Letting Music Flow – a review of Effortless Mastery

music practice – meditation – music & healing – music & transformation

A Review of Kenny Werner’s Book  Effortless Mastery –
Liberating the Master Musician Within                                    by Timothy McKamey

“Our society is very much in the dark as to what its spiritual purpose is, and our musicians no less so.” – Kenny Werner

    This is the second book I have selected to review from the recommended reading list for Module I of the Music Healing and Transition Program (MHTP)©. Like some of the others on the list this book addresses the practice of music in ways that diverge from the traditional approaches many of us may have been exposed to coming up in music. Kenny Werner is primarily a master of jazz improvisation on the piano and has been blessed to work with some truly great players in the jazz world. He is also an engaging teacher and conducts workshops and classes along with performing music with students and seasoned professionals alike. If you play acoustic guitar as I do, (or harp, or some other instrument not typically associated with jazz), you might think you have little to learn from this jazz pianist. You would be mistaken. Werner’s message and exercises adapt easily to any instrument, including the voice.

     The aim of Werner’s message is to liberate that master musician that resides in each of us, even if we are only listeners. In fact, even as players we often have to re-learn to listen first. But as players, we all too often have been programmed to work so hard at our music that all the joy that attracted us in the first place becomes replaced by a kind of drudgery. Werner gives plenty of reasons why that happens, exposing many of the pitfalls of our culture along the way, as he tells his own story and the challenges he faced.

     Werner explains why “Many people are crippled by an inability to focus and by a sense of being overwhelmed. These problems are often mistaken for laziness or lethargy. There is a grand paradox in why we can’t focus.”1

     Werner shows us how regardless of what style of music we are into we often “…don’t know what ”channeling creativity” is because [we become] dominated by [our] conscious minds. One must practice surrendering control to a larger, or higher force. It’s scary at first, but eventually liberating. In Sanskrit the word is moksha, which means liberation.”2

     Using a variety of stories, meditations and exercises, Werner offers techniques for getting our lesser, ego-self out of the way in order that our higher self, the master musician within, can come through in our playing. Werner tells us that music can “shoot through the musician like lightning through the sky if that music is unobstructed by thoughts.”3

     As musicians, and as healers, Werner believes that we owe it to ourselves and to our society to make the inward journey and share what we can from it so that others may benefit. I have recently been studying the history of philosophy and psychology. While learning about the nature of knowledge and the difference between conscious knowledge and unconscious knowledge I have come to see that our conscious awareness is only the tip the iceberg. There is a vast reservoir of information, energy, spirit, call it what you will, that resides deep within us about which we know so very little. Anyone who has played music, or practiced any art for any length of time has no doubt encountered this treasure-trove of creativity that dwells within. We catch glimpses, occasionally we latch on to it for short lengths of time, then it vanishes like smoke. Werner refers to this as the ‘master space’ and offers techniques to apply to our practice so that over time we learn to work more and more from this ‘master space’.

     Much of this has to do with getting over various kinds of fear, fear-based practice, fear-based performance, fear-based listening and above all, the fear of not sounding good. Because the ego is so important to the performing musician, for many of us, just admitting these fears is a huge first-step. But once we acknowledge this we can move on and grow in ways that simply were not accessible before.

     For the music practitioner concerned with healing, this is fundamental. As healers we have to learn to leave much of what we learned as performers at the door. We are learning that healing works best when we are able to get our ‘self’ out of the way so that the healing energy can do its work. Through his exercises and meditations, Werner gives us ways to practice this in our daily musical practice on our own. It is recommended that at first these sessions establishing and playing from the ‘master space’ be short, maybe only five minutes a day. Then over time, the things we learn in this ‘space’ will begin to permeate our daily routine more and more.

      Werner is not specifically addressing the healing musician here, although he does quite often point to the healing powers of music in the individual, in society and in the world. His primary aim is to help us recover the joy of music in a way that allows us to flourish and become masters at our art in a unique and beautiful way that is ultimately effortless. The seeming paradox in the term effortless mastery  is visited over and over throughout the book by providing examples from teachers and experiences he has encountered throughout his life.

     From Madame Chaloff, for example, Werner is taught the perfect way to drop a finger. For Madame Chaloff music was about playing for God. This translated into learning to be perfectly relaxed and releasing tension from the body in order to let the spirit come through in the music instead of forcing it.

     From Joao Assis Brasil who had suffered a nervous breakdown from intense pressure and practice, Werner learned how to be kind to himself and practice a simple exercise Brasil’s teacher had shown him in Vienna: a five-finger exercise that consisted of releasing the fingers effortlessly, one by one, onto the keyboard. After doing only this simple exercise for a few minutes a day for two weeks, and not playing at all otherwise, Werner experienced an amazing breakthrough the next time he sat down at the piano to play.

    ”I realized that the goal is letting go of my ego and being kind to myself, playing only what wants to come out effortlessly. I now knew that I could observe myself play and embrace the spiritual ideas of service and surrender.”4

      From there Werner delves into a variety of ancient traditions where he finds that the earliest known divine messages were given in song, as were the Psalms of David, the Song of Solomon, the Gathas of Zoroaster and the Gita of Krishna. Werner often quotes from the great Sufi master musician and teacher Hazrat Inayat Khan. We are shown how the original purpose of music was worship, divine intelligence, and basic communication. We see how poetry was born of music and that ancient spiritual texts were expressed in poetry such as the Vedas, the Ramayana, the Mahabharata, and the Bible.5

     Werner gives a compelling account of music’s ‘fall from grace’ from its original divine origins to it’s place in the marketplace today:

     “As enslaved peoples are separated from their religion, the lyrics of the song change. The cry is for sense pleasures: more sex, money, alcohol. How many blues and rock and roll songs speak about that? Desire for ”my God” is supplanted by the desire for ”my man.” Mankind’s vision decays, entangled by the search for temporary relief from its subjugation to false gods. But the cry is still there, even if man no longer knows for what. It is the yearning for unity, for oneness as experienced in the mother’s womb, attuned to the rhythm of her heartbeat. The muffled song can still be heard from the God within ”seeking to behold himself,” and man’s yearning to be one with Him. Later, the blues, drained of all meaning, decays into a twelve-bar crossword puzzle to be ”re-harmonized” in theory class. Finally, jazz visionaries revive it as an Indian Tala and ascend on its numeric highway.”6

     In psycho-therapy we learn how primal forces can become sublimated into so-called ‘socially-acceptable’ behaviors. In psychological terms, dreamwork is the process whereby the latent content that underlies the dream becomes transformed into the manifest content that make up the images and symbols or actions that take place in the dream. Through psycho-analysis we can reverse the process and de-crypt the dream imagery in order to understand the latent content that is responsible for the dream in the first place. In a very real sense Werner’s techniques of Effortless Mastery work in much the same way. As we get to understand his narrative on how music became imprisoned in the cultural straight-jacket we experience it in much of the time today, we are better equipped to release it back to its original, divine nature.

     “Surrender is the key, and the first thing to surrender is one of your most prized possessions: YOUR OBSESSIVE NEED TO SOUND GOOD!7

     Now this may come as quite a shock to many of us who have spent so many years trying very hard to sound, if not good, at least better. For many of us, this will be the most difficult part of Werner’s message. Nevertheless, as he quotes Keith Jarrett; ”It is the individual voice, present to itself, that needs to be heard. We need to hear the process of a musician working on himself.”8

     For whether it be just a great performance in a concert hall, or an effective healing session, this is where the real work lies. “Like the shamans, we may serve as healers, metaphysicians, inciters, exciters, spiritual guides and sources of inspiration. If the musician is illumined from within, he becomes a lamp that lights other lamps.9

     The Greek philosopher Epictetus said, “For it is not death and pain that is a fearful thing, but fear of death and pain.”  As healing music practitioners how can we begin to help alleviate the fear of pain and death in others if we do not face that same fear in ourselves? We can begin by getting over the all-consuming need to “sound good” and understand how there are no wrong notes. This will be a slap in the face for conservatory-trained musicians but Werner is quick to point out that this is not the same thing as playing sloppy, being out-of-tune or not caring. What it really involves is embracing pitch, rhythm and harmony in new ways that conventional techniques tend to overlook. To enter into and play from the ‘master space’ Werner points out how “dissolution of the ego and union with the divine is the goal of Indian music. Oneness with the universal mind is called “sadhana, the supreme act of ego surrender of merging individual identity into the object worshiped.”10

     This involves a different kind of inner listening than we may be familiar with, as Rabbi Dov Baer of Mezritch says, ”You must be nothing but an ear that hears what the universe of the world is constantly saying within you.”  Werner provides exercises and meditations for developing a kind of detachment that is essential for becoming established in the ‘master space’. We know how expectations create agitation in the mind so that it makes it impossible to merge with one’s higher self. The great Siddha Yoga master, Swami Chidvilasananda has said, ”Expectation exists when there is fear.”

      Werner points out how the “fear of not getting what we want is predominant in Western society, but the never-ending quest to satisfy ”needs” masks our deepest desire: oneness with the divine force. The ego refracts the pure light of One and creates the illusion of many, and we seek union in the pursuit of externals. We think that if we have enough of what we want, we will be safe. But from the inner space, one realizes that everything one needs and desires already exists within. Jesus said, ”First seek ye the Kingdom of God and all else will be added.” He also said, ”The Kingdom of Heaven lies within.” 11

     From this place we can begin to appreciate the notion of ‘no wrong notes’, or to paraphrase Will Rogers, “I never met a note I didn’t like.” Werner reminds us how the musical heresies of the 14th century became the conventional wisdom of the 15th century. So the question is: if the notes sounded wrong and unusable in the 14th century, how did they become desirable in the 15th century? The answer is that they were never wrong! We just heard them that way. Hence, the truth: there are no wrong notes. There is a Zen saying: ”Truth starts as heresy, grows into fashion, and decays into superstition.12

     William Blake tells us that ”Jesus was all virtue, and acted from impulse not from rules.” Werner’s exercises help us learn to play without intellectual interference. Intellect is good for some things, but it can get in the way for other things. Intellect must learn how to surrender to instinct when it’s time to play. This sounds so simple, but can be so very difficult for many of us.

     Through the meditations and practices, Werner invites us to learn the importance of the ‘master space’ from which all successful practice and performance will ultimately issue. Again and again he advises us when practicing to put down our instrument and return to this space the moment we are distracted and forget to be centered in this space. Practicing in this manner should begin slowly in short intervals of no more than five minutes or so a day. We may practice in the conventional (less effective way) during other parts of our day as we still have recitals to practice for, gigs to work up material for, and so forth. But Werner suggests that if we cultivate the experience of practicing from the ‘master space’ over time this will overtake our everyday work and become the standard rather than the exception.

     “Effortless technique, effortless language, total acceptance of what wants to come out: these are the components of the master space.”13

      “He who binds to himself a joy Doth the winged life destroy; But he who kisses the joy as it flies Lives in Eternity’s sunrise.” – William Blake

     ”The harp gives forth murmurous music; and the dance goes on without hands and feet. It is played without fingers, it is heard without ears; for He is the ear; and He is the listener.” – Kabir”

     “I played the Vina until my heart turned into this very instrument; then I offered this instrument to the Divine Musician, the only musician existing. Since then I have become His flute; and when he chooses, He plays His music. The people give me credit for this music, which is in reality not due to me but to the Musician who plays His own instrument.” – Hazrat Inayat Khan



1Werner, Kenny (2011-09-17). Effortless Mastery: Liberating the Musician Within (Kindle Locations 65-66).

2Werner, Kenny (2011-09-17). Effortless Mastery: Liberating the Musician Within (Kindle Locations 69-72).

3Werner, Kenny (2011-09-17). Effortless Mastery: Liberating the Musician Within (Kindle Locations 86-87).

4Werner, Kenny (2011-09-17). Effortless Mastery: Liberating the Musician Within (Kindle Locations 283-284).

5Werner, Kenny (2011-09-17). Effortless Mastery: Liberating the Musician Within (Kindle Locations 361-369).

6Werner, Kenny (2011-09-17). Effortless Mastery: Liberating the Musician Within (Kindle Locations 406-410).

7Werner, Kenny (2011-09-17). Effortless Mastery: Liberating the Musician Within (Kindle Locations 419-420).

8Werner, Kenny (2011-09-17). Effortless Mastery: Liberating the Musician Within (Kindle Locations 565-566).

9Werner, Kenny (2011-09-17). Effortless Mastery: Liberating the Musician Within (Kindle Locations 592-593).

10Werner, Kenny (2011-09-17). Effortless Mastery: Liberating the Musician Within (Kindle Locations 627-629).

11Werner, Kenny (2011-09-17). Effortless Mastery: Liberating the Musician Within (Kindle Locations 900-906).

12Werner, Kenny (2011-09-17). Effortless Mastery: Liberating the Musician Within (Kindle Locations 1029-1032).

13Werner, Kenny (2011-09-17). Effortless Mastery: Liberating the Musician Within (Kindle Locations 1428-1429).


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