Last Saturday I was sitting at a 2nd avenue bar called the Thirsty Scholar with my friend Jonathan. We were talking about Ashtanga Yoga, jazz jam etiquette, and his time in Brazil when we heard about the bombing in Chelsea. Despite the scare, we let the night steer us to Union square where we watched some chess matches and met a man named William Lombardy, better known as Bobby Fischer’s chess coach. Lombardy made pleasant general small talk with us for about two minutes before he embarked on a free flowing rant which included a denouncement of the NYC judicial system, a discussion of his eviction battle with his landlord, and a scathing criticism of America at large.
And these are the rich ups and downs of New York City. One minute you’re having a delightful conversation with a new friend, the next you hear of a terrorist attack, the next you meet an iconic chess master, and the next he’s telling you how terrible the world is. I’ve only been here for a few weeks (so check back with me in a few years), but my feeling is that this city is neither good nor bad— it’s just superlative. Due to the incredible density and volume of people from all backgrounds and walks of life, NYC offers you both the best and worst of the human experience, sometimes in rapid succession.
Musically (this is a music blog after all), I’m also offered a daily course of both the best and the worst. I got to school and am literally face to face with some of the best musicians in the world (e.g. improvisation class with Billy Drewes, guitar lesson with Peter Bernstein, master class with Ari Hoenig etc…), I then go to the practice room and am faced with my own mediocrity as I struggle to learn Anthropology, and finally as I’m waiting on the subway home, I’m treated to a sloppy rendition of “Hey Joe” by a drunk busker with an abrasive guitar tone (I call it a “sloppy joe”).
As I encounter such a spectrum of musical quality, it’s difficult to not get caught up in the game of comparing myself to other musicians— variably I’ll think “oh man, I’ll never be able to do that” or “he’s 7 years younger than me, how is he so good?” or “pssshhh, I’m better than that guy.” Yet these are not productive thoughts. Even though I am in school and obviously trying to use this time to improve, comparing myself to teachers, or classmates, or subway singers is not a good way to achieve that goal. For ultimately I’m not studying music because I want to be better than anyone else— I’m studying music because I love it and I want to be better capable of expressing it. If I use the desire to be as good or better than others as my motivation, practices and performances become either a chore or a competition (neither all that enjoyable). Yet if I use my love of music as my motivation, practices and performances become a joyful privilege.
Yet this motivation was reduced to an even simpler level in a masterclass with the great Peter Bernstein (no relation to Leonard). One of my classmates asked him the question “what inspires you to play?” He replied “I just try to get down to the basic fact that I like holding the thing, and I like hitting a note and feeling it vibrate. Sometimes I run into trouble if I get more complicated than that.” He explained that he doesn’t really even hope to sound good, because “well, what if I don’t sound good?” This was a revelation for me. Here was one of the most tasteful and talented guitarists in the world (a man who has performed with artists such as Sonny Rollins, Dr. Lonnie Smith, Diana Krall, and countless others) saying explaining that the only thing that he tries to let motivate him is the fact that he likes to feel a note vibrate against his chest.
Pete doesn’t play because he is trying to be great, or because he is trying to be better than anyone else— he plays because he just loves to hear and feel the notes. Musician or not, there’s a lesson here for everyone. Throughout the inevitable ups and downs of life, it is wonderful to always have an activity that you know you love to do. Whether it is music, basketball, painting, or anything else, the surest way to keep doing your favorite activity is to fall in love with the most basic elements. If you can learn to simply enjoy the sound of a note, or the feel of the ball in your hands, or the sight of a brush stroke on the canvas, or even the mere act of breathing, you’ll have learned something really important about living.