Chick’s Big Lesson

If you would have told me just two hours before speaking to Chick Corea that I’d be speaking to Chick Corea I’d have told you you were either insane or a liar. Or possibly an insane liar.

But I should have told you that you were a fortune teller because there I was speaking to Chick Corea over Zoom.

For those of you who don’t know, Chick is a world-class piano player and musician. And I don’t throw the term “world-class” around lightly. If there was an Olympics for piano playing, Chick would be a multiple time medalist.

How I ended up on this call is interesting but not relevant so I’ll save it for another day.

At some point during the call, Chick was gracious enough to take some questions when one young woman virtually raised her hand. She wanted to know how Chick played so smoothly. She talked about sight reading and working on certain technical skills that improve her arpeggios and legato and some other fancy music terminology that I can’t even remember.

She was still explaining her issue when Chick stopped her mid-sentence.

“Obviously, I haven’t heard you play but I’ll bet anything your problem isn’t technical,” Chick said in his strangely relaxing Massachusetts accent.

“You’re thinking. You’re not knowing,” he said. “There’s a big difference.”

Chick went on to explain how there is a long period of thinking about a piece. It’s structures, rhythms, timing, notes and everything else that goes into making it sound like music. It’s critical to go through this period. Even players you see who just seem to play have undoubtedly gone through this long bout of thinking. Of breaking it down, working out the pieces, stringing those pieces together and trying to make it a whole.

But, after this period of intense focus you have to let the thinking go. You have to just know.

As John Oliver would say, “Holy Shit!”

Corea just explained in about 30 seconds over a Zoom call the entire process of training.

Because with training there is also this long (loooooooonnnng) process of thinking. Of where your feet should be in the squat or where the barbell touches your chest on the bench. Of when you inhale and exhale when you run and how you move down while the bar is moving up in the clean. Of how to get in the right amount of protein each day or how in the hell you are going to get in 100 ounces of water without having to pee every 8 seconds. Of how to wake up once your alarm clock goes off without hitting snooze 7 times.

“How the hell do I do this?” you’ll ask yourself over and over.

But then, slowly, over time. It happens. These things just become part of you. And you put the bar on your back in the same place you always have and squat down deep and stand up without having to think about it. No more mental checklists. No more sheet music to reference.

Chick didn’t really say how long it takes to go from thinking to knowing because he, as well as anyone, knows that answer is not going to be the same for any two people. And I’ve certainly seen people intuit things in a relatively short period of time and others who have been at it for years and are still thinking.

But going from thinking to knowing is definitely a practice worth dedicating yourself to. It’s the difference between being stuck playing Mary Had a Little Lamb or Chopsticks and being, well, Chick Corea.