Welcome back to the Creative Life Adventure.
In a previous post I mentioned the book Conversations with Charlie Haden, a series of interviews with the great musician conducted by Josef Woodard. Haden had a long working relationship with another legendary musician, Pat Metheny, and Metheny participates in one of the interviews in the book. In the interview Metheny talks about his early years and trying to recreate the sound of one of his idols, Wes Montgomery:
“For me, when I first started playing, I was so into Wes Montgomery it was weird, actually. I played with my thumb, I played in octaves, I did everything I could do to sound like Wes Montgomery. When I showed up around Kansas City and started to do that, instead of people coming up to me and saying, “Hey, that’s great. You sound like Wes Montgomery,” I got comments like, “Hey, Wes Montgomery already did that.
“And that was so good for me. Now, if you sound like so-and-so, it seems to be cool. It’s almost acceptable. But it’s not. When I hear somebody now who sounds like Wes Montgomery, I don’t dig it. I actually think it’s disrespectful. When it’s a blatant imitation of somebody, it really bothers me.”
So even though Metheny had mastered the technical skill necessary to be a “great” musician, he was channeling someone else instead of expressing his own vision. Part of what makes something art is the personality of the creator. If we all mastered the exact same techniques with no variation, every song would sound the same and every painting would look similar.
The writer William Zinsser summarized this nicely in his book On Writing Well. He writes:
“I’m talking about two different problems. One is craft, the other is attitude. The first is a question of mastering a precise skill; the second is a question of how you use that skill to express your personality.”
It’s a balancing act. If your work is weighted down by too much craft, your personality will never shine through. Narcissistic self-indulgence, on the other hand, makes craft irrelevant.
When Pat Metheny was riffing on Wes Montgomery, his attitude was overshadowed by expression of technical craft. Zinsser describes craft as “a mechanical act,” and says that one should “work hard to master the tools.” This involves tasks like practicing scales, learning brush techniques with different paint mediums, or studying the ISO/shutter speed/aperture relationship. It may involve formal education, examining the works of others, or working with a mentor. Think of it as “practice makes perfect.”
Attitude, according to Zinsser, is “a creative act.” He suggests, “Relax and say what you want to say.” He reminds us that this takes time. We may have to try many different approaches – while we’re mastering the craft – and spend a lot of time on self-analysis to achieve this. You may reveal your unique vision to a select few, or anonymously online, before you share it with the world. Instead of “practice makes perfect,” think of “experimentation makes perfect.”
Which comes first? The simple answer is both. The more you master your craft, the more comfortable you will feel trying new things and expressing yourself. The more you understand your inner rebel, the more focused you can be in pursuing your craft. Both require persistence.
This excerpt from the Pat Metheny interview sums it up nicely. He’s talking about music but the lesson applies to all creative work:
“And that pushing against things is something that I have always been attracted to about jazz. People talk about rock ‘n’ roll as being the music of rebellion. To me, jazz is the music of rebellion. It’s really the music about individuality and coming up with your own point of view and your own way of looking at things.
“So, much as I’m encouraged by the fact that there are lots of younger musicians who have the capacity to understand and deal with the music that has historically preceded us by the last 40 or 50 years, sometimes I wish there were a few more rabble-rousers in that group. To me, when people talk about the tradition, that’s as much part of the tradition as anything.
“What I see in jazz a lot of times is a kind of recycling of things – like what’s happening in rock, and is literally happening in rap music via sampling.
“That disturbs me sometimes. I wish it was more of a priority, and that there was more of a reward for those individuals who could combine everything into their own way of seeing things.”