In Part Two of this exploration of George Leonard’s ideas about mastery, I described three personality types and how they deal with the inevitable “plateaus” that are part of the path of mastery. In this post we’ll take a look at Leonard’s “five master keys” for the development of mastery, and how they relate to learning to play the piano.

Mastery Key #1: Find a First Rate Teacher

“If you intend to take the journey of mastery, the best thing you can do is to arrange for first-rate instruction.”

The first key to mastery is to find the best possible teacher. Leonard felt that the best way to get a sense of a teacher is to check out his or her students. One should also consider the relationship between the teacher and her students.

The essence of teaching, says Leonard, is the “ability to work effectively and enthusiastically with beginners and to serve as a guide on the path of mastery for those who are neither as fast nor as talented as the norm. To participate with a beginner in the first faltering mental and physical moves involved in learning a new skill is to penetrate the inner structure not only of that skill but also of the process of mastery itself. Knowledge, expertise, technical skill, and credentials are important, but without the patience and empathy that go with teaching beginners, these merits are as nothing.”

Finally, the best teacher is one who knows how to actively involve a student in the learning process. I agree with Leonard that this is crucial. Our less-than-stellar educational system conditions us from an early age to be passive learners. Yet anyone who aspires to be the best pianist they can be must be intimately involved in their own learning process, to the extent that eventually they are largely able to “teach” themselves. The instrument demands nothing less. 

Mastery Key #2: Practice

“For one who is on the master’s journey . . . the word is best conceived of as a noun, not as something you do, but as something you have, something you are.”

“Practice,” Leonard wrote, “is the path upon which you travel, just that. The master and the master’s path are one.”

“How long will it take me to master the piano?” asks a student. For Leonard, the only respectable response is “How long do you expect to live?”

(Of course, there is much to know about how to effectively practice piano. One of the most important is what I call The Golden Rule of Practicing.)

Mastery Key #3: Surrender to Your Art

“Surrendering to the fundamentals of the art is only the beginning. There are times in almost every master’s journey when it becomes necessary to give up some hard-won competence in order to advance to the next stage.”

Leonard was an aikido teacher, so perhaps it’s not surprising that he uses the word “surrender” in the context of mastery. Surrender means giving in to the demands of your discipline, rather than fighting against them, as piano students sometimes do.

Leonard reminds us that it’s inevitable that we will occasionally feel clumsy when learning something new. If our dignity is threatened by the learning process, learning will be very hard for us. So it is important to let go of any need we have to feel on top of things; to feel like we know what we’re doing. We can’t learn something new unless we are first willing to admit that we don’t know much (or, perhaps, anything).

Mastery Key #4: Be Intentional

“Character, willpower, attitude, imaging, the mental game – what I call intentionality, however you look at it, is essential to take along on the master’s journey.”

The fourth key to mastery is to “be intentional” in our practice. As Leonard says, being intentional has to do with character, attitude, visualization, and the mental approach we take to our discipline.

For me, being intentional includes having a goal, knowing why we want to achieve it, being positive about the possibility of reaching it, having a plan to reach it, and consistently and methodically practicing to achieving it. It also includes constantly learning and refining our strategies and methods for learning. What works? What doesn’t? Reset. Refresh. Continue.

Mastery Key #5: Play the Edge

“Walk the fine line between endless, goalless practice and those alluring goals that appear along the way.”

Here, Leonard reminds us that the ongoing path of mastery must be balanced with working towards concrete, satisfying goals along the way. Few piano students are willing to practice forever without achieving a concrete goal like playing a certain piece or performing for others.

Paradoxically, then, even while we commit to the endless path of mastery, we can also work to achieve concrete goals. We can “play the edge” by not only continuing to improve, but by testing our abilities along the way.

In Part Four of this exploration of mastery, I’ll discuss how resistance to change impacts our drive towards mastery, and how to deal with it.

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