Kenny Werner – Still the Master

By Victoria Wasylak

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Kenny Werner is not the kind of textbook professor you’d expect to be teaching at Berklee College of Music. He wasn’t the most steadfast piano student growing up; he initially floundered in music school as a young adult; and now as a teacher, he’s actually talked students out of studying jazz on a few occasions because he could tell in their hearts it wasn’t the kind of music they wanted to pursue.

Known in jazz circles as the namesake of The Kenny Werner Trio and a master composer and pianist, perhaps his greatest legacy is in full bloom just now, decades into his career.

Since 2014, the Effortless Mastery Institute at Berklee has literally embodied the work ethos and ideologies of Werner’s 1996 book, Effortless Mastery – Liberating the Master Musician Within. In the near future, Effortless Mastery will even be a minor at the esteemed Boston music school, a significant nod to Werner’s idea that performing shouldn’t be painful for anyone.

On the heels of his 2018 album The Space, Werner insists that his work at Berklee is, “his song” now, and that his mission to decouple unnecessary stress from music school is what needs to happen not just at Berklee, but in colleges all over the world.

Read on to learn more about Werner’s early mentors, the forthcoming second volume of his Effortless Mastery book, and how put himself in “the space” and let his hands introduce the entirety of his new record.

How did you first get into playing the piano?

Well, I went to a friend’s birthday party down the street and his father played piano for us. I’d never seen one played live, and I kinda got excited, and I ran home and said, “Get me a piano.” I was about seven years old and I started to play, and very quickly things started to happen – by nine, I was already playing some concerts and benefits, and things like that.

I think most people would agree that’s extraordinarily impressive. Did you have a teacher or were you teaching yourself?

No, I had a teacher. I was able to learn the pieces the teacher gave me by ear. I would hear her play it at the lesson, and I really wouldn’t practice all week, and then I’d come back next week and just play it [from memory]. It wasn’t perfect, but it was kind of close enough to her, so she didn’t really realize after four years that I wasn’t reading music so well, just barely reading music. I got away with that until my next teacher, who then started to bust me on things.

How were you able to excel in spite of that at such a young age?

It’s a cliché, but the talent. The great news is that anybody can reach any level of expertise, even greatness, if they have good things to study, or they study the right way and they are fastidious about it. Whatever talent is, it’s easier access to the information. It just comes to the person easier, and it makes sense. I wasn’t working terribly hard in those years, but it seemed like whenever I needed to play better, I sort of just willed myself to play better, and I didn’t really have to work for it until many years later – especially when I went to college and I saw that there were other people with talents, but they were working at it. Then I had to learn how to work on it in order to belong where I was.

What was that turning point like for you?

Well, I went to Manhattan School of Music first as a concert piano major only because I was able to get in. I never really took it seriously, and when I got there, it was a very disturbing time because everyone else seemed to be really into it. They knew the music, they knew the difference between Mozart and Mendelssohn. I didn’t, and I wasn’t really committed. It was kind of a rough time. I found other friends that weren’t even in that school. I’d show up to school occasionally. That was a very bad time.

Then I transferred to Berklee, and there were a lot of other people there that were lost like me. In other words, they played music, but they really hadn’t thought about the application yet. Like, what were they really committed to? And that inspired me for some reason. Berklee had a very streamlined education that really took you to the things you need if you want to play. Berklee just really gave me sort of the modern stuff that I was looking for, so I got really inspired and I really think I started to work on music more from that point on. And also, I made friends there – many of which are still my friends today – and they were more committed to jazz. It’s through association with them I seemed to have morphed into a jazz musician, which was never exactly my intention, but that’s where it seemed to go.

What was your intention? Or did you not know, and you just wanted to play piano?

You know, it [playing piano] came too easily to me, so I didn’t really respect it enough. I think I wanted to act or be a comedian, but music came so easily that it was always the easiest access to work, and respect, and all that kind of stuff. I did get deeper into jazz at that point, and improvisation using any of the influences that I had, most of which were TV and movies. I think if I could’ve chosen [my career], I would’ve been scoring movies because I think scoring visual [art] and scoring drama is what I’m most natural at. When I began to realize that many years ago, my music became, I think, more cinematic, even though it’s still in the jazz genre.

Once you take an identity, “Oh, I’m a jazz musician,” sometimes you leave out things that are more personal to you. I don’t really consider myself any kind of style musician today. I consider myself more of a channel. Whatever comes out in an improvisation, it is coming from the world I’m in, and everything that’s happened to me, and anything that might want to happen at that moment.

You make it sound so easy!

Well, it’s always been easy. But then the other part of it I had learned was difficult, which is how to apply oneself, and it’s practice. In the process, I found some very powerful streamlined ways of practicing – the process where you kind of go into a state of total concentration and it didn’t matter to practice five minutes or five hours, that was good practice [in that state]. If you weren’t in that state, then it didn’t matter if you practiced five hours, nothing good would happen. As I learned to do that, I learned to actually apply myself better, and I came up with very original and very powerful ways of practicing small amounts of music which can have the effect on the muscle memory of the entire player. It’s kind of what I teach today, and it’s how I practice today.
Is that lack of direction and application you experienced as a student something that you see in the young adults that you work with today?

I see it over and over again. People are sort of, “It’d be kind of nice to be a musician,” and then they get into an intense environment like this, and they get lost really quick. They don’t even know what to practice. It can turn into an anxiety, into a depression, and could even turn into trauma. That’s my niche in this school, and it works all the way up and down the line, from the best players to the worst players, to get them functioning at their best by not letting their minds be their own worst enemy. It’s the product of my own flunky background – that’s me understanding their dilemma so well. I really think the worst student probably becomes the best teacher because they apply what was happening to them to the others sitting in the room.

That makes perfect sense. Because if you’ve never struggled, how do you help?

I have one belief that all music is simple. It’s only complicated when you don’t understand it yet. When you understand it, it becomes easy. When I’m teaching somebody, I don’t want them to just sort of understand what I’m saying and shake their head yes. I actually want them to say it back to me the way I said it to them, because once they do, they’re gonna realize I told them something simple.

When you were a student, did you have any mentors or teachers that were particularly helpful to you?

Not in school, unfortunately, but I had two pivotal private piano teachers. The first one was a legendary teacher in Boston named Madame Chaloff, and she was Serge Chaloff’s mother, who was a great baritone sax player here [in Boston]. She really taught a touch that had to do with a connection of spirit. She would say the arms should defy gravity. I don’t know if I ever got what she was showing me, but Serge put me on a different road. My playing is totally different for even attempting to think that way.

Then the next influence was a Brazilian classical pianist. His name was Joāo Assis Brasil. He was a classical pianist, but he had a nervous breakdown applying the normal, classical approach [to his music]. You know, really just grinding it out, and beating yourself up, and obsessing in order to play better, and he broke under that. When I met him, he was in therapy for two years and he was living at home, and he had started a very simple practice of dropping his fingers on the keys, an exercise that had been shown to him. That grew into a non-judgmental, non-pressured way to practice again. By the time I saw him, he was practicing 10 hours a day, but completely pressure-free. He would play something like Liszt, and he looked like his hands were just gliding over the keys. I was fortunate to live with him for three to four months and I studied under him.

The turning point for me was he gave me an exercise. It’s now called the first step, at least on the keys, where your arms glide up, and then you lift a finger and then just drop on the keys, from the pinky to the thumb, thumb to the pinky. Now, for this exercise, he told me to do nothing but that for two weeks. And I’m like, “Two weeks? Are you crazy? Every time I go play piano, I only do this and never play anything?” It’s sort of proving to yourself you’re good. To sit down and just drop your fingers on the keys and then walk away, it’s a supreme act of detachment, which most musicians do not have. But I tried to do it. After six days, someone called me to come over to a party and play a little duo with my friend and his brother.  When I went to play, this was my epiphany. I was watching my hands play. I wasn’t playing. I just started playing a song, and I wasn’t playing it. My hands were.

I experienced a complete revelation. Not only were my hands playing, they played better than I do. In other words, they were playing and exhibiting things I had learned at Berklee before I went to Brazil. The shock of this day, the delight of this day, was so persuasive that I’ve never changed philosophies since then, and that was 1973.

I wanted to ask you a little bit more about your position at Berklee and the Effortless Mastery Institute. How did that come to be?

My wife said, “Why don’t you just embrace all the good you’ve done with the book you wrote?”  And I said, “Yeah, you know, I’m getting older, and maybe I should be thinking about passing it on.” I emailed Roger Brown at Berklee and I said, you know, “I don’t know if you’re interested in this, but I’ve had an epiphany that I really should support what I created with Effortless Mastery.” And I heard back from him that day and said, “Man, we’d be honored to have you do something like that here.” The only place they could find any sort of a match was a wellness institute.

So that’s how it happened, and every year, it’s gotten more popular. The truth of music school, and of the universities in general, is that more students get lost that get found. The ugly truth of music school is that many people had a genuine love for some version of music that really resonated with them that they lose by going to school. Then they suddenly don’t respect it anymore, or it doesn’t seem like it’s as good as what other people are doing. This is a problem that’s never discussed, and yet it’s got to be more than 50 percent of students, in music schools, at least, are lost.

I’m recommending that every teacher go through their course with a comb and see what they can leave out. Try to trim the whole thing down so that they’re not so overwhelmed, so anxious, so traumatized as they are. We have students dropping out with PTSD. We have students killing themselves. We have students quitting and going to institutions and saying maybe they’ll come back. Comb it out as much as possible. Leave out the non-essential stuff. Teachers, stop finding the value of your course by how much more work you can add to it.

I can’t tell you how many people I’ve worked with already that when I tell them, “Let’s honor the music you wanna play and stop comparing it with somebody else,” they go, “Oh, really?” You know, let’s focus on that. Just do the best you can on all of those courses, but you got musicians around here. Start working on your own music and think to yourself, “That’s why I’m here.” What if everybody thought, “How much could I eliminate from my course?” Do we have to have students walking around with PTSD in order to think that this is a quality education, or could they feel in control?

That really helps nobody. As you were talking about, it makes them at best discouraged, and, at the worst, they need professional help because of it.

Overwhelmed is the first symptom, it’s the first deposit that starts to fester and it becomes loss of confidence, and loss of direction. “Should I be here, or should I just quit?” Then it becomes a negative opinion of oneself, and then they have something that I call MSD, music school disease. They get to the point where they’re trying to play something and it comes out easily and naturally, it must be the wrong stuff.

If they play something and it’s natural, their immediate reaction is, as I always say, “Must be the wrong shit,” because they’re supposed to struggle. Then you get to the point where you don’t think you’re actually even doing anything unless you’re struggling. That is a disease, and it’s more than common if people wanted to really find out. When they started the Wellness Institute, Berklee took a poll of how many people were playing in pain, and they generally meant physical pain at Berklee. This is what started to speak for them before I got here. Let’s talk about something like 75 percent of the people [students] claimed some kind of pain.

I have this saying that I’m really putting forth in the world and to my students. You can never hurt yourself playing an instrument. You can only hurt yourself trying to play an instrument, so stop trying and then let it come without the stress and you could never hurt yourself.

How many students do you work with over the course of a semester, would you say? And how many of them are specifically jazz students?

There are certain students that I’ve convinced not to be jazz [students], because they really weren’t interested in it until they got to school. That’s how you know they didn’t really love jazz, they just felt like jazz musicians were worth more than folk musicians. And I said, “Look, don’t even go there. Let’s get back on your music and see what we can do to borrow something from jazz, but you don’t have to become a jazz musician.” So, I’m [teaching] all kinds, mostly rock, and folk, because there’s a lot of guitar players and some jazz musicians. Right now, my classes are filled up. One class is where we do two steps of Effortless Mastery, and the Effortless Mastery 2 class is where we do the third and fourth step about how to redo your whole alignment.

Maybe I influence in my classes close to about 50 or 60 students, but in my “open” times, I have people come in that are not in my class. When you add that up, I’m probably affecting 70 or 80 students in a semester. There will be, I think in the fall, for the first time ever anywhere, a minor in Effortless Mastery. That means they’ll take an extra amount of credits of either tai chi, yoga, whatever, and they’ll take all of my courses. And that will mean that they’ll have a great sensibility.

I am working on a second book now, finally. It’s called Effortless Mastery: Becoming the Instrument. It’s a lot lighter. It’s really for anybody that is their own worst enemy because of how they doubt and question themselves, making action hard. If you’re gonna become an instrument, you’re just gonna love whatever notes you play. In this case, you become an instrument of action, and you love your actions whether they’re successful or not, which keeps a flow that generally makes people much more successful.

I like that 20-plus years later, you’ve even named your new album after this concept, The Space. This is not flash-in-the-pan, pseudo-spiritual BS. This is the real deal.

I never named anything related to it, and then I just thought it was time, and then I recorded [my new record] from “the space.” I don’t think I ever recorded my albums in the space before. And the irony of it is I’m probably doing less on this record than I ever did on anything else, but it’s getting more attention that anything I ever did. I literally put myself in another place and let my hands introduce the whole record.

How do you balance both working on the institute and working on music? Has your focus shifted at all more towards working with students and less on putting out your own music?

Yes – that last statement. I’ve told Berklee, I said, “Look, I think I need to be here because this is my song now.” I’ve never had that feeling with any music. I really feel like something useful is happening, and I’m being revitalized by when I see the joy and lifting of the veil of a lot of troubled people – that’s students and teachers. One answer is I’m playing less tours, and I am doing more of this [at Berklee]. I don’t think I want to go back to be a “jazz quartet” anymore. That was it for me. The answer is less playing for performance purposes, more playing and teaching for the purpose of them helping other people to lift the veil. [Music students] show up with a dream and then they’d find out they have to delay the dream for four years. And then they find out, by the time they get there, it’s no longer their dream and they give it up. I think we can do better than that.

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