Book Review: “Effortless Mastery” by Kenny Werner

Creating a new theory is not like destroying an old barn and erecting a skyscraper in its place. It is rather like climbing a mountain, gaining new and wider views, discovering unexpected connections between our starting points and its rich environment. But the point from which we started out still exists and can be seen, although it appears smaller and forms a tiny part of our broad view gained by the mastery of the obstacles on our adventurous way up. — Albert Einstein




Effortless Mastery: Liberating the Master Musician Within
by Kenny Werner

I have to make the disclaimer that reading this book resulted in a sea change that deeply affected my philosophy and approach to teaching, learning, playing, and listening to music. It came along at just the right time to make a big impact on me and because of this, I had to revisit it as I think about The Practice of Practice. In my re-reading of Werner’s book I see again a wisdom and a reverence for Music that still shines through. I still recommend the book highly.

Especially useful in this book are Werner’s thoughts on how fear can (and usually does at some point) affect one’s playing, and even the way one listens to music. Fear of any sort doesn’t result in good playing and it may well force you into quitting altogether. This is bad. If you can get a handle on fear early in your pursuit (or at any phase of your journey), you’re better off than most.

Werner’s chapters on fear start around page 51, so if  can’t get into the earlier material, skip ahead to these gems which are more than worth the price of the book. The chapter titles are: 5–Fear, the Mind, and the Ego, 6–Fear-Based Practicing, 7–Fear-Based Teaching, 8–Fear-Based Listening, and 9–Fear-Based Composing. After writing eloquently and persuasively about how fear can hamstring our playing, Werner then offers a solution to help deal with the fear, which may well never go away. He offers up some meditations and ways of thinking that can help you get over those fears, and  I can tell you it’s worked well for me, though I’ve altered his philosophy slightly to fit my own beliefs more closely.

The book’s focus is on jazz improvisation, but this is just a way to focus the conversation. The wisdom within these 191 pages can be used by any musician of any level. The notion that “there are no wrong notes” is something anybody and everybody should attempt to adopt in their exploration of sound. Despite the sometimes preachy nature of the book, it is one of my more highly recommended books for those who want to play music. It’s helpful stuff. Hope you like it.  Hope it’s helpful.

Have fun. Good luck with your practice.


9 Comments Add yours

  1. I heartily support the critique of “fear-based teaching” of anything. So, I’m glad to hear this in the book.

    Recently I took up to study the use of the “fear-based” concept itself and encourage you all to check it out (free pdf paper @ scroll down for document) entitled: “The Problem of Defining the Concept of ‘Fear-based’”.

    I invite dialogue on this topic so we can be more clear what we are talking about and refine the effectiveness of using it as a construct. The Abstract of the paper is below:

    Abstract: Over the past 25 years of systematic research on fear and fearlessness, the author has found an ever-increasing use of the term “fear-based” by many and diverse authors, teachers, professionals and citizens-at-large. Particularly in the last decade the term, much like “culture of fear,” has become popular across disciplines and is reflective of an inter-est, by diverse peoples, in human motivation at its deepest core “emotional” level. Most every writer-critic, in a binary (polarized) way of thinking, believes (or argues) that “fear-based” is negative and destructive, if not the source of all conflict, evil, and pathology—it appears a universal knowledge and “truth” that this is so. Love-based is usually held up as the opposite (i.e., binary stance). Although the author (a fearologist) has also taken that binary positioning for many years, upon recent philosophical reflection and some research, finds this less than a satisfactory position—especially, without nuancing its validity more systematically and without having the critical dialogues required to ferret out what we are talking about. He concludes, typically, this increase of usage of the “fear-based” label, important as it is, has not been very enlightening but rather repetitive, moralistically judgmental and cliché—due to virtually no conceptual defining, theoretical critiques, specific measurable assessments, or critical thinking of what to do with the term “fear-based” when it is opposed (for example) to “love-based” in real life situations, with real actors and organizations coming from either fear-based or love-based paradigms. The many (and increasing) critics of anything “fear-based” always implicitly or explicitly identify as not fear-based (i.e., more or less, love-based) and morally superior. Without more critical analysis of the concept and its uses, the author feels the labeling starts to become embedded in ideology, secular and religious, turning at worst into extreme violent ideologism—an oppressive way to think. This introductory paper, a philosophical reflection based on fearlessness (and a critical integral approach), offers an initial discussion of these problems of using the label “fear-based” and offers some recommendations of how to improve our methodologies, claims of truth, and teaching (i.e., education about, for example, fear and love as root motivational constructs).

    R. Michael Fisher, Ph.D.
    Fearologist & Educator

    1. Thanks for the reply, Michael. I agree that “fear” and “frear-based” is a catch-all term that could use more nuance. In the book Werner describes the basis of his fear pretty clearly, and it’s a fear to which many of us who play music can relate. I was also enlightened with a more nuanced explanation of how certain fears arise through the research of Harvard psychologist Carol Dweck on how our theories of intelligence shape our approach to learning. She’s got a great book on the subject called Mindset. I look forward to reading your paper.

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