Masters practice incessantly, then improvise

oscar peterson
oscar peterson

This week I was at my favourite recurring learning experience, a “Facilitation Shindig” led by the amazing Julie Drybrough.

This experience inspired today’s post, about Mastery being about the ability to improvise and that ability coming from incessant practice.

Though hesitant to call me or anyone else a “master”, the common ground for all present is that we are experienced coaches/mentors/facilitators and come together for a full day to deepen our practice, or, as Julie has put it, “rattle our foundations”.

At our latest shindig, one thing we talked about was about how little or how much we plan and structure before we run a session for a group. What came forth from this for me was that, though we all have different styles, what we had in common was that in fact, we learn, prepare, plan, structure in detail (in our own way), so that we can then “flow”, we can improvise.

As Debussy said (and I reflected on in “Less is more — leave space”:

“Music is the space between the notes”

In your leadership, when the critical, key moments occur, the “moments of truth”, do you need to think about what to do? Do you need to plan, to structure, or do you simply “flow”, as if everything in all your experience readied you for the moment.

Today, then, let me reflect on “Flow”, on my favourite athlete, and finally on my all-time favourite jazz moment.

I wrote in “Flow and Jason Silva” about the famous TED talk by Mikhail Csikszentmihalyi, about Jason Silva and his amazing riffs to camera that simply flow.

I also mentioned my favourite athlete of all time, Michael Jordan. I watched him throughout his career, he was a master of being “in Flow” of improvising.

How did he do it?

“I’ve missed more than 9000 shots in my career. I’ve lost almost 300 games. 26 times, I’ve been trusted to take the game winning shot and missed. I’ve failed over and over and over again in my life. And that is why I succeed.” ~ Michael Jordan

Jordan was legendary for his dedication to practicing his craft. First to the gym, last to leave, worked the hardest, lead by example.

I started playing Basketball in earnest when I finally grew to my full height, belatedly, by about age 17. Jordan was just starting his pro career and I was quickly obsessed by the game and by following him. I copied his example. I practiced, practiced and practiced some more. I practiced or played literally every day of the week, sometimes twice a day. I’d train with other teams and squads as my university team “only” practiced or played twice or three times per week.

I raised up to a reasonable level of play, though never any heady levels. Two things I do know though. One, I maximised my potential as a basketball player. Two, I did learn what it meant to be in flow.

Flow is beyond rationality and it feels GOOD. I also learned that it comes from incessant practice of something you love and are good at. Hey, unless you have those two things you won’t go through the incessant practice !

I did the same after Basketball with Squash, I did the same as a Swimming Referee, and I have done the same as a coach of leaders and as a facilitator. You see, I LOVED playing Basketball, and I also loved just as much having had the level of depth of practice and understanding that allowed me to stop thinking about what I was doing and just “flow”. Beyond sports, then, when I started on the path of coaching and facilitation, I have easily put in my “10,000 hours” of training, learning, practice in those fields. Yes, I still plan and structure my work, yet the real magic happens in “flow”, in the space between the notes.

So, to give the example from music now, my father was a jazz pianist. When I was about 12 years old, he brought home an album of Oscar Peterson live from the Montreux Jazz Festival in 1977. A few months ago I was visiting California and staying with a group in a cottage among the Redwoods. In amongst a highly eclectic LP collection was that very album.

Now, when I was struggling with resistance against my daily piano practice at that time, my father would tell me how Oscar Peterson was famous for practicing more than any other jazz musician, often practicing over ten hours a day.

It is that practice that allowed him to then improvise with absolute mastery and flow.

The album is a total classic, and within it is the track “Bye Bye Blues”. It is an ensemble piece of 8' 14" of magical jazz. Within that, at 5'30" in Oscar starts his solo, reaching a peak at 6'50" in. It is pure magic, pure flow. Enjoy !

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