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Effortless Mastery by Kenny Werner – Book Review

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Kenny Werner is a jazz musician with, according to a review of his brilliant album ‘Institute of Higher Learning’, “seemingly limitless gifts as a pianist, bandleader and composer”. As well as being extraordinarily prolific as a musician, he is highly regarded as an educator, and this book is his best-known work in that field.

Like his adventurous music, ‘Effortless Mastery’ takes a very different approach to musical development. You will find no scales, drills or theory in this book. Werner is very critical of approaches which emphasize technical perfection at the expense of intuition and inspiration. He places great emphasis on self-belief and surrender to our inner selves, to the extent that he feels that traditional practices can actually block the pathway to self-expression. He feels that the experience of practicing mindlessly for hours can lead us down another path, to a belief that we simply don’t have the required gift.

So if technical exercises are not what you need to develop as a musician, what does Werner have you do? Among other things, he guides you, with the support of a CD or downloads, through a series of meditations designed to help you affirm that you are really a musical master. And if nothing else, on the recordings, Werner’s quiet intonations and the soft backing music (which does a very good job of being unobtrusive and subtle without being too irritatingly New-Age) are relaxing, and a great way to get into a positive mindset before a practice session. As a meditator myself, I observed familiar suggestions in the spoken guidance, although Werner has kept musicians in mind with his directions. However, he goes a step further into affirmations, asking us to tell ourselves that we are ‘masters’. This is for those with an open mind and who don’t already have an inflexible attitude to the part ‘spirituality’ plays in music-making, but you can take it on board to the level that you’re comfortable to. For my part, I have always tried to make practice a form of meditation, and I’ve been beginning each session with a version of the first of his meditation exercises at the instrument, and I’ve found it to be really beneficial in creating a focused mental space and feeling of well-being. I also use it whenever I feel distracted or frustrated during my practice.

A lot of this book is about Werner himself. He’s refreshingly honest about his own journey, which begins with an attitude problem, although conveniently he found he could play piano very easily without putting in much work. But a series of tough learning experiences got him thinking differently, leading to a whole new view of himself and his relationship to music.

Most educational books about music make some assumptions about the reader and what they are looking for. This one seems to have as its audience people with some musical experience who want to be able to play jazz – although it tries to help people be more expressed in their playing of classical and other written music, that seems a bit token to me. Having said that, this book could well help a classical musician to be more in touch with a sense of self-expression rather than focusing on getting the notes right. Anyway, you’ll need to keep in mind that he is assuming you are not a complete beginner, although there’s no doubt that the exercises in the book can be done without you needing to already be a very experienced player – in fact, I would assume that for many people, the more experience you have, the more entrenched will be the attitudes you will need to overcome. Right there is a good reason for learning improvisation and natural expression from the very beginning.

If Werner’s approach of training the Self rather than the fingers and focusing on love rather than theory really works, it really offers benefits even beyond developing yourself as a musician. If you’re looking for ways to conquer some challenging passage of a piece you’re currently working on, this book probably isn’t for you, but if you feel your fundamental relationship to playing needs a breakthrough, try it on and let it take you where you feel you’re ready to go.

Buy the hard copy book

Also available as an e-Book