I will never forget the day the piano came home.
I was fourteen and didn’t yet know that my teacher had told my parents that she thought I could maybe be a pianist for real, but for that to be possible I needed to start practicing on a good instrument. I did know that it was a Yamaha and I thought it was the most amazing thing I’d ever seen, truly grand just like its name, and it was right there in my living room in place of the tiny, tinny spinet that had labored under my efforts ever since my mom had showed me middle C. I’m not sure my much narrower ass left that bench all summer.
My dad christened it “the second car” and rode his bike to work while I practiced.
My MtMn’s parents were conservative Catholics in the seventies. Along with some other allies, they pulled their kids out of the scandalously liberal parish’s religious ed programs and started their own. That after-school time was sacred; nothing was allowed to get in the way. But then MtMn got curious about trying music out, later than the other junior high kids. And the band teacher said, he’s talented, I’d like him to be in jazz band. And jazz band was the same night as religion class.
My future in-laws bought MtMn an alto that they could barely afford, and were there to cheer him on at every jazz band concert after that.
Any musician’s head has to start spinning when we count the gifts we’ve gotten, the hands offered, the boosts – and those are just the ones we know about. There are of course the hundreds and thousands of supporters and donors and volunteers we never meet. And most tender of all are the gifts we receive before we know they’re gifts, when we’re still kids and our parents are parents and we have no way of knowing the import of what they do. They’re parents, and house and food and rules and hugs and struggles and our whole lives seem like a natural extension of them. When they start paying for lessons, when they come to our concerts, when they drive us to the bigger city an hour away to be in the honor ensemble, when we need the dresses and suits and shoes for choir, we kids just accept those things seamlessly at whatever level they arrive. There are so many days in our grownup life – most days – when we can walk around as though we were not blessed beyond measure, forgetting the time when we were too small to see how they were opening doors to the rest of our lives.
In the end, each of us is responsible for our own practice and work. No one achieves at a high level without putting in the hours, the painful and boring and unsexy and occasionally revelatory time in the practice room. But that work doesn’t happened in a cave or a vacuum. We don’t emerge fully formed from the head of Zeus having logged our ten thousand hours, waltzing onto a stage to receive a reward for our labor. More doors must open, more people met, more conversations had, more information exchanged on the way to the audition, the competition, the ensemble, the manager, the role, the recording, the second chance, the success, the review, the feature article, the prize. The career.
Every single one of us who’s working is doing so because of help. Every. Single. One. Of. Us. And help is not a meritocracy. Surely it is intrinsically tied to merit, but it’s also based on intangibles, gut feelings, personal opinions and reactions. Help tries to be fair – I believe this – but it’s not. How can it be? It is unfair to both advantage and detriment, and I also believe every single one of us has experienced both.
I wasn’t wise enough, at fourteen, to know the impact of that piano in my life. But I did know its purchase wasn’t fair, in the context of my family. Same with MtMn’s saxophone. Those gifts were more, much more, than the family ledger would have allowed us. We were given more than was equitable and fair – based on what? The word of a teacher to our hardworking parents? The enigmatic and compelling qualities of talent? The attractive idea of giving a kid something the parent never had? Did our parents and teachers simply want to say, we believe in you?
By the time we get to adulthood, we’ve already lived this mystery, even if we don’t understand it. We know we can’t make the music we dream of, for the audiences we long for, without luck and help – the kind we have already received, so many times over. So that’s a beautiful position for humans to be in, yes? To need help, and to be in the position to offer it. But, as in any situation based on intangibles, those interactions are fragile and open to abuse. Not even parents are all wise and stable enough to give these gifts without strings attached, to avoid using their greater power in the world to demand something back from their children in order to feel bigger or stronger or happier. Bosses aren’t parents, and aspiring artists are not children – but we all learn what we learn in the same small beginnings.
Here’s the thing, though. Responsibility for drawing the ethical lines in these interactions can only rest with the more experienced people, the ones with more agency, the ones with a longer view of how these things play out. Help is messy, but those with power are charged with, and must be held accountable for, figuring out the complications.
The good we do, and the damage, tends to show up over time.
We have the opportunity to learn from all of it.
If you are receiving help from someone, it should never come at the expense of your autonomy and pride. At the end of the long road, those moments will not have been worth it. I promise you this.
If you can help someone else, it means you can also hurt them. Please, for the love of god, get your shit together.
MtMn is in the next room, playing that same saxophone I mentioned. Greater ability to express yourself: that is the only thing that your practice is guaranteed to bring you. It’s the best argument I can think of this morning for faith in the long game.