A fear of mediocrity

It’s August. In London that means afternoons can get above 30 degrees celcius. I’m practicing in an 8×8 room on a 65 year old piano that’s a few cents flat on every note above the G in my left hand. It wasn’t this bad yesterday. After lunch I usually practice for 3 hours straight, but I’m going to need a break today, my shirt is soaked.

You don’t get to play in this room unless you’ve passed the intimidating auditions, won the national competitions and survived being yelled at for years about how far you are from perfect.

Talent isn’t a gift.

It’s a persistent pain.

It keeps you awake at night singing the opening bars of Beethoven’s 81a until it’s shaped correctly. Talent is the paranoid voice in the back of your head reminding you that you keep forgetting the legato pedaling and counter voice in the second movement of the Liszt Sonata. Talent is the desperate stare you give the metronome, knowing you won’t reach the final tempo on the Ligeti before next week’s performance at National Gallery.

Being trained as a concert pianist at the Royal College of Music in London means you’re expected to be something special. It produces some of the top musicians in the world. If you enjoy films, watch ‘Shine’ to understand life as a student of the RCM – it’s a true story.

As a student here, my focus was on the pursuit of perfection. But as a concert pianist, my focus was on the perfection of pursuit. That pursuit means solving the remaining 57 mistakes before the concert and then maybe making it through the performance without hating the way you sound. As a student, it was about being better than everyone else. And then as a concert pianist it was about being better than I was the day before.

At the Royal College of Music, talent and hardwork is not your ticket to standout. You cannot out-practice anyone in your class. Everyone has incredible ears, technique and performance ability – all that is left is your artistic voice.

Why should someone listen to me?

How can I take the calmness of Mark Rothko’s paintings and the haunting tint in Gesualdo’s music and blend them into the Scriabin Fantasy? When I meet with a composer tomorrow, how can I get them to write me a piece that mocks the flatness of most classical music, yet leaves the audience’s hearts racing?

I was trained to obsess over every detail and balance that with the big picture. I obsess over the perfection of pursuit in my music and now as a teacher, I’ve taken that perspective to my students. But hearing mediocrity is painful. So how do you deal with the students who show up with the same mistakes from last week? Or spend a month learning something that should take them three days?

Students who happily accept mediocrity are easily the hardest thing for me to deal with as a teacher.

The standard in education is rising, but not fast enough. As teachers, we must wake students up to their lack of drive. They should want to find a better version of themselves. If it doesn’t happen – then mediocrity is the result. And there is nothing a student should fear more than failing to improve yesterday’s best effort.

Where’s the passion?


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