What is mastery and what drives it? The purity of the conventional arts makes it easier for us to recognize and admire not just what it is but why it matters.
An exceptional foundation fuels vision and discovery
When I first heard Alison Balsom, celebrated as a trumpet soloist, playing this Vivaldi Concerto in A minor, it struck me as brilliant, but quite bold. That’s a violin solo. Not a trumpet solo. And yet, why not? It is widely recognized that the beloved composers commonly improvised in their day despite the rigid interpretations that are prevalent in music education today. At the same time, there exists a common understanding that some foundational discipline underlies the creativity that might flow from it.
What is remarkable about what Alison Balsom is doing, armed with her extraordinary skill and talent, reflects on much more than music. Her ability to discern nuances and details and to execute a vision comes from a deep devotion to her art. Her highly developed skills give her the power to explore in ways few others could match.
What compelled her to work so hard to adapt her playing to this piece?
“I wanted to do something probably a bit more playful and fun, and it is more virtuosic, in a technical sense, because all the pieces that I’m recording are for the violin or for the oboe. They’re not actually trumpet concertos in their original form.”
“I really don’t want to be the person who takes away anything from these pieces. I only want to be able to add something – different perspective, different color. But that’s partly why I did choose them. Because I do love that challenge.”
She shares what it feels like to navigate through this complicated exercise. Recording it, she feels very vulnerable, like every imperfection stands out. But then as she works with it, “it begins to take shape, sort of like a pottery project or something, and that is, is brilliant. It’s a brilliant feeling.” I have heard this expressed often from artists of all different mediums.
I drew these excerpts from this brief but insightful interview:
As someone who is deeply curious about mastery, where it is and where it is absent, I have noticed that at its core, it’s immersive. It involves understanding all the layers that lie beneath. Alison is fascinated with the history and evolution of the trumpet, for example. She performs pieces with the instrument of that time period to capture its unique tone and sound character. She is sensitive to and mindful of the intent and spirit of the Baroque period that she so deeply admires.
Her experiences are universal for those who are devoted to their art. They may have an outcome in mind, and they may not. Still, each can only follow what is an unclear process – making decisions along the way informed by past experiences with their art. It means accepting that there might not be (at all!) a sense that they have arrived but rather that there is a cohesion they can find satisfying. And a deep-seated passion that keeps them going forward.
Artistic pursuits may be fueled by passion and the desire to create, but they require freedom
Not all of us have this intense desire to create. In fact, many prefer the comfort of order and predictability. It is also likely that our environment influences what interests we develop. But what remains undeniable is that that drive to discover new ways of expression or of creating requires not only dedication but freedom. There is little to hold her back beyond those who insist on the original instruments. That may be fine for preservation but on another level it promotes a stay-in-place mentality that cripples growth. It keeps us tethered to the present and past with no vision of the future.
While it is easier to recognize in the arts, this desire to create is present in all types of human activities. And this desire drives us to master skills in whatever it is we are drawn to. The masters inspire us and make us better. And they encourage us to master our own skills. We must be mindful of these creative spirits in our midst, nurture them, and be wary of obstacles that might hold them back.