It’s a Nail … Right?

By | October 14, 2016

“It’s a nail … right?” If it isn’t, not only will that hammer you’re wielding not work, it’s likely to do serious damage. Which gets me to this: Mastery is both an asset and a liability. I get the importance of acquiring the skills and knowledge needed to perform in our chosen domains. When we put ourselves in the hands of others in order to get things fixed, we expect them to ace both diagnoses and solutions. We want specialists of whatever stripe to be knowledgeable and competent. What will surely put us off, however, as we describe what needs fixing, is to see them fondling their hammers. If they sound condescending–as hammer wielders often do–they haven’t been listening. That’s a big “tell.” Take your business somewhere else.

Paul Haidet is Director, Medical Education Research at Pennsylvania State University College of Medicine and a jazz historian. In an interview with the music critic, Nat Hentoff, he quotes his colleague Stephen Nachmanovitch, a violinist and educator, on the vital importance of improvisation in doctor-patient settings.

In real medicine you view the person as unique—in a sense you drop your training. You are immersed in the case itself, letting your view of it develop in context. You certainly use your training; you refer to it, understand it, ground yourself in it, but you don’t allow your training to blind you to the actual person who is sitting in front of you. In this way, you pass beyond competence to presence. To do anything artistically, you have to acquire technique, but you create through your technique and not with it.

Here Nachmanovitch, in acknowledging the importance of medical training, nicely makes the point that mastery, albeit necessary, is not sufficient to create the conditions for a good-doctor-patient relationship. Necessary but not sufficient is the operative notion here.

I’ve just been reading Hilary Austen’s, Artistry Unleashed: A Guide to Pursuing Great Performance in Work and Life. In it she speaks of the dynamic disequilibrium that is created between the conservative forces of mastery and the disruptive forces of originality and makes a case that artistry emerges from the interplay between these two forces. And then she makes another distinction which, at first blush, looks like the logical fallacy of a distinction without a difference. She distinguishes between recognition and perception. Rather than dismissing it out of hand, I made myself a cup of coffee and pondered.

My pondering led me to the bandstand. When I do Getting in the Groove gigs for clients, I’ve made it a point of hiring musicians who are better than I am. Not a problem as their numbers are myriad. (Keep in mind that every jazz performance is a shared act of re-imagining; an improvised musical conversation involving what Mark Kingwell, the author of A Civil Tongue, describes as “free-ranging, energized, restless and inventive confabs”) Inevitably I find myself, as the improvised performance unfolds, faced with choices. For some of the time I’m within my comfort zone—I know what needs to be done and I know how to do it. There are, however, the moments when the music goes in a direction that defies expectation and I find myself out of my comfort zone, perched precariously at the edge of my competence. I can either go with what is becoming the disruptive flow of originality and risk screwing up or resort to some mastered cliché–the musical equivalent of the hammer. This is the moment where mastery reaches its limits and we may be tempted to turn in on ourselves. Saxophonist Lee Konitz speaks candidly of this moment. “When I can’t hear anyone else, that’s a danger sign … when my attention is on myself, I know I’m in trouble.”

Back to the difference between recognition and perception.

Training–the development of competence; the acquisition of skills and knowledge–has mastery as its objective. This is the domain of “if-this-then-that;” of recognizing the nature of familiar problems and applying standardized remedies. This is what a nail looks like and here’s how to use the hammer. It’s the basis for all specialized disciplines. It’s what the doctors Nachmanovitch speaks of bring to their relationships with their patients. In the same way, what I bring to the bandstand is what I know. The other thing I know is that what I know will almost certainly will be less than I need.

Uncertainty, however, is always with us and we rarely operate exclusively in the domain of the recognizable; the realm of the “known knowns.” Here is where the disruptive forces of originality compete with the conservative forces of mastery. Mastery, as Nachmanovitch suggests, can “blind you to the actual person who is sitting in front of you” and keeps you from passing “beyond competence to presence.” Perception is needed when moving to presence.

We’re at the cusp between a state of mastery/recognition and one of perception/originality. Showtime! Here we check our hammers at the door and move into the disruptive presence of “not nails.” What’s it like there? I’ll segue with a little story.

I know someone who cooks ambitiously and takes on daunting recipes which are followed meticulously right down to the carefully measured ½ teaspoon of sage. The result, however, while regularly surprising, is rarely delightful. “But I followed the recipe exactly.” Of that I never have any doubt. Hilary Austen talks about time she spent with a master chef who knew the limits of slavish adherence to recipes. One must, he says, pay attention to and learn from “what’s going on in the pan.” This is where you bring your in-the-moment perception of what’s going on to bear: tasting and adjusting seasonings, checking for “doneness” and raising or lowering temperatures. For me, being able to perceive “what’s going on in the pan” in real time is a wonderful way of thinking about presence.

A number of years ago, a colleague and I were involved in a project that involved the performance appraisal of teachers. A fraught endeavour as you can likely imagine! In an interview with one teacher she was asked to talk about what she did in the classroom. “I teach to a plan.” OK. Next? “When I deliver it, I take off my glasses.” Why? “So that the kids’ faces will go out of focus.” Why? “Because I don’t want to know if they’re getting it or not.” Why? “Because if they aren’t, I won’t know what to do.” Follow the recipe; stay out of the pan!

Let’s face it, there have been times when every one of us has chosen not to pay attention to what’s going on in the pan.

So what’s “presence” like? What goes on in the pan? Henry Mintzberg, reflecting on the nature of crafting strategy, says that “what springs to mind is not so much thinking and reasoning as involvement, a feeling of intimacy and harmony with the materials at hand developed through long experience and commitment.” Austen echoes Mintzberg when she says it’s about “feel”–what artists experience when they’re engaged. It’s what happens on the bandstand when you get into what jazz musicians call the “groove”– the dynamic place where experiential learning occurs. It’s where we might have to reconsider the usefulness of the mastered things we carry around with us. We might even have to change our minds. It’s both exhilarating and scary.

On the first Sunday of every month, I do a jazz vespers at St. Jude’s Anglian Church in Oakville. (It’s at 4:00 PM. If you’re ever in the neighbourhood, we’d love to see you.) I choose the repertoire and the instrumentation for these events. Repertoire and instrumentation are the ingredients of the jazz vespers recipe. And then I hire some of the finest jazz musicians in the Toronto area–who may or may not have played together before–to do the gig. All they ever want to know is what time they’re to show up. Rarely will they ask about the repertoire. And they know better than to ask if there’ll be a rehearsal. In any event, of what would a rehearsal for an improvised performance consist? So the jazzers arrive, go straight into the pan and engage in a “free-ranging, energized, restless and inventive confab.” In doing so, they bring to the bandstand the conservative force of mastery: technical facility with their instruments, a solid grounding in musical theory and an understanding of the jazz tradition. But as necessary as mastery is, without the disruptive force of originality, it is not sufficient for the performance. It is from the dynamic disequilibrium created by the interplay of these two forces that artistry is unleashed. As I’ve said before, jazz musicians are the true progressive conservatives.



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