In Tune: Jazz Man Harry Pickens ’81 on Lessons From a Life in Music

Alumnus Harry Pickens '81 will help students tune up themselves as well as their musical instruments when he returns to Davidson this week for an intense three-day residency.

Pickens overcame debilitating stage fright early in an international career that has since taken him to 17 countries and featured performances with jazz greats like Dizzy Gillespie, Joe Henderson, Freddie Hubbard, Milt Jackson and James Moody. Along the way, Pickens has helped more than 20,000 musicians to "transform performance anxiety into rock-star confidence" through his trademark workshops, and is currently broadening his work in parallel with emerging neuroscience applications around brain plasticity. 

During his Davidson residency, he will make music with the Jazz Ensemble and conduct workshops with musical groups across campus, including the Jazz Combo, the Davidson College Symphony Orchestra, the Chorale and the Davidson Singers.

Pickens will give a solo concert at 7:30 p.m. on Thursday in Tyler-Tallman Hall, Sloan Music Center. On Friday, he will join the Jazz Ensemble as guest pianist at 7:30 p.m. on the stage of Duke Family Performance Hall. Pickens' most recent book, In Tune: Lessons in Life from a Life in Music, will be available at the performances.

In this Q&A, Pickens talks failure, feedback and transformation through music.

How are you applying your own "lessons from a life in music" these days?

The core of my work now is helping people find a place of inner power. I've gone from when I was primarily working in music, playing and writing tunes, to tuning souls, and helping people getting in tune with themselves and their best possibilities. Even my work with performers and performing artists these days is about transforming their psyche. Neuroscience is showing that you can build your brain like you build your biceps. You can rewire your brain applying principles of neuroplasticity. You can use your brain to change your mind, and your performance.

How did your focus turn to this emerging work?

When I was starting my career, I had such bad stage fright that I couldn't eat or sleep. One gig a week and I'd be dead in six months! I was living in New Jersey and traveling internationally. No matter how well I played, I was a six-foot-nine ball of anxiety. In one of a very few lucid dreams in my life, I looked down at my hands, except I had no hands. And I felt nothing but relief. That means my value as a human being is not based on how well I play. It cracked open in me a seed that took years to grow and blossom.

In your forthcoming book, you talk about dealing with failure. How has your definition of failure changed over time?

I no longer have a mental construct of failure. It's about feedback. You start moving in the direction of your goal and you have various setbacks and you keep going. For much of my life, I have had a catholic curiosity and I could never settle on one thing. That's what turns me on. It's that kaleidoscopic engagement. But I still bought into that old saying "jack of all trades, master of none." If I had not framed that as failure, I could have saved myself a lot of unnecessary pain, difficulty and self-doubt. This is the book I wish I had had then. I would have owned my particular capacities much sooner. I would have made some wiser decisions–I'll leave it at that.

How has the transformational work affected your music?

What's emerged, I think, is my capacity to access at will a state of equanimity, of compassion, peace, courage and tenacity in the same moment. That shifts my capacity and ease in performance. It allows me to be an instrument of the music instead of focusing so hard on making music.

What does it feel like from the inside to be an instrument of the music?

What's one of your favorite kinds of music, something that fills you?... Okay, hold the phone [plays piano, a deeply powerful and familiar tune that can't quite be placed]. I created that just for you, just now.

"I'm speechless."

Your speechlessness is evidence of the presence of love: when we know in our gut, heart and soul, and the words never come, but we know that we are all one. To convey that for me is the purpose of life and music.

John Syme



  • January 24, 2018