I started writing this post around January 7th. Then I got sidetracked by, well, January. I think I mentioned somewhere down there that I don’t really like January.
Anyway, I met with a friend of mine this week who happens to be the music and arts minister at our church. If the term “arts minister” doesn’t register, that’s ok. Suffice it to say that he finds tangible ways to make worship more meaningful for those of us who are moved by music, visual and fine art, the spoken word, etc. I shared these next words with him:
“If I can’t be the best <insert noun here> then I won’t <insert associated verb here> at all.”
I hear these words every week from twenty different kids between the ages of 13 and 18.
When I was 12 years old I decided that I was going to college and get a degree in music. There were people who tried to talk me out of it, even bribed me by saying they’d pay for my college education if I majored in anything other than music. But my mind was made up and there was no changing it. I auditioned at Brevard College in NC and received a small scholarship, but decided against going there because, back then, it was a 2-year program and I would have had to transfer somewhere else eventually. I also auditioned at James Madison University, was accepted into their program, and headed to Harrisonburg in August of 1979.
Turns out I didn’t like Harrisonburg all that much, and my piano professor was just plain weird. My boyfriend (husband now) was at Virginia Tech, so I went to Blacksburg and auditioned there, fell in love with the campus and the piano professor who heard me play (and questioned some of the techniques and interpretations my JMU professor espoused) so I headed to Blacksburg the following January.
I got that degree a little more than two years later, finishing college in just under 3 years, and starting teaching piano. Make that babysitting piano students. I had about 2 students, and about 20 kids who were dumped at the studio for an hour every week. Decided that I didn’t want to babysit, got a job at an AT&T assembly plant–factory, that is–, got married, took COBOL programming classes that were way easy, got a programming job, and began a life of working in corporate America. The pay was very good, and programming was fun. Maybe if I’d been allowed to just design, build, test, debug, etc. I could have remained happy. But that didn’t happen. Work became all about making this week’s boss look good and last week’s boss look bad, about training my managers to manage, about training fresh-out-of-college boys who were paid more than me to do my job, whatever it was this week. And on it goes.
All during those years the piano remained in the periphery of my life. I played a wedding, played for the choir at church occasionally, played keyboards when we went “contemporary” a decade or so back. If you’re into classical liturgical music you might be familiar with the Brahms Requiem. He wrote two versions of it: one for choir and orchestra, in German, and another for choir and two pianos, in English. I played one of the pianos once. It was good.
So what?? Well, way back in 1984 the hometown newspaper printed an article entitled “Giving up the Dream: Some musicians are happier when the music stops.” This article hit me where I lived then. It said that many serious musicians are happier when they come to grips with the fact that they will never go to Juliard, never play a concerto, never ‘make it’ in the music industry. “If I can’t be the best <insert noun here> then I won’t <insert associated verb here> at all.”
Here’s the thing: 20 years later, I still have this newspaper article in my Daytimer. I still read it on occasion. And it don’t believe it. I wasn’t happier when the music stopped, or slowed down, or whatever it did.
Back in college there was an Education professor who had been a piano major at the Cincinnati Conservatory. He went on to receive a Master’s degree in Education and never played the piano again. Ever. I couldn’t understand how he did that.
Twenty years later I realized that I had, for the most part, done the same thing. I did understand how, but not why.
So here I am, sliding into mid-life, back where I was at 12, coming of age. I want to play the piano, and sing, and dance and write and whatever. I’m not going to Juliard or Carnegie Hall. I’m not going to win a Pulitzer or make the NYT best-seller list. But I am going to do something that gives me pleasure.
Back to those kids, the ones that are saying “If I can’t be the best <insert noun here> then I won’t <insert associated verb here> at all.”
Listen up: it doesn’t matter if you aren’t the best whatever. If you love it, keep doing it!
And for those of us that aren’t exactly kids anymore, who may have bought into the “Giving up the Dream” philosophy: if that philosophy works for you, Great! But if it doesn’t, scrap it. Dust of the piano, break out the paintbrush, dance like no one is watching.
Come of age.