Sensei Blog #012 – The Painful Truth
I have been fortunate enough in my career to have had plenty of accolades, for which I am exceedingly grateful. But on reflection, it would seem that, surprisingly, the uncomfortable criticisms (the painful truths) from people I looked up to and respected were the moments that ended up propelling my career forward.
Very early in my career I was working with a group of young guns in Melbourne, very talented guys about my age – late teens, early twenties. The music could be described as soft country/funk perhaps, and I joined them having played only a handful of gigs in not-very-good covers bands. These young musicians had style, and musical taste. I had ears, some technique, and a lot of enthusiasm and drive, but no idea what bass style fit what genre. I only knew what I had played in pop and rock songs. So one night after the gig, over coffee, toast and vegemite, the drummer quietly asked me how I thought my playing was going. His name was Perry, a most generous soul, and he had my unswerving respect. Surprised, I replied I thought it was pretty good – my reasoning was that I’d managed to fit a Stanley Clarke fusion riff in Cmin into the jam section of a Dmin country funk song – from my point of view, something of an achievement.
He commented, quite abruptly, words to the effect that from his point of view, the aforementioned riff and its placement affected him as would the act of stepping in excrement, although his wording was somewhat more succinct. I recall it being somewhat along the lines of “That was S##t”. In that one statement, one painful truth, he set me on a different path, that is, one of pursuing groove – the rhythmic agreement between musicians. Without that painful, (and in the moment, profoundly hurtful) comment, I would never have known there was a problem, and would have ended up in all likelihood, a shredder, rather than an accompanist with chops. That was Perry’s gift to me that night – a love of groove, and a pointer where to look for it (he took the time in subsequent weeks to play me a lot of great rhythm sections, and discuss how to play that way – to get me started on a new path).
Sometimes, the most important advice someone can possibly give you has a bitter, uncomfortable taste in the short term. Sometimes, you need a devoted teacher, not a “mate”. Now If I seek assistance from a mentor, I ask them to tell me what I NEED to hear, not what I WANT to hear. Ordinary friends say nice things to you. Great friends do that too, but sometimes they say the occasional unpleasant things that you MUST hear to survive, progress, expand and grow.
It’s very easy to criticise destructively, where the intent is to lessen, weaken or demean the target. One of the things a good mentor does is identify what is actually accurate and helpful criticism. Accurate and helpful criticism has a gift wrapped in it, so when a great friend criticises you in some way, look for the gift.