I've been thinking a lot about the eternal nature of principles. In a "give-me-everything-for-free!" entitled society, I see more and more brats out there than ever before, as well as more and more incredible individuals that are making a huge difference in the lives of others and in their families. With more opposition in the world than ever before, the divide between the dead-beats and elite individuals is widening. One thing that we're constantly faced with is whether to partake of the principles of worldliness, materialism, and greed. So much of our world is dominated by the "getting ahead" mentality that we'll take any free handout, any shortcut to success, and we'll do anything for that one extra toy or gadget that we have to have.
I'm a nerd who really likes to read finance books. I think it stems back to my childhood and the decision I made when I was ten-years-old that I wanted to be a concert pianist. I made the decision after seeing one of my peers - Ryan Brown of the Five Browns - play with the Utah Symphony. After watching the inspiring performance of this kid - who was WAY old, by the way...I mean, he was twelve and I was only ten! - I knew I wanted to do this whole piano thing forever. In my maturity, I knew that my old dream of being an NBA player probably wouldn't pan out, and the fact that I had been recently been cut from the Gold soccer team to the Silver team was a sure sign that my soccer skills wouldn't work out either (they fizzled out by age 13, after which I took up the physically demanding "sport" of golf). Whenever I told people this, they said, "Good luck being a starving musician." Or, "What's your backup plan?" Or, "What do you want to do...teach?!" followed by a mocking chuckle. Little did they know that those insulting questions were the fuel of motivation. Sure, getting an MBA will almost always have a better financial outcome than an MM in Piano Performance, statistically. But who cared about the statistics? I was going to do everything possible to propel my passion. I dreaded doing anything else as a career, and I was going to do everything in my power to beat the system.
My brothers and I were taught hard work from a young age from our awesome parents. My dad is basically made of steel, and my mom is a 3x cancer survivor. If I didn't get my two-and-a-half hours of practice in per day, I had to make it all up the next day. I think I can count on one hand the number of days I ever had to do five hours of piano practice, because I hated those days so much that I'd gladly turn down offers to go out and play with friends to make sure I finished my practicing. My brothers and I had always gone to work with my dad on our breaks from school and during the summers. One day, when my Dad cut his thumb off in his cement mixer and I watched as they had to sew it back on, I knew there had to be something better out there for me, so I quit. He told me, "If you're not working for me, you're going to start your own business. I don't want you flipping burgers." So, I started teaching piano. Pretty soon, my $10 per half-hour lesson (over TWICE the rate he had paid me, and I got to sit in a nice air-conditioned room playing and teaching music!) business took off and I built up a studio of twenty-five students. I saved every dollar I could so I could pay for my college and hopefully "make it" as a musician one day. The principle of creativity was instilled in me as a result of this situation - a seed had been planted for future success. The socialist/communist/whatever-you-want-to-call-it view of "You didn't build your business...your customers did!" never made sense to me, and it still doesn't. Why couldn't I create something out of nothing, especially when the long, hot days doing stonemasonry was the only option I could go back to?
I've recently reviewed a book I read when I was in my teens called The Millionaire Next Door. To be honest, it's a pretty dry read, and I did a lot of skimming. It's basically a book full of statistics about the behaviors of millionaires. Sure, it makes a lot of them look like penny-pinching cheapskates, but there was one example that really stuck out to me. One of the millionaires in the book was worth over five million, and he lived in the same neighborhood he always had, drove a modest used vehicle, owned his own business in the industrial part of town, and was just a "common man." He was strategic with his wealth, however, and amassed a fortune, even without earning an insanely high income. People noticed the success of his business and would ask him for advice. He ended up saving many different businesses of friends and acquaintances over the years, and several of them wanted to buy him something really nice to thank him. They decided to go all-out and buy him a custom-made Rolls Royce. It wouldn't be ready for nine months, and four months into it he found out what they had planned. Gently, he went to them and told them he couldn't accept such a kind offer. How could he accepts such a gift? He enjoyed simple restaurants with simple folks - how could he pull up in a Rolls Royce to the local diner he'd been going to for years and feel good about it? How could he go to work in that car without his workers feeling like he was exploiting them? Most importantly, how could he take that down to the lake to go fishing? After all, you can't throw dead fish in the back seat of a Rolls like you could in his vehicle!
This man said something extremely simple, "Money should never change one's values." This principle - the principle of integrity - was reinforced to me the other day in a piano lesson. The teacher was talking of various types of students, and how they can be broken down into three categories:
1) Lots of talent, lots of integrity (to work hard and focus)
2) Not a lot of talent, but lots of integrity
3) Lots of talent, no integrity
He reiterated that while it's sad that some simply don't have a lot of natural ability, those who work hard far outdo those who have a lot of natural ability but are lazy.
Yet another lesson I recently learned was from my mom, who is taking a college class in psychology. They recently read a book that had a chapter on honesty and justification, and how all of us "cheat" a little bit. Would you rob a bank? No way! But will you point out the missed charge when the cashier forgets to ring up one of your expensive items? Or will you refill your soda even when it says "No refills"? Why would you do one and not the other? The book brought up an interesting point about how people's situations can make them sway in their conviction of their principles.
All of these things have been circulating in my mind, and as I've thought more about them, I realize that principles greatly determine what and who we will become. While situations are constantly changing around us, principles are either upheld, or they are shattered. In the book Think and Grow Rich, an amazing book that talks of the richness of life and spirituality (and surprisingly very little about money), Napoleon Hill talks of the principles that govern the lives of some of the most successful individuals in America. These principles are Desire, Faith, Auto-Suggestion, Specialized Knowledge, Imagination, Organized Planning, Persistence, Creating a Master Mind Team, Harnessing the Power of the Subconcious, Utilizing Your Brain, and Outwitting Fear. These principles are eternal. They will exist whether you choose to utilize them, harness them, ignore them, or never bother to think about them. They are free - you don't have to buy these principles. You can choose to incorporate them at any time. You can choose to abandon them at any time. However, I pose to each of you the following questions, "What do you want out of life? What are you striving for? What drives you?" And finally, "What principles do you need to achieve the answers to the aforementioned questions?" Imagine a huge wall of principles looming before you, and you can hand-select whichever ones you want, good or evil. The power of choice lies with you, but with each principle you select, various consequences will follow. Which principles will you personally select, and what will they make you become?
This morning I was teaching a Skype piano lesson to a really great adult student in North Carolina. We've worked together for around six months. He's making great strides in his playing, and he is an incredibly hard worker, probably averaging around three hours of practice a day. I had a valuable lesson reiterated to me as I was working with him. He started out the lesson by saying, "You know, I've been working hard on my scales, and I can play them at mm.160 (4 notes per click) if I'm lucky, but I feel pretty confident at about mm152." If any of you play or teach piano, you know that this is no small feat. "Mm" is just an abbreviation I use for metronome marking, and each metronome marking indicates beats per minute. Personally, I feel like my scales are maxed out at around mm.184. I can play individual ones faster if needed in a piece, but I really have to work at them. Most students that I teach average anywhere between mm.60-120 for their scales. So, needless to say, he is quite advanced in this respect. He is playing also playing the Chopin Op.18 Waltz in E-flat Major at a really high level, along with Tchaikovsky's "October".
He recently brought the Chopin Etude Op.10 No.3 to one of his lessons. He decided to learn the middle part first, which is much more demanding technically than the first and last parts of the piece. We worked the middle section a lot together, and he improved greatly. However, the opening line of the piece, a slow singing line, seemed to be giving him a lot of trouble. I was a little stumped because he'd played the Tchaikovsky so well. Some students are stronger lyrical players, and some are stronger technically. I've never come across someone who'd played the middle section so well, and other lyrical pieces so well, but struggled with this particular passage. Similarly, I've had students tackle extremely difficult material, only to struggle with material that I've deemed "easy" in my mind.
An example from my own playing is the fact that I feel quite confident playingScarbo from Maurice Ravel's Gaspard de la nuit. Now, I know I'm no master, but I've competed with it for several years with some success. It's considered by many to be one of the more difficult pieces in the piano repertoire. I also feel quite comfortable with the last movement of Samuel Barber's Sonata in E-flat Minor, Op.26, a daunting fugue that was originally premiered by Horowitz. However, if you give me Chopin Etude Op.10 No.2, my hand and mind immediately forget that I'm a pianist, fear clutches my whole being, and the piece turns into useless mush. I have such a death grip on the notes that my fingers could probably snap off, and I want to go kill myself when I hear the 10-year old Chinese girls playing it twice as fast as I can on YouTube.
The lesson to be taken from working with this great adult student is that comparison to others is ultimately an empty pursuit. I'm not implying that it's not important to strive to be as good as someone you admire, or that you cannot learn from a great master. What I'm getting at is that depression can quickly set in when we allow ourselves to be defined by others' achievements. It's the whole mentality of "If he or she has more, I have less." This is a shameful and destructive way to think, but we all fall into that trap if we're not careful. The opposite is true as well. If we've achieved a high level of anything, humility is key in order to keep achieving great things. It's so easy to get out of touch, become comfortable, and stagnate. Ultimately, comparison to others is completely meaningless, and almost always debilitating. Rather, setting ideals in your mind, even unprecedented ideals, and striving for these is how webecome something, rather than simply achieve something or cross it off of a to-do list. Becoming should be our ultimate goal, for when you've become something, riches are gleaned through your mindset and skill-set that money or materials cannot purchase.
Sergei Babayan may very well be the most talented pianist on earth. Of course, this is just my opinion, but I've never met someone who has such jaw-dropping technique that still finds time to express every note with such finesse and sincerity. He has the warmest and most gorgeous tone quality I've ever heard, while still maintaining fiery passion. I've had the pleasure of working with him in private lessons every few months for the last 4 years, and last week I saw him perform for the first time. What an incredible experience to watch him perform Rachmaninoff's Third Concerto.
All of my amazing teachers - Susan Duehlmeier, Sergei Babayan, and Logan Skelton - have instilled wonderful qualities in me as a musician and person. All have stressed the need to find beauty in every note I play. However, I still find myself falling short in many performances. I miss so many notes, or it's not expressed exactly the way I want it, or my memory lapses...so many things can go wrong. It's frustrated me to a great degree. However, I realize a great flaw that may have been causing this for all these years - distraction.
A few weeks ago, I had a life-changing lesson with my teacher here at the University of Michigan, Logan Skelton. He asked, "Do you have any interest in starting to do competitions again?" I told him that I did. I have been postponing applications for competitions while I've been learning new repertoire, but I feel like my skill is slipping, and competitions really keep me on top of my game. To give you a precursor, last year may have been the craziest two semesters of my life - I learned Tchaikovsky Concerto No.1, Schubert A minor sonata, relearned a bunch of classical selections for my new CD My Favorite Things, arranged the remaining selections on the CD, flew home during Christmas and Spring breaks to record the CD, then performed about 20 concerts over the summer, in addition to teaching about 20 private students on Skype every week...and hanging out with my really hot wife.
He was blatantly honest with me. I told him that even though I would like to do some big competitions, I wasn't sure I could place in any of them, but that I'd do them anyway, for the experience. He told me, "You know, Josh, I don't think you can really make that call. I have total confidence that you could reach a really, really high level of playing. You already play so many things extremely well, but I have confidence that you could play anything you want at any level, and be very successful in competitions. Of course, every competition is subjective, but if you do enough of them and are dedicated enough, I don't think there's a whole lot you couldn't do. Last year, I saw you barely hanging on...you are a busy guy. You recorded that album, you're in school with a full load of courses, and you teach a ton of students. You're successful, but I notice that you are giving last priority to your playing." The words were incredibly kind, but they stung like crazy, as they affirmed what I already knew I needed to fix. I had put the single most important thing in my career on the back-burner, placing the thing of most value in last place, letting other good things take a place ahead of them. Of course, none of the other things - teaching, recording, studying - were bad things, but those are the very things that are meant to shape theultimate goal of becoming the greatest pianist I can become.
I walked out of that lesson with a renewed determination. My practicing has been significantly better and more focused since then, and any time I hear someone who is better than me, I think to myself, "They may be able to outplay me, but they'll never be able to outwork me. One day, I'll be that good." Now, I don't know if I'll ever be as good as Babayan, or my favorite young pianist Daniil Trifonov, but I do know that by holding them as the ideal, even if I fall short, I will have come significantly further than if I had simply just aimed for mediocrity.
Two weeks passed, and I went to another lesson. I now had a large plate of repertoire that I needed to devour, and it was intimidating me. I had learned the first movement of Rachmaninoff Concerto No.2 in a week - it wasn't even close to perfect. I'd also started bringing back some repertoire for a big international competition audition tape. And I had learned the Rachmaninoff Etude-Tableau Op.39 No.1 in tempo. But, I still had Beethoven Waldstein Sonata, Carl Vine Sonata, a Volodos transcription, and a Chopin Nocturne looming ahead. I don't think I've ever attempted this much repertoire at once. I asked him, "How in the world can I balance all of this stuff? Do I just need to man up and do it? How would you go about it?" He gave me some detailed and sound advice, closing off with a laugh, "Yeah...basically you just need to man up."
When I was sixteen, I was preparing for the National Chopin Competition. It was a Thursday, probably 6 months before the competition. My teacher, Susan Duehlmeier, passed me in the hall after a concert. She said, "You know, I was thinking, can you relearn the first movement of your Chopin Sonata in B Minor for your lesson on Tuesday?" I was a little freaked out, but thought, "Yeah, I can do that." I told her I'd do it. We talked for a bit, and she said, "Oh yeah, and have the whole thing memorized." Seventeen pages, relearned and memorized in 4 days?! I'm a slow memorizer. I responded, "Susan, I really don't feel like I can do that. That's a lot, and you know I'm a slow memorizer." She smiled and said, "You can do it. I wouldn't ask you if I knew you couldn't do it." Tuesday came, and I managed to get through the whole first movement memorized. I couldn't believe what I'd done...how did I do that?
What I've realized from these three incredible individuals is that noble thinking allows one to transcend any limitations one has previously established as their "talent level." So many times in the past, I've thought, "I'm not talented enough to play something like that, to learn it that quickly, or to perform it that perfectly." When I do this, I place limitations on my potential, and my thinking becomes far less than noble. Also, filling up my days with endless amounts of teaching, studying, or other activities that ultimately rob me of the most noble goal of all is a sure way to lose potential to an even greater degree. Everyone needs balance, and any one thing in excess can put a damper on your happiness. However, I think the greatest damper is not discerning the difference between good, better, and best. When we put the best things first, our talent can blossom, which enhances and enriches those things that are only "good" and "better". Ultimately, talent is just the sum total of noble thought coupled with the amount of work you have put forth. So long as your thoughts remain noble and your mind remains open, your talent is in a perfect environment to grow. Then, all it needs is work. How much your talent grows depends on how much work you put into it. It can grow to astronomical heights, as is evidenced in the playing of Babayan, a man who has dedicated his life to his art while still maintaining balance as a wonderful person, teacher, husband, and mentor. How large will you allow your talent to grow?
About the Blog
The musings of a (crazy) concert pianist
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