Jumping Beyond Skill

I found a clipping of an interview with M. L. Rostropovich, a world-famous cellist and conductor, in which he remarked: ‘I would rather hear a cello piece played with genuine expression, even if there are two or three wrong notes, than a perfectly accurate but soulless performance’.

I also got a recording of Rostropovich conducting Tosca. This opera has no overture, begins with five great chords on the whole orchestra, and then the curtain goes up. The composer gives the tempo: the five chords are about three seconds each, so they continue for about 15 seconds. Then the opera begins. When he conducts this opera, Rostropovich thinks that the bare 15 seconds are too short. He makes the group of chords last nearly 40 seconds. ‘I know this is not what the composer indicated’, he says. ‘But I believe it is more effective as an introduction to the great tragedy. It must be judged by the listeners’.

Of course, it is only some one with a mastery of music who can be so free. Sometimes young stage directors in Britain have tried to alter Shakespeare to make him appear a Communist or something like that. But they failed, because they were not masters of the theatre.

But it is important that when a good level of skill has been reached, one should make a jump beyond skill. Some Japanese teachers of English, who have a wonderful knowledge of the English language, are unwilling to make the jump. They still prepare their English sentences in their heads and then utter them. They want the sentences to be perfect, but the result is that they speak more correct English than Englishmen do. When we talk to them, we feel that we are talking to an English grammar book. Written English ought to be perfect, but spoken English is often very loose, like spoken Japanese.

For instance, recently I heard a government minister answer a question in Parliament. ‘We can only help them if they apply’, he said. What he meant was that the government can help people only if they apply for help; if they do not, the government can not know that they need it. The sentence was understood by the questioner and by everyone else. No one corrected him. But to express this meaning grammatically, the sentence should have been: ‘We can help them, only if they apply’.

The rule is that ‘only’ is placed immediately before the word it qualifies. So in the actual statement, the minister is saying that if people apply, the government can ‘only help’, and that it cannot do more than help. This is the strict grammatical meaning.

This is a typical mistake in spoken English. But in fact everyone understood what the minister intended from the context. We expect such minor mistakes. If someone had corrected him, the minister would have laughed and then apologized, saying, ‘I will take more care in the future’. And everyone else would have laughed too.

So we can come back to the saucepan lids. The master used the saucepan lids to defend himself successfully. It is true that the later technical experts in saucepan lids might be even more skilful in using them. But that is not the point. If they attained great skill in saucepan lids, they would still have no more than that: without saucepan lids their skill would be nowhere. But the Budo master would be able to use the hibashi charcoal tongs or anything else, or even nothing else.

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