Definition of Mastery LO28171

From: Ray Evans Harrell (
Date: 04/08/02

Replying to LO28162 --

Definition of Mastery,

I think this ties directly to the idea of levels of complexity. As a
former list member John N. Warfield has written. "Nothing is complex to
those who know how to do it." Coming from the performing arts where what
was impossible yesterday, e.g. The great 19th century violinist Leopold
Auer pronounced the Tschaikovsky Violin Concerto "unplayable," today every
advanced high school student plays it. This is not an example of using
technology to make math easier or to do something faster but shallower.
These kids literally do play what the "greatest" struggled with in the
past from the depths of their own psycho-physical realities. Does that
mean that the past was shallower, or less adult somehow than today's
children? Good question?

The one exception to this is the voice where children cannot travel
quickly because after they have learned to sing in one range, the voice
changes and has a whole new set of problems that don't relate to the
earlier experience at all. In fact the issue of mastery in the voice has
become a collective dumbing down of the population (more complexity) due
to the fact that no one has the patience to really do it in the expertise
mastered in the past by the musical amateurs.

As a result a new aesthetic has arisen that technologically creates
something that doesn't exist in real life. Very few of the great popular
singers can use the mastery of the past to work acoustically today.
Technology has made it unnecessary for them to be Masters at the balance
of air with vibration, resonance and articulation in an intelligent
musical product. It also means that most of the music of the 19th century
is unavailable to these modern technological singers since, unlike today's
high school violinists and pianists, they don't possess the great tools of
the past because they never mastered the complexity. Their complexity is
(out of a scale of 0-10) somewhere in the 8 range. Keeping up with the
virtuosity of the instrumentalists has stretched composers to the limits
and stretched them away from their ever simpler minded audiences creating
a schism between the great identity products. (Why the audience is dumber
is an issue of economics too complicated for this simple post.) The
situation with instrumental virtuosos has not happened in Vocal music.

But let me digress for a moment to the issue of Art. Art is mirror and
ideal, truth and beauty. The product mirrors the deep meanings of the
cultural present in the identification of distinctions between cultures as
shown in their artistic products. i.e. The world of each culture's
time/space is articulated in today's artistic products. The beginning of
Art is 1. )the Truth of the cultural time and place(mirroring) expressed
by the creative Artist (in this case the composer). 2.) The Mastery of
the composer as shown in his/her imagination and craft in leading the
audience into an experience of the raw Truth in a graceful manner. Or as
composer Bela Rozsa said: "The Art of Musical composition is the
psycho-physical pursuit of values in sound." The values of craft,
virtuosity and imagination in the most creative or qualitative manner is
called Beauty. The whole process is called Art and its structure is Truth
and Beauty.

But back to individual Mastery. In the vocal world the vocal change which
destroys vocal Mastery in the child and creates complexity in the
adolescent adult's vocal instrument, causes a situation where adults can
begin singing, as adults, and skip the child phase completely. As a
result they miss the most important element of Mastery of Musical Art, the
Mastery of the Music itself.

In a country like America that doesn't stress languages, it is a double
blow because the development of language and languages as is required by a
sophisticated international singer, doesn't begin until adulthood when
languages are hardest. Musical instinct which is largely, like language,
habit raised to the level of naturalness (i.e. zero complexity) is also
easiest in childhood when the products of expression are most available to
the developing personality. That is why there are few Instrumentalists or
dancers who begin study of the instrument as late as singers. They simply
can't compete with the young superior virtuosos who have worked from an
average age of six to eight, in the case of dance it begins as early as

So what is Mastery? Zero complexity, in my field. In my field,
complexity does not exist outside the body. Only the materials for
learning exists outside the body. Rather than speaking of complexity
external to the individual, like Warfield we prefir to use words like
melody, texture, harmony, timbre, meaning, rhythm, tempo i.e. elements
that are manipulated in imaginative ways for the development of an
artistic product. If you need a word for the external then use the
specific words that define the external structure of the system of the
music itself. Because so few in today's audiences are capable of doing
that, they love to use the inappropriate term "complexity."
Inappropriate to us anyway. I am reminded of the students from the Orient
who came to study with me in the 1970s and to who had not mastered English
well enough to really study the intracacies of vocal structure using
English. They would some time's say "very complicated." But it was not
complicated to me. I taught them to say instead "very difficult." Which
seemed to offer them hope since it was not difficult to their Sensei. If
the complexity was not external they had the hope of learning through a
serious effort and application of their discipline.

The aim of Mastery is to reduce the performance of those products to the
level of simple conversation. i.e. zero complexity. Unfortunately today.
The collective dumbing down of the audience has made today's Master
musicians operate in a climate that more resembles trying to speak clearly
enough to make an audience from another culture understand your English.

Mastery = zero complexity = virtuosity.

Ray Evans Harrell, artistic director
The Magic Circle Opera Repertory Ensemble, Inc.
Producer the Ned Rorem 2003 International Festival.


"Ray Evans Harrell" <>

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