Simply put, some folks were born with more than their share of creative talent. To me, the great trombonist John Kenny exemplifies this injustice.
Among his many talents and titles, Kenny is a professor of trombone at two of Europe’s most prestigious conservatories. Beyond the expected expertise in performance and repertoire that comes with being a teacher, Kenny takes it a step further – as the world’s leading authority on the Iron Age Celtic battle trumpet, the carnyx. After reconstructing one particularly famous artifact found in Deskford, Scotland, he became the first person to play the instrument after more than 2,000 years of silence. That happy guy with the childlike smile, gripping a cylindrical tube with a boar’s head mounted on top and wagging its fleshy tongue to signal a call to war, was Kenny – in his element.I first met Kenny in Beijing when the city was preparing for the Summer Olympics. As an overture to the festivities, the country hosted its first-ever International Trombone Festival. Invitations were extended to various notable trombonists, including four Americans and four Europeans. I was lucky enough to be included in this who’s who of musicians along with Steve Wilson and Benny Sluchin. But, what I remember most from the experience was Kenny. Again, even in this talented pack of musicians, his uncompromising artistic vision put him in a different class of artist. He had “the plus factor.”
Musicians with “the plus factor” are gifted and then some – possessing an additional element that elevates them to extraordinary. In Kenny’s case, it’s his talent, curiosity and interest in un-ventured paths. He is not bound by traditional concepts of genre or time period, discipline or instrument. These disparate interests make him a better artist and include his many other curiosities beyond the trombone, including composition, history, archeology, theater (did I mention that John is co-founder of a theater company that tours all over the world?) and entrepreneurship. He has created a thriving career that is unlike any of his contemporaries – one that does not rely on him occupying traditional roles within the music profession. Simply stated, he has invented his own artistic life.
“…support your colleagues and serve the music,
not your ego…”
While some might say these pursuits compete with his attention to the instrument, it is clear, in Kenny’s case, they enhance his artistry. And having premiered more than 100 works for solo trombone, been invited to serve as artist-faculty for dozens of International Trombone Festivals and performed at the opening of TEDGlobal 2013, no one can argue his place in the trombone pantheon.
I decided to reach out to Kenny with the hope of gaining insight into all of this. Predictably, I found him in an unpredictable circumstance, of which I am equal parts envious and in admiration:
“Great to hear from you, Mark. How’s it all going? I’m on The Isle of Man, which sits in the sea between Ireland and England, working crazy hours to create a new music theater piece on true 17th-century events that took place here during the English Civil War. Exhausting, but exhilarating, with a wonderfully talented company. My biggest problem is that I’m writing and arranging as I go, co-directing, trying to memorize music and movement and character parts. There’s at least one too many functions in there in a three-week rehearsal period! C’est la vie – head down and go for it!”
Yup. That about sums up Kenny. He wasn’t playing the trombone – he was composing, directing and acting in a theater production, and clearly loving life on The Isle of Man. I was in Pittsburgh waiting for a flight.
“…seek to achieve virtuosity, but never become seduced by it…”
Considering the complexity of Kenny’s life, work and creative spirit, I thought to ask him the big question I ask all the artists I most admire: Why practice? And, like every artist before and after him, his response was wholly unique to him. He said it was “to free yourself so that you are always a giver not a taker in every aspect of your playing; support your colleagues and serve the music, not your ego; seek to achieve virtuosity, but never become seduced by it – and make yourself your own greatest competitor.”
Kenny, seeing well beyond the horn he holds, is busy inventing his own most promising future. He is not competing with anyone else. He is practicing virtuosity, while embracing the joy and wide-eyed curiosity of the amateur – making music “for the love of it.” Kenny sees room for everyone – a win-win world. And, as all true artists do, he is guided in his career and his life by the unique perspective of his own artistry.
In the real-life game of musical chairs, there are enough seats for everyone who cultivates their curiosities, fosters their creative genius, and prizes collaboration as a core principle within their belief system. The plus factor may well be within our own grasp if we only consider the path un-ventured.