Over the past few days, I’ve been inundated by all of the posts about Robin Williams. For 48 hours, I think half the status updates in my Facebook feed read, “O Captain, my captain” or mentioned climbing on desks. For me, I needed a little more time to process my feelings. Robin Williams wasn’t just a great actor for me. He was a pivotal figure in my growing up.
When Dead Poet’s Society was released in 1989, I was about twelve years old. I don’t remember exactly when I saw it, but it was probably a few years later on VHS (or betamax). I remember watching it with my father, and both of us sharing a love for it. That movie was one of the first adult things we connected over. The relationship of the mentor to his students resonated with me in my relationship with my father, and the focus on poetry brought out my father’s love of poetry. We were sharing Robert Frost poems, and talking about the movie. I always had a good relationship with my father, but until that moment he was always a bit of an enigma to me.
Back then, I had no idea how to have a close adult relationship with another man. Men were stoic and aloof and…manly. I was lucky enough to have Robin Williams teach me what a close adult male relationship can look like. In 1991, my favorite Robin Williams film, The Fisher King, was released. Bonded over our love of Dead Poet’s Society and some of Robin Williams earlier films (Awakenings), my dad and I went to the theater together to see it. Its the first movie that he took me to see. Just me, the two of us out sharing the world. Again, its a poetic film dealing with love and loss, and focusing on the relationship between two men. By the end, I suspect we were both crying, though I can only be sure of my own tears.
There’s a scene in The Fisher King, where Robin Williams tells the following tale:
So to Robin Williams, I say “Thank you.” I was thirsty and you handed me the grail full of water, a relationship with my father. That is a gift that I will never be able to repay you for. I’m sorry I couldn’t quench your thirst. I will do my best to take up your banner, and quench the thirst of others.
I am a musician. Pianist, singer, composer, conductor. Recently, I’ve added organ to that list, and I’ve been working on electric bass because…well, I get bored easily. I’ve gotten many compliments for my musical skills over the years, but the worst of these by far is “You’re so talented.” I shrivel up inside, feeling like a total fraud when those words crash into me. Let me make this perfectly clear. I am not talented. I am not gifted. I am not blessed.
What I am is hard working, dedicated, and thoughtful. Sure I have a modicum of natural abilities well-suited towards the musical arts. That makes me deserving of…nothing. As a teacher, I’ve had hundreds of students over the years. The most naturally talented student I had was horrible. He had no discipline in his practice and little dedication. He plateaued and quit when his “talent” became inadequate for the task at hand, and real work was required. I have another student; she isn’t the most naturally gifted student I’ve ever had. But she goes home and works at it a little bit every day. She listens carefully, and does her best to accomplish the tasks set before her. Week after week, month after month, and now those months are turning into years. In her two years, she’s played Bach, Mozart, Clementi. She’s also learned how to read a lead sheet, and is working on a Sara Bareilles tune from a lead sheet. Talent only gets you so far. A good work ethic will take you as far as you can go.
I see two problems with conflating hard work with talent. The first is that regarding what was accomplished through an immense amount of hard work as just talent diminishes the work involved. I often wonder if this is one of the reasons that musicians are so often undervalued and underpaid. You can go to school for finance, and be working in the industry after getting your degree in 4-5 years. Been playing an instrument like piano for 4-5 years? Good luck getting into college if you haven’t already been working at it for 4-5 years or more! In the jazz world, there’s a term called “woodshedding.” Its where you lock yourself in the woodshed for twelve hours a day for months at a time just to master your craft. Getting good at something like an instrument doesn’t happen by gift and it doesn’t happen by chance. It happens by work.
The second issue with conflating hard work with talent is that people give up when they aren’t good at something, thinking they lack the talent. There are some things that are limited. I don’t have hands big enough to reach some intervals on the piano (10ths!!!! GAH!). There are also notes higher and lower than my voice will ever go. So I will never play piano exactly like Oscar Peterson who had huge hands, or sing like Freddy Mercury who could hit notes higher than half of the alto section in my choir. But beyond those limitations, be willing to put in the effort for the things you want to achieve, even if it doesn’t come easy. To quote from Galaxy Quest, “Never give up. Never surrender.”