Last weekend, I was in San Juan, Puerto Rico for a few performances. The culture was vibrant and enchanting, the food was as delicious as I had anticipated, and the people radiated with a fresh spirit of light and hope. Monday morning (a week ago), I boarded a plane back to Miami with a heart and mind consumed by one thing—the elderly woman I had met the night before. As is becoming a trend for my travels, this random encounter has had my brain and heart on overdrive.
Here’s the story:
Tuesday, I landed in MIA from BCN (9-hour flight—6-hour time change—serious jet lag). That night, I got everything prepared for my trip to Puerto Rico. First thing the next morning, I boarded my flight to SJU. The next few days were spent preparing a 2-hour lecture for conservatory students, rehearsing ~3 hours a day with Henry Hutchinson (violin) and Jesus Mendez (cello) (they were amazing), practicing my solo music, giving my first lecture (ever), performing for conservatory students, and performing twice on Saturday at the Gallery Inn in the heart of Old San Juan. This was all leading up to Sunday's solo/trio concert in the nearby city of Ponce.
On Sunday evening, after the final bows had been made and I was backstage ‘for good’, I was flooded with the delicious combination of exhaustion, fulfillment, and joy. The only thing left: a cocktail hour. I thought little of it—say hello to a few people, get out, get to sleep. About 30 minutes into it, still trying to make my way to the food table, I met her. The little old woman grabbed my shoulders and with them, my attention. Looking into my eyes, she said, “I want to thank you for the years of work, discipline, and sacrifice that stand behind this performance. Without that, it would have been impossible for us to experience such a beautiful and inspirational night.” After what had seemed like a million fake smiles, I felt my face form a genuine one. And then (somewhat awkwardly), my lips moving to say, “Can I hug you?”
I’m used to hearing people congratulate my talent or offer some awestruck question about how I was able to memorize so many notes or how my fingers could move so fast, but thank me for the work? Never. It got me wondering over the next few days whether many non-musicians realized that playing a musical instrument at a high level is primarily the result of one thing: disciplined work. Then came the inevitable question: do I accept that fact about those who are better than I am at the piano? No. I immediately knew that I didn’t. I liked to believe they were from another planet or granted a better set of genes.
But why? The answer I’ve come up with (and what I believe is responsible for my own lack) is that it is more comfortable for our egos to designate *intimidating* skills as unattainable anomalies of nature rather than (quite simply) smarter, longer, and harder work. It takes a bit of humility to accept that somebody else may be outworking or outsmarting you. Past this tough pill of humility, though, lies an unimaginable potential for growth. What are we waiting for, then? Even if it’s just in secret humiliation, let’s all cut it out. We can learn from greatness of every kind. It’s about time we started.