It is said that even the masters experience pre-stage jitters at Carnegie Hall. For this artist, the stakes are high. Tonight, everything depends on his ability to muster inspiration, composition, and performance in real-time to be unfolded before a packed house with high expectations. There's no pre-set song list. No digital re-editing. Nothing contrived.
Improvisation is a window through which one could know an artist. Before he sits at his piano, Keith Jarrett tells us about a conversation he had with a friend about the late Joseph Campbell the writer.
Keith's friend recalled, "Boy, you should've seen him in a car." Keith was puzzled: "What?" His friend explained, "When we were doing long drives together, you wouldn't believe what he was putting together in the car. His books were nowhere near the things that were coming out of his mouth in the car. "
From this, Keith came to a revelation:
"So it made me think things, like, we haven't ever heard Bach improvise. But Bach was a great improviser. So we don't know much about Joseph Campbell because only people close to him in the car heard him [improvise]. Only a few lucky people walking into a church heard Bach's improvisation. And that led me to a realization that I should probably tell this audience that, although I'm famous for not liking things, I love my audience."
It seems, for Keith, improvisation is as much a methodical process as a magical one. He sits thoughtfully in front of the piano, almost meditating. His hands on his lap. He gazes at his keys. He slowly raises his hands. And gently places his finger tips on the ivory, almost teasing them, before finally unleashing his full weight and seismic energy into them. At that moment, we are transported. As he reaches various peaks on this journey, Keith rises up from his seat into a horse stance, leaning over his keys, as if to look inside the belly of his howling piano.
But then something goes wrong. Something very ordinary happens. But just at the wrong time and in the wrong place.
Suddenly, at the height of the song, a few people decide to take out their iPhones—disengaging themselves from this mesmerizing and irreplaceable now— and begin snapping pictures with obnoxious flashes.
This not only runs against repeated requests by the MC to turn off all gadgetry including phones and cameras, it is downright disruptive to the artist. Here's a man who's putting his soul out there. His every key stroke, hesitation, and misplaced note would be laid bare; on stage with only his piano and his talent, honed through 63 years of hard work. While he's trying to concentrate, you're fiddling around trying to bring a piece of this home as if it's yours to take. It's like you're visiting the temples of Ankor Wat, and you decide to detach a piece of statue to keep as a souvenir.
It reaches the point where, between songs, Keith gets up from his piano and walks off the stage. He later re-emerges, walks back to his piano, turns to the audience, and then walks off the stage again. Without exaggeration, this repeats a few more times. We are puzzled by this behavior until one of Keith's assistants walks onto the stage and makes the following plea:
"In order to make the music as beautifully as he is able to make the music, there really must be NO photography. It's really distractive, and it's distractive for him when he comes out to see the lights on. As he said in the beginning, he loves his audience. So, please, please ... if you want to hear more music, no photography. No gidgets. No gadgets. Turn your phone off. He'll come back and play."
Keith later walks back onto the stage. When the applause quiets down, he explains further:
"It's not that I don't like my picture taken. It has absolutely nothing to do with that. It's a process here. It's not something photographable. When people take whatever they take home with them, it's meaningless. BUT IT SCREWS WITH US."
"The toys are out there, but PLEASE." Then Keith finishes his plea: "Like, imagine back to some amount of time when photography demanded that you actually learn how to take pictures."
People applaud some more, and I sit there, smacked with a realization about the hidden opportunity costs that come with our digital addiction.
Think about what Keith is saying. It's not that we're just rude, inconsiderate, and self-absorbed with our little digital screens. There's something bigger that's at stake in our lives. Let me repeat what Keith said: "Imagine back to some amount of time when photography demanded that you actually learn how to take pictures."
Let me bolster Keith's plea with some data points. According to NielsonWire, we spend about 59 hours per month on the Internet. That's almost 2 hours per day. About 22% of that went to blogs and social networking sites. Facebook and YouTube alone accounted for 7 and 1 hours per month, respectively. I'm not even counting the time on our smart phones for gaming, downloading phone apps, and compulsively checking our emails only to be disappointed to find medical wonders that enlarge your Johnson.
So why stop at photography? Think of a time when you actually had to learn to play a real musical instrument instead of something shaped like a guitar with 4 colored buttons. Instead of pithy wall posts and tweets, why not read a book? Instead of clicking on the "like", "wink", "poke", or "flirt" button, why not write a postcard to your friend?
The opportunity costs are huge. 3 years ago, if I had dedicated 2 hours per day on learning Mandarin, the taxi cab driver in Shanghai might've actually understood where I wanted to go. If I spent 2 hours per day going to Renzo Gracie's Brazilian Jiu Jitsu classes, I'd be able to put my buddy Scott (who's twice my size) into an arm bar. Heck, if I put 2 hours each night in classes at Cordon Bleu, I wouldn't be eating the same damn shit everyday. What's for dinner? Turkey sandwich. And tomorrow? Turkey sandwich. Dessert? Peanut butter and jelly...sandwich.
Here's my call to action: Invest in yourself and your creative spirit instead of in your gadgets. What this means is:
Step 1: Postpone for another 2 years your purchase of version 6.1.3. of the latest iSwindle. Instead, buy a Fender Stratocaster, trombone, tap shoes, a daily journal, a paint brush and canvas, or a plane ticket to a place whose name you have trouble pronouncing.
Step 2: Read books like this and this to realize that whatever your excuse for inaction, it's just an excuse. There are no pre-requisites. Start today. Start a band. Finish that manuscript or screenplay. Close your eyes and let your hand wander to a random page in a cook book, and make something delicious for your honey. Visit a library after work, and get lost for a little while. You'll be surprised by what interests you.
Step 3: When you are so lucky as to witness something beautiful — whether it's Keith Jarrett at the piano or a homeless subway performer who finds happiness in singing just as passionately when the platform is empty as when it's full—resist the temptation to whip out your gadget. Enjoy this rare sliver of time called now. It will be gone before you know it.
Jeffery To is an NYC-based corporate entrepreneur and IBM Innovator Award Winner who is saving his own soul through his very loud and ear-bleeding band Kongcrete.