Janos Starker

Discipline isn’t a four letter word, though it’s often used that way. Mention the word to your kid, a student, or an employee, and you may find it necessary to back up and define it before the conversation can move forward. For instance, if I said a student needed greater discipline in her life, what would you think I was saying? Would you think the student lacked structure in her work? Would you think she chronically misbehaved in school? Perhaps you’d think she is disorganized, messy, or has trouble showing up to things on time. Maybe I meant she is struggling to find her major in college. As it turns out, I like to talk about discipline as something to aspire to as it pertains to the path of mastery.

Surfing over to merriam-webster will reveal no less than eight definitions of the word. In short, they are:

  1. Punishment
  2. Instruction
  3. A field of study
  4. Training that perfects one’s moral character
  5. Control gained by enforcing obedience
  6. Orderly conduct
  7. Self Control
  8. A rule governing conduct

For me, as a cellist and writer, discipline is an amalgamation of #’s 2-8. It’s about practice, art, and craft. Now, it’s become a popular expression to talk about “mastering one’s craft,” but, my former cello teacher, Janos Starker, had quite a bit to say about that expression in relation to one’s discipline.

“Music,” he would say, “is one of the Classic Disciplines–as in, the Classic Disciplines from Ancient Greece.”

He’d go on to point out how craft is not true art. Craft takes its beauty by the humanity left behind–a thumb print left on a ceramic bowl, or an unintentional drop of paint left on the canvas that’s charming, for example. But there is no thumbprint left on Michelangelo’s David, he would argue, and nary an accidental drip of paint on the Mona Lisa. A professional musician, he argued, is aspiring to High Art–you could hear the caps when he spoke. A professional musician, he’d argue, has an obligation to clean up the mess.

Fair enough. But the devil’s always in the details. What Starker considered a “mess,” Lynn Harrell or Yo-Yo Ma might consider

Yo-Yo Ma

legitimate tools of expression. Starker might eschew a vibrato that was too wide, or an articulation that had some teeth in it, for instance. But the artist reaching for Mastery elects to use the tools s/he has, and the tools that resonate within him/her–and one master’s gold standard invariably is different from another’s.

So how do we decide what is art, and what is craft? Is art something created only when one achieves an arbitrary level of excellence? And, if someone like Starker took issue with someone like Yo-Yo Ma, for his intonation, is there is an absolute level one must achieve before one’s work is considered art? And, if so, where is the notice posted? I’m sure most of us would like to know. Art is easier if we can all agree on the “rules.” But, the rules are hard to articulate, and that in itself is why progress is sometimes elusive to those on the path of mastery.

A common mistake I see in my teaching, (and yes, when I was playing, I made this one all the time,) is to strive towards improving one thing, then succeed, then berate yourself for not being better at an unrelated goal. This phenomenon is exactly why “levels” in art are so tricky to discuss. We can agree when it’s obvious: Yo-Yo is obviously a better cellist than myself. But that isn’t really what Starker was talking about. He wanted to separate the good from the great. Posers from the genuine article.

Those of us who have spent a lifetime in the “arts” (even the crafty ones) appreciate the complexity of the issue. I don’t pretend to have an answer. In fact, I’m relieved to side step it completely by embracing a career as a novelist. And while I know that eventually I’ll progress to a level where the inevitable thumping will come–it no longer troubles me. I don’t pretend to aspire to art. I’ve been there, and done that. I took my lumps like everyone else, and looking back on my career in music, I have a finite ending that is helpful for measuring what I was able to accomplish and what I wasn’t. Climbing up on a shelf next to Mr. Da Vinci or Mr. Michelangelo never happened for me. But, as a self-publishing author, I write about what I want, when I want. I’m happy to aspire to things that fit comfortably within the zone of pop culture. The process of creating something is infinitely easier when I’m not worried about honoring the three B’s. (Bach, Beethoven and Brahms, for the uninitiated.) Also, the discipline I learned from a career as a cellist transfers nicely to the discipline necessary to be a writer. And that is really the point; discipline, in this sense, refers to the process itself, not the outcome. The process is what matters to the person seeking mastery–all the other stuff you let into your head is just noise.


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