Keith Richards once said, “If I had been a better guitarist, I wouldn’t have been as good.” At least it sounds like something he would say.
Anyway, the thought is simple: Virtuosity is boring. Art is most interesting when it goes past mere proficiency into something honest and vulnerable. Virtuosos hide behind their skill, never reaching their audience emotionally. Who wants to hear someone noodle on guitar for an hour? Well, it turns out a lot of people. In the YouTube age people are lauded for shredding the Mario Brothers theme song in their basement on a 7-string bass. We applaud a goth kid singing opera on American’s Got Talent. Millions of views. But do these performances translate into real success and legitimacy or are they just sideshows we indulge when we’re bored at work?
The best/worst example of virtuosity crossing over into the mainstream might be the masturbatory hour-long solos of Steve Vai. There is a mild fun watching a useless skill done well. The way he plays guitar is like watching amazing baton twirling or hula hooping. But he’s massively popular. He still tours and sells records.
One of my favorite virtuosos is Senri Kawaguchi, a 17 year-old drum prodigy from Japan. There isn’t much personal information about her, but there is a video shot over the course of many years as she grows up playing the drums. The video proves hours and hours went into to creating her virtuosity. Was there a parent or teacher pushing her or was she self motivated? No clear answer, but she does seem happy raging on drums. It’s endlessly fascinating to watch.
The video starts when Senri’s a kid, maybe 8 or so. She can barely see over the set. With each new section of the video she gets older and older and better and better. She doesn’t have to strain to reach the pedals anymore. She gets tighter with her rudiments, her flams and rolls. Her set grows in size as she grows. She plays hardcore, pop punk, and absurdly drawn out solos. Sweating in the spotlight of a small club, alone in a practice room or recording in the studio. As Senri grows up the video shifts into more contemporary settings. She rebels a little. She isn’t dressed in a school girl outfits anymore, her hair isn’t done up. She trades in her massive 30-something piece kit for a stripped down jazz set up. Her hands are small and dexterous and seem much more suited to play drums than a man. In every way she is a virtuoso. And I love it.
Drums are not a featured instrument and Senri will likely never lead a band to the top of the charts, but in many ways she’s reached the top of her profession, which isn’t the art of music but the skill of playing drums. She can’t now unlearn what she knows. She can’t become worse at the drums to become a better musician per Keith’s prescription, but I love her raw ambition. The drive she has to get better and better. Even if I just watch for a minute or two while I’m bored at work.
Here’s young Senri taking a break from homework:
A more mature Senri with a super tight Japanese jazz group: