Master Class

What does it mean to master something?

You know the phrase, “Practice makes perfect.” In college I had a friend who what a music major. He is a very talented musician and composer. He had spent most of his life practicing. He taught me that practice makes really good, but doesn’t produce perfection; something else is required beyond “mere” practice for perfection. That perspective rings true for me. It is not only because to speak of perfection in the arts is to miss the point at some deep level, but that practice must be combined with something else, maybe several things, in order to reach its highest level. What are those other things? Love for the subject? Passion for knowledge? A broader perspective? An appreciative audience? Specific DNA? The grace of God? Certainly the grace of God.

Better than speaking of perfection, I would suggest it is better to speak of mastery. Mastery implies both process and variability. I might master something and so might you, but we would arrive at different end points. That is why there are many great artists in every field and they are all unique. But the idea of mastery also implies a potential series of end points, a process that never really ends. Maybe we should more liberally use the term “practice” the way we say one “practices law” or “practices medicine.” But then have we given up on perfection? Maybe. Mastery is a process, not necessarily an end. But when mastery is an end is is a different end than perfection. Or is it? I am not sure.

While thinking about mastery I was drawn to discover the video clips below. They are from Andrés Segovia‘s Master Class. The first clip is of Brigitte Zaczek being instructed by Segovia. Here is a master guitarist being instructed by an even greater master:

I do not understand all the various nuances that Segovia is working on with Zaczek, but I love the idea that even a master like Zaczek can still improve. Are there different levels of master? There must be. I am fluent in English, which means that as some level I have mastered the language, yet I am not a master of English in terms of grammar, or poetry, or many of the other aspects and possibilities of the language. There are many masters of English that far outshine me at every possible level.

We are a mildly aspiring musical family. Though our knowledge and proficiency is rudimentary, we love the idea of playing music. In music none of us are masters in any sense of the word. I have been playing guitar for many years, but never studied the instrument like I should, so my skills are poorer than they might be. My eldest has been studying piano for several years. She is beginning to get quite good for her age. Now she is likely to take up guitar in addition to piano. I just bought her a guitar, really one for the family since I will use it too. It is a classical guitar, which means it sounds beautiful, but it comes freighted, in a sense, with the tradition of classical guitar, a kind of guitar playing that is of the highest standards. Some say the classical guitar is the most difficult of all the orchestral instruments to master. I can believe it, though I am not fully convinced. Regardless, it is not the guitar that becomes the master, it is the player, and the player will always fall short somewhere.

When we think of mastering something like an instrument we are using the word to mean something like a person eminently skilled in something, as an occupation, art, or science. What makes the idea of mastery somewhat of a mystery is that being “eminently skilled” is not something that can be definitively measured. We tend to know it when we see it, but defining mastery is difficult and maybe impossible. Probably the best way to know what it is to master something is to seek out someone who has. And likely the best way to know if one has mastered something is to seek the judgement of another master. This can be tricky for even masters are often committed to their own perspectives and experience, and we know that mastery can be rather flexible. Below is another clip from Andrés Segovia’s Master Class. This time with Richard Johnson taking his final exam.

The pressure on Johnson is palpable. Without pressure there can be no mastery. Someone like Johnson can impress most all of us, but he is not going to impress Segovia quite as easily. That striving to be deemed worthy is both nerve wracking and required for mastery. But I am stuck by the idea that Johnson would not be there, feeling the pressure, working hard, demonstrating the results of thousands of hours of practice, if he did not also love playing the guitar, and love all the rest that goes with it.

Which makes me think of my kids. I want my children to be masters at something, or several things. I recognize that I can easily live vicariously through their triumphs, and therefore I can push them too much for my sake rather than theirs. But I also know there is a value to mastery that is generally unknown to children. A parent is in a tricky situation trying to determine what subjects are best for his or her children, and how much to push them towards excellence. Even with traditional subjects, like math and grammar, we know one can get through life just fine without being a master of those subjects. So how far should one go? And to what purpose? And, as a Christian parent, what value do I place on mastery of anything in light of faith?

At some level mastery has to be organic. True mastery will come at that intersection of hard work, dedication, capability, and curiosity (and maybe other factors). Apply oneself, include sufficient resources, along with a good teacher, and one has a chance at becoming a master. But it is that organic element that is critical. It must arise, at some level, from within the individual. It must come forth naturally. And when it does it can last a lifetime. Here is Segovia many years later, not long before his death, performing live in Spain.

There is an old man, doing what he has done for most of his life. He will always be one of the greatest masters of the guitar. As a parent I want my children to find that thing which they will master. I want them to become great at something. On the other hand, none of this matters in the big picture. If they do not love others and do not love God all their mastery will be nothing.

Lest we think classical guitar is for old men, here is another master showing us her skills on the guitar:


I know this post is mostly a lot of questions. But such topics bring out a lot of questions, and there are many people willing to provide answers. I, however, am still fumbling my way through those answers, but I can say that, for the most part, and though I have trouble with definitions, I can still recognize and appreciate the mastery of some masters.

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