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By David Harder on March, 16, 2017

The Man Who Taught Me How to Unlearn

One of the greatest learning experiences in my life came from a man named Phil Cohen. I reached out to him yesterday after many years. Phil is the Artistic Director of Concordia University’s Leonardo Project. I met him in my late 20’s when I was devoted to becoming a jazz recording artist. Years before that life-changing moment, I had walked into Daniel Pollack’s studio at USC. He asked what I wanted to work on. I pulled out a copy of Herbie Hancock’s concert album from Lincoln Center and announced, “I want his job.” Let’s just say that was not to be part of the lesson. I was willing to do anything to meet Phil. He worked with artists like Russ Ferrante from Yellowjackets and Al Jarreau. He was a legendary teacher who mentored the best of the best throughout the world. When he was in LA, I got a session with him. Phil was wearing a Heisenberg Fedora and sunglasses, sitting in the corner of a recording artist’s living room. He motioned to me,


“Play something.”


I performed a tortured little ballad that I was quite proud of. When I was finished, he asked,


“You studied at USC? Did you play the Russian exercises for hours? Even on the floor?” After several affirmative answers, he continued, “You need an emotional enema. If you hope to play one living note of music you are going to have to forget everything you have ever been taught.”


It was one of the single most frightening moments in my life. In essence, I agreed to give up what I had been taught for 20 years.


He had this acute radar in zeroing in on thinking and behaviors that blocked the parts of me that had yet to come out. Over the years, Phil gave me the skill of unlearning, of forgetting, of letting go of conditioning and the “right way” to play or think or behave. I had the nicest piano of his LA clients so he moved everyone to my home. I used to sit in the hall and peek through the slats in the door stunned as one icon after another sat at my piano. Phil didn’t impose a “technique” on his clients, he identified whatever was blocking their gifts and helped them let go.


His work informs all that I do. It is behind my writing, how I facilitate our group programs and the respect that everyone is divinely gifted. It is my responsibility to help that flourish and shine and become clear. Earlier this week, my colleague Mary Campbell and I were editing our book. She read two chapter summaries that reduced me to tears. I gasped, “You forgot the script!” and I thought of Phil.


I found his e-mail yesterday and sent a letter. It was answered by a colleague named Alan from Concordia who lives in Serbia. He told me the letter was touching and that he would forward it to Phil who is 90 and starting to finally slow down. In May, Concordia is having a big gala concert celebrating the 50th anniversary of what is Canada’s premier music school. I am traveling as well so I asked him to give Phil a big hug that he so richly deserves.


What could this story have to do with you?


We have entered an era of such rapid and transformative change that helping others develop the skill of unlearning is one of my big missions in life. What we learn has a way of turning into what we believe and then tidal waves of change turn the world upside down. Futurist Alvin Toffler predicted that those of us who thrive in the 21st century will be the active learners who learn, unlearn, relearn and unlearn again. Does that sound like hard work? It is at first and the experience leads to greater freedoms again, again and again.


And, a special thank you to Mary for reminding me that brilliance is already within us.


Brought to you by David Harder – Founder & President, Inspired Work, Inc.