Long ago, a new kind of flute was invented in China. A Japanese master musician was taken by the subtle possibilities of expression it offered, and brought it back to his home country. He took out the new flute and played one piece at the end of a concert. When done, there was complete silence in the auditorium, so moved was the crowd. Then the oldest listener spoke softly from the back of the crowd. “That,” he said, “was the song of a god.”
The next day, as the master was preparing to leave, the townspeople brought to him their brightest young flutist, requesting the master take him on as a pupil on this strange new flute. The master agreed and took the young musician with him on his journey back to his home in the capital city.
The teacher assigned to the student one simple tune, on which the young man would practice incessantly. Each time the student played the tune, the master would start by nodding with approval, then change his expression along the way.
“No,” the master would say, shaking his head. “Something is not there.”
The student begged the master to let him try another piece, just once, but the teacher would not relent.
“No—something is still lacking,” the master said.
The student practiced the single melody for months and then years on end. He came to realize he would never make his teacher happy. One night, he packed his bags and snuck away from his master. He stayed in the city until his money ran out. Feeling overwhelmed by his failure, he began to drink and behave erratically in his drunkenness. Dejected, he retreated to a tiny hut in the countryside not far from his original village. He lived in rags and occasionally gave beginning music lessons to children of the local farmers to earn a little bit of money. He took out the special flute once in a while, but felt no inspiration to play it. His life went on this way for many years.
One morning there was a knock on his door. The musicians of his village had finally found him. That night there was to be a concert and they all agreed it could not happen without him. Overcoming his sense of shame, he picked up the special flute and went along with them.
The concert began, and many musicians played much music on the old kind of flute, but no one played the new. Near the end of the concert his name was called. He stepped onto the stage disheveled. He put the flute to his lips and played the only tune he knew. At last he had nothing to gain and nothing to lose. When he finished, there was a long silence the likes of which had not been heard in many years until the old master, now very old indeed, called out softly from the back of the room. “The song of the gods is with us once again.”
Adapted from the story as retold in “Spontaneous Effort: Improvisation and the Quest for Meaning” by David Rothenberg, Parabola, Fall 1996