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Kenny Werner
Kenny Werner is a musician, composer, and author that inspires millions with his revolutionary ways of thinking music and performance.  He is the author of best seller Effortless Mastery, a book in which he explains how to let go of the ego in order to conquer writers blocks and fear of performance.  Kenny Werner travels around the world to teach his philosophy to that topic and also most recently with his workshop No Beginning No End in which he explores tragedy and loss, death and transition, and the path from one lifetime to the next.  Visit KennyWerner.com for more info on this work and album releases.  
Interview by: Valerie Bastien

Valerie: Can you tell us a little bit about yourself since some of our readers might not be familiar with your work?

 Kenny: I have been doing concerts for many years with my own group and I also performed with Ari Hoenig, Joe Levano and some other jazz musicians.  Also, some people familiar with Broadway might know this arranger and pianist for many years I’ve worked with: Betty Buckley.   I compose, I play, I teach and I do a lot of lectures about my book “Effortless Mastery”. 

 Valerie: I absolutely loved reading your book “Effortless Mastery” in which you talk about being able to let go of the ego in order to unite with the Divine and give the best of yourself.  I remember when I read the book, within the first few pages you mentioned something about being just a drop of water in the ocean which I instantly recognized as a Sufism principle…

 Kenny: When I wrote the book, I started out with my own ideas but when I started to go back and read other philosophies I realized that these philosophies were as old as humanity itself.  I just applied them to something it hadn’t been applied too yet.  Which is performance improvising… and now any other arts.  The spiritual side is entirely optional because it depends what your belief system is.  There is one thing we all have in common with though; if you can’t surrender your need to sound good, you’re not going to be able to go with the flow and get that creative flow.  That can be a problem. 

 Valerie: Did you come up with those philosophies based on your experience then or did you actually research them?

 Kenny: No, I wasn’t much of a researcher!  I actually researched it after the fact!  I wanted to have a little bit of scholarly background.  It was great to do that just to see how firm and universal these are.  I was teaching for over ten years before I wrote the book and I was just teaching those steps without thinking anything of it!  I thought everybody knew this stuff.  When I was teaching, I could actually see the anxiety.  I could see the blocks.  I could see what was in their heart; I would comment on it and then people would be just like: “What?!  How did you know that?”  And then I would just come out to them and meet the need of that moment.  So by the mid-90’s somewhere I was doing lectures and workshops and a lot of what I was saying is the same thing because in real time, you test the most effective things.  When you see how they communicate you keep going that way.  It was just cool advice that I thought… and plus people would follow me around with tape recorders so I started thinking: “This stuff must be hot!”  I should write a book before somebody else does.

 Valerie: In your book you talk about how fear paralyses.  Fear-based learning and fear-based teaching.  Can you tell us about that?

 Kenny: Fear-based learning is not practising with good focus and being in a whole because of this fear that you’ll never become good.  It drives you into a diluted state where you’re to yourself being toxic…  Skimming all these things, hoping something works for you.  That will be one of the main reasons why you won’t achieve your goal…  Fear of practicing is practicing things in bulk and just skimming the surface because you’re afraid that you will die before you achieve your thing.  Fear-base playing is playing and being afraid of how well you’re gonna play by questioning.  There is absolutely no room for questioning during a performance.  All the questioning should be done during practising.  Fear-based teaching has to do with teachers that suppress something in others.  Some people are not secured in their musicianship and hide behind the teacher.  In that way not only the teacher doesn’t enjoy but the students are not well-served. 

 Valerie: In our society, we have a tendency to focus on our weaknesses rather than celebrate our strengths and diversity.  Why do we do that?

 Kenny: I don’t think I’m qualified to say why we do that but we do, do that! I think it’s a battle of the mind.  If you can surrender the attachments when the mind is talking to you, it’s not going to quiet down necessarily but the question is whether you allow it to answer.  Do you realize that it’s just trying to compliment the day or do you take everything it says and try to do something about it, which is like purgatory!  Listening to your mind becomes like a parasite.  When you’re working from your mind, problems arise and the mind seems to like to chew on it.  When you work from the space, problems dissolves because they don’t really look like problems.  But our society is more mentally based.  If we were all operating from that space without solace then every religion wouldn’t fight for a name for that space.  If we were operating like that it would be heaven on earth.  Generally, certain aspects of western religions promote that we are damaged goods but somehow if we’re sorry enough we can be forgiven.  I like the eastern concept: “You’re perfect; your only sin is you don’t know it!”  I wrote that!  That’s what I started working towards.  That is the truth.  That is the sun and those limited thoughts we sought, that are the clouds.  The analogy is good because cloud formation changes every day.  And sometimes it seems like it disappears, but the sun is always there.  We can be as away of the sun of our own being rather than so bewitched by the cloud formation.  That would be detaching from the mind, detaching from the delusion. 

Valerie: Can you tell us about some strategies to find that space and detach ourselves from our playing or our writing? 

Kenny: Basically, people can try not necessarily only to relax your mind…  Meditation is like that, Tai chi is like that, yoga is like that, mountain climbing is like that….  People do these things because the mind gives up and that’s the high; the runner’s high.  It stops thinking and all they hear is in-the-air-anorexia.  My strategy is an ancient strategy in your life that you practice on your instrument.  As you start to attain that space, all you have to do to be free with your instrument is literally go in the space and touch your instrument.  Keep learning not to loose the space as you touch the instrument.  I’ve met people that were so spiritually aware and committed but when they get to their instrument, they loose everything…    They forget it all.   We are such a web of delusion that somehow with music people think that no matter what they believe in it all goes away, and they’re just not worthy.  Than they try to play some music and they forget who they are.  They forget the things that they have been practicing all their life because they were spiritually motivated.  What I say in the book is that it doesn’t matter how you get in the space.  There’s a cd in the book that can help you get there but that’s for people that haven’t even thought about how to get there.  Many people have their own way now with meditation, prayer, yoga; they don’t need anything from me!  They just need to know that however you attain that space, welcome your instrument and play your notes.  If that takes you out of that space, take your hands off the instrument.  Really train your mind to stay in that beautiful space and not loose it because it’s time to play your instrument.  You would think that’s what you would go into by playing your instrument but again we complicate things so instead of the instrument being the liberation, an escape, it becomes just another way where we can beat ourselves up.  So the way to do it is literally to find the space with whichever discipline you like, go with the instrument, play a note or two, this is what I call the first step in the book, and if you already feel yourself contracting, take your hands off the instrument until you remain well expanded.  Then you begin to play your notes.  Then with the second step is that of course you can expand what you can do.  In the first step, you can actually practice such difficult things with such efficiencies that you still never leave the space.  Everything attained from the space is the only thing worth practicing.  If you can practice something and you play it with no mistakes it means it plays itself.  Some people would say that’s impossible, some people would say that’s my aspiration.  I would say there is no other option because music doesn’t really resonate until you achieve that.  That is why so many people are dry when they play because they’ve never really experienced that kind of ownership of anything on the instrument.  It’s always on the outside looking in. Aspiring to achieve that realization in a one or single two-bar phrase and know that you can own it that way.  That’s what you have to do instead of skimming all your life.  There is another play going on here: we are all dealing with our career, our families, money; it really is inappropriate in our playing.  That is how much our mind has control over us.  It is how much we are able to free ourselves from its limited vision.  That is really the core.  A lot of people are unaware of that.  They need to make a commitment to that play or else the exercise will just seem minimal and nothing else.  The whole point is staying in a really expanded space and letting the hands play whatever instrument you get ownership over.  If you don’t know what the space is, or you just think it is dropping your fingers on the instrument then you won’t get any of the magic of it.  The most important thing is to find the space.  Whenever anyone is in the space, it’s the greatest moment of their lives.  They will remember what they want but they can’t access it when they want.  It’s the concept of practicing it, so you can depend on it.  It’s so relevant to musicians.  Musicians that play from that space play profound music.  People don’t realize; they think that some of us have it and some of us don’t.  They don’t realize that there is a way to get it: to tap into that space and touch your instrument.  You can become more of a delightful presence than you presently are. There is a whole new age movement that is predicated on that.  With certain exercises, books, this information, whatever, you can take your life to whole new level of enrichment.  Why haven’t musicians figured that out?  Well, we have and I think this book helps that.  As you do this work on yourself, the feeling of a note vibrating inside you is something that increases that awareness.  It doesn’t have to be done in relation to music.  You can do it on something else and bring that to music. 

Valerie: If you want to compose music from that space, do you record yourself to remember what you want to keep?

 Kenny:  It depends how you compose.  I compose with a computer but if you use a piece of paper, the most anxious moment is having a blank piece of paper.  So just start writing.  For two reasons: one to get the flow happening.  Two, even if it’s ordinary or mediocre you get the hang of it.   Where detachment comes in is that you won’t be able to do that if you’re attached and every little note you write has the drama of defining you.  None of it should define you.  Through editing, you can take it wherever you want.  That is the composition process I teach at NYU.  With or without that, the need is to write without demanding that it’d be good music.  See, you need that for your ego.  Why would we care if we didn’t define ourselves by how good our compositions were?  That is unhealthy because it doesn’t allow you to let go.  Bo back to the flow of writing notes, sometimes you will be really surprised at how it starts to organize itself.  As soon as you try to get a hold of it, try to make it something, drop the pencil and walk away!  Same thing!  You can teach yourself, you can teach IT to write through you.

 Valerie: What if you think that what you’re writing is good?  You’re not supposed to flatter you ego, right?

 Kenny: It’s ok!  It’s not about flattering your ego.  If you like it, you should feel good about it! 

 Valerie: O.k.! (Laughs!)

 Kenny: It’s the ego that takes you out of it being good!  It makes it predictable or stale because now you’re just trying to do the appropriate thing!  That’s the ego talking.  When you wrote something and you think it was good, that’s the spirit talk.  Keep going and if you can’t, than that writing session is over for the day.  Again, if you make your highest priority writing from that space, it will tell you for how long you can do it.  The object is not to write the piece of music; the object is to find the space and know how to go from there.  You might say: “Yeah, I believe in that!”, but “I’ll start today!” is an antithesis…   “Yeah, I’ll let go and let the space write the piece of music and it’ll be a great composition!”; as long as you’re doing it for the right reasons!  I mean, it’s ok for a start but it’s not a mature approach to one’s spirituality.  Spirituality is sitting in a state of gratitude no matter what is coming out.  Usually that leaves a beautiful flow of music.  It’s sort of a catch-22; you will write better if you truly let go but letting go so you can write better probably won’t work!   



Valerie Bastien is a vocal coach, teacher, musician and freelance journalist.
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