Master Your Instrument

Jan 15, 2020–In order to conquer a challenge, we must stop respecting it so much.

In Mike Tyson’s book Undisputed Truth, he tells how famed boxing trainer Cus D’Amato took him on has a teenager and guided him to become heavyweight champion of the world.

When D’Amato first trained Tyson, he would not even let him box. Instead, he talked to rebellious youngster, about feelings and emotions and the psychology of boxing. The first topic was fear and how to over come it.

“Fear,” said D’Amato, “is the greatest obstacle to learning. If you don’t learn to control it, it’ll destroy you. So one must never allow fear to develop and build up without having control over it, because if you don’t you won’t be able to achieve your objective.”

I now recognize this dynamic is at work when we face any new challenge, say, for example, learning to play an instrument. When I picked up the violin while in my late 40s, I didn’t really fear it. It’s not like it was going to rear back and punch me when I tucked it under my chin. A better word is “respect.” I respected the instrument too much. After all, a violin is a work of art, a delicate instrument, dripping with tradition and history. There are so many myths about its construction, the wood, the dimensions. Holding it is like dancing with the Mona Lisa.

As a result, I was afraid of trying to get music out of it. It felt like desecration. This manifested in my early feeble attempts to play it. I hesitated to bear down on the bow or fret firmly with my fingers. I approached it with trepidation. The result? What you would expect. A thin, scratchy sound, wavering in pitch and tone. Literally scratching the surface of its potential.

Part of my problem was that I didn’t grow up with any connection to classical string music. I knew no one who played, our school had no string program, and I didn’t hear an orchestra live until I was in graduate school. Then one day I watched Itzak Perlman playing on Mr. Rogers. I was stunned at his technique. He literally attacked the violin in one passage–and it was a 300 -year-old Stradivarius!

That inspired me. I’m still lousy, but I’m not afraid to play it anymore.

Thinking back, I now recognize variations of the same message and “aggressive” approach to performing in many examples.

Mrs. Gardner, our first piano teacher, once said it was easier to teach a loud player to learn to play soft, than it was to teach a tentative player to play loud. That’s why she liked teaching my brother: he was not afraid to pound the piano. And he went on to a career in touring bands.

My high school band director Mr. Gaston, like every high school band director everywhere, always told us it was better to make a loud mistake than a soft one. I never dared act on that advice, because the 80 other band members would relish the chance to mock you for making a loud mistake. But the concept was sound. If you are playing a passage out of fear of making a mistake, you are not playing the passage.

Later, as a drummer, I had to learn the same lesson. It happened one night at a club when the guitar player turned to tell me I was playing too fast at the same time the bass player told me I was playing too slow. At that moment, after a flash of anger, I realized it was my role to lead the band, using my drums as a driving force, because, well, that’s what drums do.

So, beginners everywhere… seize your instrument! Whether it is a violin, a piano, or an ink pen. Throttle it with the left hand! Scratch and claw it with the right hand! You must draw out the beauty. Don’t let it master you. It is you who masters the instrument.