BUDAPEST, Hungary – Last night, after our concert at the Budapest Music Center, a man came up to María and said, “You are a master of your craft and a servant of your art.”
Truer words were never spoken: the master, despite all appearances, is indeed the servant.
Life seems to be made of these supposed contradictions which aren’t. In “Swann’s Way,” Proust writes of the man of the world who promptly answers Swann’s missive the very next day, to his great surprise. Swann thinks it remarkable that such a busy man would respond so quickly but the author points out that there is indeed no contradiction: the man is busy and in demand precisely because he is so attentive and prompt in all his dealings.
The artist who gets up on stage and receives the applause is, it turns out, the very same who slaves away in their hotel room instead of exploring the castles and baths of this city. Mastery is a beautiful thing and has its pleasures… but being carefree and light is not one of them. Mastery, it turns out, is a stern master.
Mastery is cruel in defeat but just as cruel in triumph. There are many times as an artist when the world applauds loudly but one is nagged by the sense that it could have been even better, that there is still much work to be done. Once again, back to the hotel room and the tedious rehearsals while others are out having fun.
To pursue mastery is to embrace one’s eternal imperfection. I was once at a jazz festival with the great Belgian harmonica master, Toots Thielemans. He was 80 years old and celebrated around the world. Chatting with him before his second concert, I asked him how he had spent his day. We were in that glorious paradise called Punta del Este, Uruguay. He told me that he had stayed shuttered in his hotel room all day rehearsing… because he was dissatisfied with his performance the night before!
It may seem like a twisted bargain to chase mastery only to come face-to-face with your shortcomings again and again, but it is the birthplace of the highest art. In the end, it is the servant who becomes the master.