Bird Lives!



Originally uploaded by hablando del asunto.

I recently finished reading Ross Russell’s Bird Lives!, a biography of Charlie Parker, the legendary jazz saxophonist who revolutionized the world of jazz in the early 1940s.

One of the things that surprised me on reading the book is just how unremarkable Parker was as a young musician.

We all hear stories of young Mozart; how audiences were astounded by his musical talents as a child. Mozart seemed to have some inexplicable innate musical from the moment of his birth.

Not Parker.

He was relatively late coming to music. He didn’t pick up an instrument until he was in high school. When he did, all accounts indicate that he was awful. For years he was considered a joke amongst his local Kansas City musicians, if they noticed him at all. His tone was terrible. He didn’t have any real understanding of music theory or harmony. He just plain sucked.

But what he might have lacked in raw talent, he more than made up in dedication. He spent every spare minute practicing. Despite several demoralizing incidents at local jam sessions — all of his early attempts to solo in public ended badly; one with the drummer throwing a cymbal to the floor to get him off the stage — he continued practicing. He was determined to master the alto sax.

He did eventually, of course. He spent a summer learning to play the solos off some Lester Young records and learning music theory from other trained musicians. Slowly he became competent. Then he became good. He kept working at it until he became the great player that history remembers him for.

While reading the biography, I was reminded of an article Kathy Sierra wrote about becoming an expert:

The only thing standing between you-as-amateur and you-as-expert is dedication. All that talk about prodigies? We could all be prodigies (or nearly so) if we just put in the time and focused. At least that’s what the brain guys are saying. Best of all–it’s almost never too late.

I’m not suggesting you can consider Charlie Parker a typical example of anything, but his experience does seem to support what Kathy is saying.

Dedication makes a difference.

I find that encouraging.

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