Friday, May 31, 2013

Sounds of Praise Worth the Effort

Was it worth it?

All that hard work.  The tedious practicing.  Hours of it.  Hours upon hours.  Those interviews with the press.  Time away from his fiance, family, and friends.

My musical friend, Alex McDonald, spent months in intensive preparation for the 14th Van Cliburn International Piano Competition currently underway here in Fort Worth, Texas.  He has a day job as a piano instructor, both privately, and for a local college.  But in addition to that, Alex managed to squeeze in a full workweek's worth of practice to compete at the prestigious Cliburn.  And his fans were pleased when he survived the initial round of pressure-cooker tryouts - weeks before the actual competition - simply to win one of 30 coveted spots in the Cliburn's first official round.

When the Cliburn got under way last week, he played two different mini-concerts in the first round, and was warmly received by his audiences, if not his critics, who apparently weren't aware that Alex actually did some of his doctoral work at Julliard on the composers whose pieces he played.  I've always been skeptical of music critics - well, of critics who review most of the arts in our culture - because the ones who make a living doing so rarely seem to have the professional credentials they expect the artists they're reviewing to achieve.  Siskel and Ebert, for example, never produced a feature film in their lives.  Ada Louise Huxtable, the inimitable architecture critic for both the New York Times and the Wall Street Journal, was never a certified architect.  Although all three of these personalities were able to carve out good livings offering generally solid feedback on their preferred art forms, like another artist friend of mine advised me recently, when you're not the one having to design something for a client, it's easy to forget that it might not be the composer, director, or architect whose faults you're seeing, but the person who signed the check for it.

Suffice it to say that Alex did not get paid for competing in the Cliburn.  None of its contestants do.  In fact, there's a small army of volunteers that make sure it runs without a hitch during its quadrennial appearances on the music world's stage.  And it is a big international deal.  Musicians on the jury come from countries like Israel, France, and China, and many contestants come from Japan, Russia, and Italy.  It's been thirty years since this competition, always held in Fort Worth, had a contestant from anywhere in north Texas.

Indeed, the Cliburn is not the provincial talent show people outside of classical music's orbit may assume it to be.  When it first started, back in the early 1960's, some music teachers from what was then more of a small-town social club approached Van Cliburn - then one of the few fantastically-famous musical Texans who didn't strum or pluck a gee-tar - with the hopes that he would lend his name to their fledgling contest for young pianists.  Typical amateurish local-boy-makes-good publicity.  According to legend, Cliburn's fawning mother, Rildia Bee O'Bryan Cliburn, encouraged her son, who was balking at the idea, to let the little people back in Texas use his name.  "It will only be a one-time contest," she's reputed to have dismissively advised.

So much for mother knowing best.  Today, that nice little contest in Cowtown has become one of the premiere classical music competitions on the planet.  According to the organization that runs the Cliburn, tens of thousands of people come from all over the globe to attend portions of the sprawling event, while over two million more watch online.  Not only does this add real cash to Fort Worth's tax coffers, but it provides the city with valuable publicity.  Dallas, Houston, and Austin - the other three arts capitals in the state - have nothing like it.

Okay.  So it's a big deal.  Even if classical piano music is more of a cultural niche than, say the Superbowl or the World Series.  But how did he do?

Well, last night, the names of those 12 contestants who will be advancing to the second round were released, and Alex's name wasn't on it.

Frankly, I can't imagine how disappointing that must have been for him.  I've never worked so hard for something so prestigious.  I've certainly never worked so hard and failed to gain something so prestigious!  In Alex's chosen profession, winning the Cliburn would have set his career on a trajectory of renown that only He and God could change.  The Cliburn's cash prize is a paltry $50,000, but it's the instant fame and professional booking services to manage that fame for which contestants are truly vying.  Having the Cliburn organization managing your new career in the classical music world can open a lifetime of coveted concert hall and recording studio doors.  That may not sound like much to many Americans, but classical musicians can gain iconic stature in places like Japan, China, and Russia.

Angling for all of that professional career management, however, soon came to trouble Alex.  He was a prodigy - hardly anybody can train themselves from scratch to compete at the Cliburn's level; you have to be born with the gift.  He's lived his whole life as a student of the craft that is part of his being.  As a follower of Christ, he knows he's been blessed with this ability, and he desires to use it primarily for God's glory, even if he has to commercialize it a bit to put food on the table.  Even there, he knows he's one of the fortunate ones:  somebody who knows what they do well and can earn a living at it.

So how much did he need the Cliburn?  Was trying out for - and winning a rare spot in - the Cliburn more an act of arrogance and blind ambition on his part?  Or was God in this, leading him, placing within him not only the ability, but the desire, and the tenacity?  As he pushed himself through his grueling practice regimen, he desired for God to be at the center of it all.  He didn't want to be like so many others of us who set a goal and try to drag God along for the ride, when He hasn't been the one opening those doors to begin with.

Anybody who has ever heard Alex play knows that if he didn't try for things like the Cliburn, it could almost be said that he risked suppressing the talent God has given him.  Such accusations are extremely dangerous to make, since few of us can get into the same wavelength of heart and mind between God and the individual to whom He's given such abilities.  But still, now many skills and proficiencies do we actually end up dishonoring God with by our ambivalence towards them?  This isn't about art necessarily, but maybe the gift of administration, or helps, or child-rearing, or evangelism, or writing computer code.  Maybe they won't earn us the type of money or privilege we think we want or need.  We can still honor God if we do something else, so that's what we do instead.  It's a tough call, especially with people to whom God has given such obvious expertise.

So I sent Alex a note today, and this is what I shared with him:

"From what I can tell, you've honored God with this effort, and that is the whole point. If success is doing what God wants us to do, you've been wonderfully successful! And you've treated us to some great music in the process. Thank you!"

For all practical purposes, as a professional pianist and music teacher, Alex will still be able to put on his resume that he made it through the first round of the Cliburn.  There's considerable prestige in simply being accepted into the competition.  He's not going to win the $50,000, or the instant-career-starter-kit promised by the Cliburn organization, but he's still a lot farther ahead than those who've never tried or never been accepted.

He also has now mastered - at least as far as the general public is concerned - an impressive repertoire of classical piano music that, besides making him Dallas' newest attraction at dinner parties, could help him with concert events that don't involve ticket prices topping out close to a monthly car payment.

Most importantly, however, remains the fact that Alex loves the Lord, sought His guidance and peace, and demonstrated well the gifting with which He has generously blessed him. 

So, was it worth it, even though he didn't make it to the second round?

Man looks at outward things, but God looks at the heart.  And while I would never intentionally put words in God's mouth, I can see no reason to doubt that God has seen Alex's heart all the way through this musical journey.  He was Alex's only true Audience.  Then, too, God not only knew Alex would "lose," as we mortals might say, but that even in losing, Alex would honor Him.  And that, as Alex has already done in front of those of us who've been following his musical journey, he would still give God glory.

Praise be to God!  And, bravo, Alex.

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