Herbie Hancock’s MasterClass: Speak Like a Guru

In his MasterClass tutorial series, Herbie Hancock offers lessons of the human spirit


Herbie Hancock (photo c/o MasterClass)

Among the topics that Herbie Hancock promises to cover in the intro to his MasterClass series is “one’s own ability to develop one’s own sound.” Though there are plenty of vital tips and techniques to be found in the 25-lesson online video tutorial, don’t expect the iconic pianist-composer to hand you your voice.

“That can’t be taught,” Hancock, 77, admitted over the phone from his hotel room in Norway. “You have to do that. You don’t get that from somebody else. But it can be encouraged, and what can be taught, perhaps, are pitfalls that pull you away from finding your own voice. Most of us learn in the beginning by being a copycat. But if you stay there and only become good at copying somebody else, you’re not really finding answers for why you exist. Every person is unique, and if you’re really serious about music and you don’t find your own way of expression, then you’ve failed in defining who you are.”

Of course, few musicians have managed to so boldly define—and continually redefine—their voice quite like Hancock, who has remained vital and relevant throughout a career that has lasted more than half a century. That’s one reason he was invited to join the elite instructors on the MasterClass faculty, including Martin Scorsese and Werner Herzog, on filmmaking; Gordon Ramsay and Wolfgang Puck, on cooking; Samuel L. Jackson and Helen Mirren, on acting; or Serena Williams, on tennis. The school, found at MasterClass.com, offers a rare opportunity to sit in with celebrity experts like Hancock for a series of, in his case, 10-15-minute-long sessions, with lifetime access to the complete class running $90.

Hancock himself learned from the best, and he returned to memories of that most progressive of mentors while devising his online classes. “I learned things from Miles Davis that I applied to music,” he explained, “and then later on learned that those same lessons could also be applicable to life itself. I want to share with people some of those concepts that were very important in my own development.”

Among those, he elaborated, is a focus on listening. “One of the first things I noticed when I started playing with Miles is that the band sounded better when Miles was soloing. I wondered why, and I realized that Miles was really listening to what the sidemen were playing, using ideas that he heard and playing off of that. That worked on the stage in front of an audience, but applying that to life can make a huge difference. In Buddhism we call it itai doshin: ‘many bodies with one mind.’”

Early in the MasterClass series, Hancock describes an epiphany he experienced through his Buddhist practice more than two decades ago. Though he’s defined himself as a musician for most of his life, he suddenly realized that, depending on the context of the moment, he could also be defined as a father, husband, son, neighbor, friend and so on. “It was like removing any kind of box,” he continues. “Now I’m able to listen to music from the standpoint of being a human being. It opened up a whole extended territory for me to draw upon … and use to tell my story through music.”

Though he does explore plenty of technical subjects over the course of his lessons, it’s this more philosophical bent that Hancock feels is his most important contribution. “People have to learn the academic details,” he told me, “but you can learn that from anybody. If you want to know something that’s more specific to how I look at things, then you’re going to hear more about how music relates to life. I don’t think music is something that’s completely separated.”

Not everything in Hancock’s MasterClass relies on years of Buddhist practice to realize. The lessons extend from topics as fundamental as practice habits to tips on improvising and composing; an exploration of harmony that includes a reharm of “’Round Midnight”; a discussion of Ravel; and an examination of Hancock’s jazz standard “Maiden Voyage.” Different arrangements of the pianist’s classic “Watermelon Man” also come under the microscope, as do approaches to “Rhythm” changes via Sonny Rollins’ “Oleo.”

Given his reputation as an early adopter of new technologies as well as new influences, it seems appropriate that Hancock would offer his wisdom via the digital-age schoolroom. “When I came up, the methods I learned were based off of methods that were developed 200 or more years ago,” he said. “This is a new age, and those old methods are not sufficient anymore. So we have to come up with new methods and try different things to see what works.”