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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?