The Best in the World

I took my son, a flute player, to see Sir James Galway, arguably the best flautist in the world.

He and his wife spoke informally before the concert.  They said the US under-achieves in international competitions relative to its raw talent. Why? The competitive emphasis we put on technical virtuosity.

The fundamentals are forgotten, they said.  To be great, you need to work on scales and tone.  His concert included two “simple” pieces amidst the virtuoso pieces—to lead the students in the house by example.

His website speaks to his generosity—financial and spiritual.  He talks about the fundamentals of music, and of being human.  It says, "My scales are my prayers; my concerts are the answers."

    Years ago, I took a week’s solo lesson with arguably the world’s greatest pedal steel guitar player (and surely the best teacher), the late Jeff Newman—in a little A frame house at the top of the hill on Jeff’s land 20 miles east of Nashville.

We spent the first half-day tuning.  Tuning.

Once we spent an hour with him leaning back in a chair, strumming 3 guitar chords while I played three steel notes over and over.  He’d grimace at some notes, smile at a few. “If you cain’t make me cry with just three notes, Charlie,” he’d say, “what the hell good are all the rest?”

Once I got frustrated with technique on the volume pedal.  “Charlie, you got to stomp that sucker,” he said. “Either you’re going make that hunk of metal sing for you, or it’s gonna kick your butt. Which is it gonna be?”

Between songs, he’d tell stories.  Like the time Jimmy Day finally played Steel Guitar Rag dead flat perfect, looked up and realized the joint only had 23 people in it—all drunk, and not one who gave a damn.  “You don’t play for perfection,” he said, “you practice, then you play for love—perfection’s just a little gift you get once in a while.”  Jimmy Day, he said, had a cable linking his foot and his soul.

Or the day John Hughey, Conway Twitty’s old steel player, put away his steel for good after Conway retired, despairing of ever again getting gigs for his old-style of playing. Only to get a call later that day from Vince Gill, who featured him in the front of the band, and started a whole new career for Hughey.

Occasionally Jeff would sit at my instrument and just noodle.  Incredible sounds, blending jazz chords and pipe organ tones with Bach-like complexity.  “Why don’t you record some of that, Jeff, that’s absolutely gorgeous, unique,” I’d say.

“Why don’t I record it? I’ll tell you why.  Only four reasons to do it.  One, for the money—I don’t need it.  Two, for my students; but it’d just intimidate them, not help them.  Three, for my ego—again, I don’t need it.  And four, for your ego—but that’s your damn problem, not mine!  I ain’t doin’ it.”

The best in the world often sound like this. They are self-assured but not arrogant. They are technically great, but see technique as a means, not an end.

Their emphasis is on the basics, and on the result. Technique in service.

What are the basics in business?  I suppose quality, integrity, customer focus.  Commitment.  Willingness to give to others. Trust.  Stuff like that.

What are the business analogues to musical flash and technique that  get in the way of tone and soulfulness?  Perhaps systems and measurements; esoteric strategies; clever incentive schemes; complex financing; sophisticated diagnostics and skillsets?

We all need technique.  And complexity is a fact of life.  But the ends are still supposed to be the reason for the means; the means aren’t self-justifying.

It don’t mean a thing if it ain’t got that swing.

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