I earned a Bachelor of Music degree from Belhaven College, now University, in Jackson, Mississippi. My major was piano performance. In addition to classes in piano, I had to take courses in music theory: harmony, counterpoint, form and analysis, and composition. Music history was also required and, since Belhaven was a liberal arts college, there were additional general study requirements—English, History, Religion, and Science among them.
I was a fair pianist, but not a talented one. It was as a student at Belhaven that I learned the difference between talent and hard work. [They are not mutually exclusive. Many talented individuals are hard-working; not all hard-workers are talented, however.] My first lesson in the distinction between them occurred my freshman year in a music theory class. Our textbook was Harmony by Walter Piston, the American composer and music theorist who served as professor of music at Harvard University.
We were learning the rules of four-part harmony and the tonal system as exhibited in the work of Bach. While studying one of Bach’s pieces, I found a violation of a rule of harmony—a leading-tone, in this case, a major seventh, that did not resolve to the tonic. In the key of C, for example, a B note that did not lead to a C note. Convinced of the cleverness of my discovery, I decided to share my find with my teacher, a rather large, blond-haired, blue-eyed, violinist of Dutch descent, and a Brunhilde-like temperament.
Her response was neither what I had hoped for nor what I expected. She took a deep breath, and looking at me with a look that I can only describe as a look of disdain, said forcefully, “Bach does not follow the rules of harmony; he invented them.” I retreated from the field of battle physically intact but with my self-esteem in need of a little first-aid. Later, thinking about what my professor had said, I realized she was teaching me an invaluable lesson. Talent knows not only when to follow the rules but also when to break them. Indeed, this ability is one of the significant components of genius. Later, in a composition course, I was required to compose pieces of music in various styles—Baroque, Classical, Romantic, and Modern. I made an “A” in the class because I had diligently studied and learned the rules of composition applicable to the various styles. A listener could quickly identify the historical period for each of my pieces, but no one imagined I was playing piano works by Bach, or Mozart, Chopin, or Bartok. Their works were creative; mine, on the other hand, were imitative, derivative.
In my sophomore year, I learned another lesson concerning the distinction between being talented and being a hard worker. At the end of my freshman year, convinced that my piano teacher did not fully appreciate my gift for the piano, I decided to change teachers. I selected a visiting professor whom I could hear practicing trills at the keyboard for three hours or more daily. Only trills. Well, indeed! What better choice was there for me as a teacher? He was deadly serious about the piano, and so was I. I had spent hours pouring over books on piano technique. Convinced that I was finally on the right path musically, I set myself to practicing between six and eight hours a day. It was murder, but a sacrifice I felt my gift demanded. At the end of one of my lessons my teacher said he wanted to speak with me. He asked me why I was studying the piano, what I intended to do with it. Well, “wonder of wonders,” I had never asked myself that question. Did Chopin, did Liszt, did Rubinstein? Of course not, or, at least, I didn’t think so. The next semester, I returned to my original teacher, a good and kind man, sensitive to the dreams of a nineteen-year-old student. It was only later, much later, that I understood what the visiting professor had been trying to tell me, that I should make a realistic assessment of who I was, and the limits of my talent.
Everyone knows that Beethoven lost his hearing, that he was stone deaf when he composed the 9th symphony. I was religious, and Belhaven was a religious school. The faculty cared not only about the subjects they taught but also about the students they taught. As a twenty-year-old junior, I faced what, for me, was an almost crippling theological question. How could a good and merciful God make deaf one of the greatest, if not the greatest, composers in the history of Western music? It seemed like an incredible act of cruelty. I didn’t have an answer, not even the glimmer of one. So after class one day, I decided to share with my music history teacher the issue with which I was struggling. She listened attentively, then replied. “It’s possible,” she said, “to see Beethoven’s deafness as a blessing.” I was astonished and told her that I did not see how that could be true. She said his deafness forced him to turn inward, to hear only his unique melodies, to focus exclusively on that with which he had been entrusted, the music he was destined to share with us. “To be able to compose his Ninth Symphony while deaf,” she concluded, “was a miracle.”
The crowning achievement of music majors or, depending upon your perspective, the final hurdle to be overcome, is their Senior Recital. I scheduled mine as late as I could in the second semester of my senior year. Unfortunately, my piano teacher was unable to attend; he had prior commitments out of town. However, my parents were there, along with my sister, my fraternity brothers, my classmates, other music faculty members, and friends. To say I was nervous is an understatement. The fear of what I had to do made me physically ill. My fingers felt like long rubber pencil erasers; my mouth was dry no matter how much water I drank. But I walked out on stage, sat down at the keyboard, adjusted the bench, and played classical music from memory for an hour and a half. At the conclusion, I heard bravos and received a standing ovation. You must believe me when I tell you that it was not because of how well I played; my performance was adequate. Instead, it was because I had finished a long and challenging journey. Those who knew me knew that, and they wanted me to see that they knew that.
Finally, I understood the difference between being talented, someone tapped by divinity, and being only a hard worker. “Only,” is not the right word. It doesn’t do justice to the experience. For being a hard worker is a gift in itself. I cherish what I learned as a college student, everything I learned then. Everything.
Enjoy your week!
Text ©2019. All Rights Reserved.
Photography ©2019 by Anne Guthrie. All Rights Reserved.