This is a beautiful story about someone who cares more about others than himself.
"You can be with Zach, and just be sitting there with him, and feel better. He's got...I don't know how to describe it...he's got this aura about him," his dad comments in the video.
"What makes you happy is seeing someone else smile because you put it there," Zach said.
One thing that I see a lot of in society is people cutting others down. I think for the most part, human beings are innately good, that each of us has a light within us that makes us want to succeed, and makes us want to help others. However, with the stresses of life piling upon us, we must be extremely careful, for our inner light's brightness is in serious danger of being lessened and dimmed. If we ignore this problem long enough, the light can be completely extinguished and we become cold and heartless human beings, with false motives and mirages of goodness that are inwardly evil and selfish.
Being in the career I've chosen, I see an incredible amount of superfluous and cunning "goals" that pianists set for themselves. I am constantly talking about these things with my wife, and how fame is one of the most deceiving vices a human being can encounter. Growing up, I always dreamed of being a famous concert pianist, performing in cities across the world, getting to travel and see the most beautiful things this planet has to offer. I let it become so ingrained in me that it defined who I was. Everything I did was the for the advancement of my career, and I cared little about anything else. My friends from school or in the neighborhood would ask if I could come and play soccer or basketball or go golfing, and I was actually happy to tell them that I couldn't because I was practicing. I remember quitting competitive soccer at age thirteen and it was one of the greatest days of my life. Sure, I always enjoyed playing sports, and I got really into skiing and golf in high school, but more often than not I would cancel anything and everything for piano. I would rarely attend anything my siblings would do - soccer games, football games, dance recitals, and a bunch of other cool stuff - because I had a crazy amount of hours I had to practice if I was ever going to reach this goal. I would always tell myself, "Piano comes before everything except God."
One of the greatest blessings came when I met my wife, Lindsey. We started dating when I was 17, and ended up dating (minus a two-year church mission) until we got married when I was 22. We wrote each other the whole time I was on that mission, and being away from her was even harder than being away from piano. She has taught me more about perspective and what is really important in life than anyone else. She teaches me daily that self-definition is not about how big my repertoire is, how many competitions I've won, how many CDs I've produced, or any of that kind of stuff. Ultimately, self-definition is about how you affect others and bless their lives through your endeavors. I watch my colleagues enter competition, after competition, after competition, just knowing that if they can win one of them that their careers will be set, only to find that the life of a concert pianist continues to be a tough and endless road of work and dedication. Many of them have burned out and quit, and other push on tirelessly, allowing practicing to devour their entire existence. While I have respect for their passion and work ethic, I pity the fact that many of them are missing out on life and the many beautiful experiences that they could have if they kept things in perspective and balance.
Like Zach, you are remembered for who you are, much more than your list of accomplishments. One of the great heroes of piano is Van Cliburn, who recently passed away. While his winning of the Tchaikovsky competition was monumental, I noticed that everyone who was mourning the loss of this wonderful person were saying things about who he was rather than listing his many pianistic accomplishments. They commented on what kind of being he was, on the kindness and character he exuded from his charismatic and loving personality. We can all learn a great deal from people like these. It is one of the most elegant truths that when we do what we can to assist and glorify others, we receive the greater reward.
My dad is undoubtedly the hardest worker I've ever met in my life. He's a stonemason, something his dad taught him and his four brothers. The picture above is one of his masterpieces - a house he built made of 100% stone. His brothers won't admit it, but he's definitely the best among them, and probably the best stonemason in Utah. The thing that sets him apart from others is his amazing attention to detail, and the touch that causes his projects to turn into an artistic tapestry, rather than a bare wall with stones pasted onto it. Not only is he incredibly quick at what he does, but he's incredibly strong as well. I still remember when I was about 10 years old and I was at work with him. Weighing in at only 180 pounds, he can lift over twice his body weight, and I recall him hoisting some 300-400 pound corner pieces onto a wall by himself since his other worker was gone. I was in awe at this ox of a human being.
My brothers and I were frequently pawned off on him by my mom, who desperately needed a rest from us! My brother, Jared, and I would always be given the difficult tasks. My brother, Jordan, on the other hand, is the youngest brother, and my dad sympathizes with him since he was the youngest of all of his brothers as well. Jordan could often be found asleep in the sand pile while Jared and I were about to have a heart attack, trying to keep up with the millions of "necessary" tasks given to us, probably meant more to keep us occupied rather than to help him on the job site. One of our favorite jobs he would give us - a huge rest from mixing mud, hauling rock, or setting up scaffolding - was to go and find nails. Jared and I would often hit the jackpot, finding boxes and boxes of nails that had been "abandoned" by the framers or carpenters. We would fill the back of his truck with them, only to be disappointed when he informed us that when nails were still packaged nicely into boxes, they weren't up for grabs. This would result in us going back to hauling rock, with my dad probably sighing that he was ever foolish enough to trust a 10 year old and 7 year old to accomplish much of anything. The most glorious and holy words of the day were only uttered after we were completely exhausted - "Boys! Put on the tailgates! We're done!" Putting those tailgates on the back of the truck was sweeter than any amount of money we were getting paid, even with the generous 2 or 3 dollars per hour we would earn for our "help".
Although I have many anxiety-filled memories of working construction with my dad, he has taught me many great lessons. When I was fifteen, I told him I hated doing stonemasonry, and that I would give anything to do anything else. He said, "Either you can work with me, or you can start your own business. I don't want you working at McDonalds." I immediately set out on building the biggest piano studio possible, terrified that if I didn't have enough students he would make me go back to being a mindless mule - unloading an entire truck of rock, only to immediately begin loading it back onto the truck again. I grew to love teaching piano more than I probably ever would have, since it got me out of the 100 degree heat of Utah summers, teaching others what I love doing most.
Fast forward about ten years, and I was talking to him over the kitchen table. I said "Dad, even though our businesses are quite different in nature, they are in essence the same. You and I both love doing what we do, and we're both pretty good at what we do. But, our jobs are pretty similar day to day. You're doing something artistic, but how do you keep motivation? What keeps you going? What makes you want to wake up and do another fireplace, another mailbox, another house? What drives you? Is it the money? Ultimately, money doesn't mean much in the grand scheme of things. How do you get out of the monotony of everyday tasks?"
He proceeded to teach me one of the most significant lessons of my adult life.
"Josh, it's not about the money. It's not about finishing the job. It's not even about the challenge of seeing how quick I can finish something, how hard I can work, how much I can accomplish. It's much more than that. Every day, I set out with one goal in mind - how artistic can I be today? What can I do to challenge myself as an artist? How can I improve my craft and skill to create something even more beautiful than the day before?"
I have found this to be the most noble motivation I've ever applied to my daily practice and teaching. Rather than enduring a student's lesson that's not going well, I think, "What is it that is causing this student to not succeed with this task? What analogy can I give them that will motivate them to do better? How can I inspire them? How can I help them to be more artistic and noble in their thinking?" These are some of the greatest challenges I've encountered as a pianist - how I can get someone else to feel the sacred and divine qualities of a piece of music? Once a student loves something, they almost always succeed. But, how can I foster and nourish that love within them? How can I bring out the composer's lofty intent for the piece they are playing, especially when the student is not an advanced player? Nothing is more sweet than seeing them catch the fire of passion, seeing them understand and teach themselves. Similarly, in my own practice, it is a constant experiment. How can I make this passage sing? How can I make it weep? How can I make it sound like it's yearning for something in the past, or in the future? How can I convey the pain of this passage, or the joy of this phrase? In other words, how artistic can I become?This is undoubtedly the most noble motivation there is - connecting the physical with the spiritual, elevating the ordinary to a level of such serene and spiritual purity that one cannot help but marvel at the beauty they behold.
One of the great privileges of being an artist is the opportunity you have to meet other artists and get to know them, hear about their past experiences, and find out some great life lessons that they have learned in their musical journeys. This last week was thrilling as many artists on the Shadow Mountain Record label gathered to entertain 12,000 screaming ladies at Women's Conference at BYU. WOW! It's always such a rush. I think I get more nervous to play for that than almost any other event. The sheer size of the crowd is daunting, but the fact that I was playing two brand new pieces was even more intimidating. It was an incredibly fun experience, but the real treasure of the night was a conversation I had beforehand with an amazing individual, composer of the Forgotten Carols, as well as a new (and may I say WONDERFULLY entertaining and exciting) musical, called "Threads", Michael McLean.
Lindsey and I have always loved talking to this guy. He's the kind of person that everyone loves to be around because he emanates love and respect, and makes you feel like you're the most important person in the world. When you ask about his projects, which are incredibly successful (he's sold millions of copies of his works) he'll just humbly respond with something like, "You know, I'm able to keep the lights on, and I feel really lucky to be able to do that by making music and doing what I love to do." All musical talent set aside (which he has a lot of) he's a great role model for the kind of person you want to become.
We were talking backstage and he asked how school was going. I told him the long story about how I finally decided on attending the University of Michigan after a lot of prayer and contemplation, and the great spiritual lessons I learned when selecting a school. Basically, I learned that even when you think you have the right answer and you feel like you are being directed in a certain path, God will stop you if that's not the right way for you to go, because of his infinite love for each of us. I had never previously experienced that. Whenever I had thought about life decisions, and prayed about them, I'd received a certain answer, trusted it, and that was that. But this time was different, and it taught me a great lesson that we have to be flexible as human beings, and trust in a power and source that is much greater than we are as individuals.
(The following are not exact quotes, but things he told me to the best of my memory)
"You know, Josh," he said, "I'm so glad you're experiencing this when you're young, and not when you're fifty, because it can really shake you when you get older. You'll be in a groove, feeling like you know what you're doing, like you've got a system that works. Then one day, you can be thrown a curveball, and it can cause a lot of doubt. You come to realize that no matter what, when you trust in God, he helps you, even when you don't think what he wants is the best thing for you. You may not even know for a decade why you were led to that decision, but it's important that you always trust that answer."
I have a tremendous amount of respect for Michael, because after he compliments you, he takes opportunities to share tremendous jewels of wisdom.
"There's going to be times in your life when you're going to be so wrapped up in your career, and your son's going to come up to you and say, "Dad, do you love that piano more than me?" Of course, you'll tell him "No." But, your actions speak louder than your words. You'll start justifying your obsession, saying, "I'm the provider for my family! I have to do this to put food on the table. Why is everyone questioning my dedication to my career? This is touching so many lives, and supporting my family in the meantime." There will come a time when you'll have a major decision, saying, "Is this tour worth it? No. You know what, it's not worth it, because my family is more important." I'm not saying you quit, or anything like that, but you always keep your priorities in line. Your son will notice. And you know what? That's the best feeling in the world. He'll know it in his heart. He'll know that he's more important. Even though he sees you up on that stage night after night, even when you're gone on the road, if you truly show him that he is your first priority, that family is first, he will look past those times when you have to provide and be out doing shows. I can't tell you what it's like when he knows that. He'll be talking to his friends, and he'll say, "You know what?......My dad really, really loves the piano.......but you know what?..........He loves me more."
Thank you Michael McLean for your constant humility, kindness and inspiration. You are an example to all of us.
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The musings of a (crazy) concert pianist
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