and our fingers, like launching out on a plank without a life jacket into a fast moving river. It’s something that we manage, through the meditation of practice, to connect with when we are on the stand or in a session with others. We become conduits for something “other” that passes through us, and is shaped as it enters the world by who we are at that moment. Our job is to simply get out of the way and let it flow through.
Hit the ball in the middle of the racquet. Not so easy, is it?
Peter Rubie is a musician and published writer and editor, and has been on the jazz scene in Europe and the U.S., since the mid-1970s. He has studied and played with Warne Marsh, George Coleman, Peter Ind, Peter Bernstein, and Larry Koonse. Peter lives in New York City with his wife and son, a violinist, where he plays, teaches, and also works in publishing.
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