Why Mastery is a Horrible Goal


Mastery is one of those hot-button words. It sounds good, but it comes with some pretty heavy baggage.

As we commonly use the word, mastery is the ultimate measure of accomplishment and proficiency. By that definition, mastery represents a standard upheld by a very few people and aspired to by everyone else.

Making that kind of mastery your musical goal will likely engender more frustration than progress. It makes it hard to persevere. Why keep trying so hard if you aren’t ever going to get there?

However, when we look at mastery as a process rather than a place, as a journey not a destination, it becomes a path to progress, to becoming a better harpist, a better musician. Mastery in this sense is less about “doing” well and more about “growing” well. When we make growth our goal, the relative level of mastery happens as a matter of course.

Don’t mistake this for a feel-good, easy path. While I believe that musical mastery is a journey, I know for a fact that not every musical journey is a mastery journey. There are three well-trodden paths you may find yourself on that will not lead to growth.

Tropical Island Path. Life on a tropical island can be blissful and serene, but the environment is limited. You travel around and around the same territory. There is little variety or change. Without a way off the island, you have little room to grow.

Nomad Path. This is the path of the desert wanderer.  With a vista of endless sand dunes before you, it’s hard to find your way. You can’t map your journey because you can’t gauge where you are or see where you want to go.

Beeline Path. Where the nomad path is meandering, the beeline path is intensely focused. It has a single object and draws a straight line to it. What is lacking is a wider vision to provide context to the journey and meaning and pleasure to the experience.

Create Your Own Mastery Journey
The true mastery journey combines the best of all three. It is focused toward an aim but allows for exploration and discovery. It entails regular continuing work but with room for enjoyment and time for adventure. It is not one size fits all. You must custom craft your mastery journey and check your course often as you go.

However you design your path, you should be engaging with your music in these three ways:

  1. Do. You must practice and you must play. No one is a musician who doesn’t do both of these.
  2. Explore. Be alert and open to new opportunities, new music, new friends and colleagues.
  3. Enjoy. Find what is fun for you in music and do more of it. Share it.

The American writer Gail Sheehy describes the joy of the mastery journey this way:

“Ah, mastery... what a profoundly satisfying feeling when one finally gets on top of a new set of skills... and then sees the light under the new door those skills can open, even as another door is closing.”

Go ahead – open the door and start your journey.


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