He sweeps into the room, pauses before the audience, and takes a deep bow. All eyes are on him as he seats himself on the bench. A brief pause, hands in his lap, head bowed, his long bangs falling forward. He hunches over the keys, shoulders lifted, hands poised – and then the familiar sounds of Bach fill the room. I sit with my 10-year-old son at the advanced recital of a Levine School student. Levine is a venerable institution serving the DC community that occasionally produces world-class musicians. The privilege of performing an advanced recital, we have learned, is reserved for students who have shown distinction in every technical category of piano study.
I glance over at Jane. She has been my piano teacher for the last three years. She sits at the far side of the room, where only the pianist’s head, but not his hands, is visible through the gaping yawn under the enormous Steinway lid that has been fully propped up. Under her shock of platinum hair, her lips are pressed together in a white line – a marked difference from her usual chatty and exuberant demeanor. I overheard her just before the recital began saying brusquely to a man, whom I presumed to be Moru’s father, “I certainly don’t feel very good about it,“ gesturing to the program. And then in response to whatever he said, “Well, you did this. Or someone did. I didn’t make it.” Moments earlier, I had looked over the program. “Moru Yamamoto,” the program read, “has studied piano for thirteen years. He takes lessons with William ” so-and-so. “Ten of his years of instruction have been at the Levine School.” No mention of Jane – his instructor for nine of these ten years.
Moru has moved on from Bach to a Haydn sonata, followed by an ever-so-brief pause – at which point he elects to skip the intermission that was planned and launches into a Scherzo by Chopin. His hands fly up and down the keyboard. There must be thousands of notes in this piece, many of them played simultaneously. I am jarred by the dissonance of the chords – somehow I know they are not wrong notes, but rather, what the brilliant Chopin, known as the Composer for the Pianist, intended. The dissonance is, I feel, a fitting backdrop for the churning of which most in the room are blissfully unaware.
I struggle to push the Levine politics out of my mind as I take in the performance but they stubbornly persist. I don’t know who William so-and-so is, though I assume he must be present for his own student’s advanced recital. Maybe the bald man sitting behind me? I think about Jane’s anger. She wants credit for helping shape this prodigious son of Levine. Who wouldn’t? He is amazing. Only 16 years of age, he has a rosy future in music – perhaps Julliard, then likely as a concert pianist on a world stage somewhere.
I am woefully familiar with the notion of wanting credit. It defined my younger years, and still lingers with me today here and there, though hopefully to a lesser extent. Noticeable enough that shortly after I met my husband (then boyfriend) he nicknamed me a “credit hungry hog.” I had a pattern of asking him if he told this person or that person that something was my idea. Like, the time many Christmases ago now, when I asked him if he told his father that the model 1953 Chevy pickup truck gift was my idea. He asked, why do you care whose idea it is? Why is that so important to you? Why, because I am the one who noticed the model pick up truck in the gift shop was a miniature of your dad’s prized truck, and it is important that your family knows that I am not only observant but thoughtful in making such a connection and selecting such a gift. He shook his head.
But this situation is altogether different – or is it? I always thought if you were one of the lucky ones to have found your purpose, your calling, your passion, that it didn’t matter what the outside world thought, or didn’t, because you were in your element. Jane’s passion for classical piano is amply evident by the breadth of her mastery and knowledge, which she delights in sharing. “No, Beethoven would never play that run that way,” she would say to me. “It must be light, every note heard and given the same touch.” I would sigh wearily, certain that I would never master how Beethoven would have played. We often went over my lesson time as she enthusiastically demonstrated a technique or passage or regaled me with one of many tidbits about the composers’ lives and quirks, such as how Beethoven was a protégé of Haydn who later came to disdain him.
We talked once about why she chose to teach piano. She described it as a “pure joy,” saying “I sometimes think that we who get to teach are in some way the chosen ones.”
But given that, what role does recognition play in the equation? Is recognition a metaphorical pat on the back that… Yes, you are great? Yes, you made the right choice of career? Yes, we love you? Or even, Yes, we see you. I think about passion and its frequent tango with ego. Many of the “greats,” regardless of field – movie directors, athletes, architects, politicians, TV personalities, actors, lawyers – are known to have sizeable, even insatiable egos. It is their passion, dedication and vision that have made them great. Is that not fulfillment enough? If one pursues one’s chosen path and meets with success or at least satisfaction, why do accolades, applause, credit or recognition matter?
I see every inch of Moru’s body feeling the music – eyes closed, shoulders periodically raised, arms and legs fluid as his fingers breathe life into the piece. Is he playing for himself or for us? Does he even care that we are there or does he forget about the audience entirely? Would he be telling this same musical story if the room were empty?
I am left wondering if it is ego that causes us to want recognition, or if affirmation is simply a basic human need that we all share, regardless of how great or modest our accomplishments. According to the philosopher William James, “The deepest principle in human nature is the craving to be appreciated.” Maybe we all have a fundamental need for the world to reflect back to us our own image, as we see ourselves in our mind’s eye. As new mothers, we are told to mirror our babies’ sounds and movements, so that they get a grounded sense of themselves in the big world. It affirms who they are. Perhaps this need never goes away, only grows with our own growth and accomplishments.
Moru finishes the program with a sonata by Prokofiev, a contemporary Russian composer. I have not heard much by Prokofiev, but I can hear the modernity in this piece – the cycle of agitation, then resolution. I glance again at Jane. It has been slightly over an hour since the recital began, and I am hoping she has been soothed by the music – borne on its wings – immersed again in her craft and the magnificence of Moru’s technique and incredible musicality. She beams as he finishes and applauds vigorously – and even stops by the reception briefly to give him a hug.
Abraham Lincoln once said, “Don’t worry if you are not recognized but strive to be worthy of recognition.” Wise words, I suppose, but easier said than done.