In my mind, I’m 5 foot 3, but deep down I know I’m only 5 foot 2.
-- Menachem Pressler*
What goes for a tiny pianist would go for a writer, an actor, a preacher, or a prophet. Skill is not enough. Mastery is not enough. Talent is not enough. You have to know you’re better than you are. Humility is a fine thing until the lights come up. Then there’s no democracy, only emergency.
If I’m doing one thing (A), what happens when they tell me to do another thing (B) instead? I figure out a third thing (C) to do, and they think I have obeyed when I have not. Deep down I’m a contrary sumbitch, always seeking a way to do it my way.
But if the audience is pleased, what’s the harm? Have I not performed well? Is this not honesty?
When the lights come up, it’s emergency. Surveys can’t lead you out of this mess, and if the crowd knew how to save themselves they’d have done it by now. They don’t know what they want. They don’t know what they need. You have to lead them. You have to show them what they want, and what they need, and let them name it as they will. Afterward they might say, “Thank you, that’s what we wanted,” but they didn’t want it in time and couldn’t have described it. They hadn’t a clue. That’s what it’s come down to, when the lights come up.
I don’t want to be onstage with nice guys. When the lights come up, my comrades should be ruthless, and do what’s necessary when it’s necessary. Not what everybody thinks they want. And not at some prudent time when the council has met, pondered, revised, temporized, compromised, incorporated alternatives, and ensured that no constituency is left out of the process. By then you’re watching the boat drop over the horizon. Permanent regret.
Many a man wishes he’d known, at the age of eighteen, that there comes a moment when you have to kiss the girl, and nothing else is to the point or even acceptable.
Authority adheres to you not because you’re always right, but because when the lights come up you dare what others dare not. That’s charisma. The boy Yeshua, left behind in the temple by mistake, debated the scriptures with those older and wiser. He did not ask permission, he did not defer – he spoke as one with authority. He was having a helluva time it seems, until his mom and dad came back, turned off the lights and took him home, where he had no honor. The boy knew his stuff, it seems.
You’ve got to know your stuff, and you’ve got to play the notes, but the people can’t tell you which notes to play or how to phrase them. Smile and say that’s an interesting suggestion, you’ll give it careful consideration; then do exactly as you please. They’ll probably imagine you took their advice.
We don’t have an organ in our church, but we have a grand piano, and a grand pianist who plays it grandly. A survey produced an anonymous plea: “Could he please not play so loud?” Hmm, let me see. Such an interesting suggestion. We’ll give it the most careful consideration. The name of the instrument is piano-forte. That is, soft-loud. It’s meant to play softly and loudly in alternation. The music written for it is sometimes soft, sometimes loud. That’s how classical music works. It spins its long tales by contrast of many variables, and among those variables are softness and loudness. European classical music is perhaps the world’s only music in which softness and loudness have MEANING. Shall we excise the loudness that is written in the name of the instrument, the notes of the music? Shall we ask the artist to play in only one key, or facing away from the keyboard, or with one hand tied behind his back? We shall in fact direct him to do exactly as he pleases. That’s the kindest response.
You must know your stuff, and know the public more intimately than they know themselves. Note their anxiety, but disregard their account of it. When the great gong-show starts, give them what they could not know they yearned for, and might resent you for exposing. This humility before The Spirit is not a moderate thing but a scandal, an outrage, a peak of arrogance. How dare you do what needs to be done? How dare you do what, if you do it without delay or compromise, they might some day thank you for?
You’re the one who takes the risk. That’s your side of the covenant. They’re the ones who might throw tomatoes. You could be horribly wrong. But if you ask them what to do, they will certainly, sooner or later, throw their tomatoes. They don’t really want to be consulted.
An artist’s love, like that of a poet, a preacher or prophet, is tough love. Listen to the spirit. Do as it directs. Don’t apologize. Have a helluva time. Act as one with authority. This is not moderate behavior.
At the crucial moment you must be more than you are. If you’re five foot two you must grow to five foot three. This is not the time to take suggestions. Be a nice guy later, but right now you must know, and nurture, your inner sumbitch.
“A Pianistic Quarterback Passes to a Younger Generation,” New York Times (November 30, 2003)
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