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
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
“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
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
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.