Berklee Today

Alum profile - Discovering Music in the Space

"I didn't set out to become a music psychologist," says jazz pianist Kenny Werner '73, speaking of the sideline that has opened up to him since his book Effortless Mastery became required reading for serious jazz musicians. "The gift to explain this stuff has been as precious as my ability to play. The first time someone asked me, it just rolled off my tongue."

Werner, a celebrated pianist/composer, has released over 15 albums as a leader and has recorded with Charles Mingus, Thad Jones, Mel Lewis, John Scofield, Eddie Gomez, Joe Lovano, Peter Erskine, Tom Harrell, and scores of others. Lately, the things he says about playing music have been garnering as much acclaim as the notes he plays. Werner's book and his lectures at college campuses, IAJE conferences, and elsewhere are credited with raising the consciousness of musicians and others.

Drawing on ancient Eastern philosophies and meditational practices, Werner has plotted a course to help musicians rid themselves of the syndromes that rob them of musical enjoyment and prevent them from realizing their potential. Over the years, he has observed these problems that stem from musicians connecting their identity and feelings of self-worth to their playing ability.

"Once people call themselves musicians," he says, "they start evaluating themselves based on how well they play. There are many who cannot give themselves one satisfying day enjoying their lives because they are obsessed with the fact that they are not playing the way they want to yet. It is both amazing and sad to note the life experiences that we as musicians will deny ourselves--marriage, children, going to Hawaii--because we feel we don't have it together. Musicians can't let themselves have anything else. People who think like that may have a peak experience now and then, but they never dwell in the land of inspiration."

The key to reaching that land, Werner asserts, is training your mind to embrace the aspects of your basic makeup that are not conditional. "If you are already aware of the nonnegotiable value that you possess as a human being," he says, "then you don't seek that definition in the level of your playing. Life is not auspicious because you got a great gig and it is not a drag because you lost that gig. Life is unyieldingly brilliant, but many of us fall short of being able to see it. My book just mirrors ancient and established practices that lead you to perceiving the brilliance that is already there--without and within."

Werner states that some of these ideas have been in the air for years and cites that his first encounter with them came from studies with famed pianist Madam Chaloff in the early 1970s. "That was my first exposure to the concept of wedding spirituality and consciousness with the act of playing music," he says. "After studying with her and with concert pianist Jauo Assis Brasil, I have tried to practice going for effortless concentration in playing the instrument. Effortless doesn't mean that you are making no effort; it means that you have gotten into an alignment spiritually, neurologically, or psychologically, and things feel natural. You are actually performing, your hands are moving, you are watching them, but it doesn't feel like you are doing it. You feel like you are being guided."

In his book, Werner prescribes steps to cast aside the ego and enter "the space" inside where music can be deep and affecting and flow without struggle. "Effortless Mastery is the bridge and helps to you to link that consciousness with those ideals while you are playing. That is what is unique about it. In my clinics, I try to help people see that if music comes from a deep place inside, it is worth playing. We have so much music that is very well played but doesn't matter to people because it doesn't touch deeper things.

"Most musicians obsess about things that are unimportant. They worry about what's happening, what's not happening, what is swinging, what is jazz, and how do I sound. These things are not important in a universal sense. No one will be fed, no countries will be saved from tyranny, if you can swing. However, when a person has that higher regard for life and expresses it through music, then music becomes important. That is why so many of us report that we played the way we always wanted to on the day someone we loved died or a girlfriend left us. Then you put your hands on the instrument, and for once, you really felt something happening. My point is that we don't want to be held hostage to external experiences for the music to have some meaning. Where is the meaning? It has been in there 24 hours a day, seven days a week, for all the years of our lives."

Werner is finding that his message is touching nonmusicians too. Recently at Banff Center for the Arts in Alberta, Canada, his lectures were attended by artists from many disciplines--classical musicians, graphic artists, and filmmakers. He also reports that he has heard from golfers wanting to apply his techniques. Werner is excited that others are reading the book, and as interest is growing, he feels the need to carefully train others to properly teach his methods.

"I would like to get this stuff into other people's hands," he says. "That would relieve me of the responsibility of being the only one teaching this material." Simultaneously, his playing career is also expanding nicely. "I have a new album titled Music from the Space coming out on RCA in January," he says. "This record is closer to the philosophy and is a bit more risky--it doesn't all sound like jazz. If I can pass my message on, maybe I can do what we all fantasize about and just go out there and play year 'round."