I attended a small liberal arts school in Cleveland, Ohio with the motto, Men and women for others. These words, flapping on light post banners, were what brought me to John Carroll, and they have continued to be at the forefront of many decisions I’ve made since. Now, speaking of school in those terms might make it sound like I spent all of my time feeding the hungry and studying, but there were plenty of moments for building friendships and enjoying college life. One evening the gym, where I spent a lot of time playing flute in the pep band at basketball games, had its lights dimmed and a stage and piano installed. I’d never heard of Ben Folds, but my friend was happy to dig out her CDs and make the introduction. From that day on, each time I’ve heard a Ben Folds song a smile has come to my face, and I remember standing right down in front at the JCU concert, in awe of his remarkable musicality—including when I heard “The Luckiest” as that same friend danced for the first time with her new husband this past summer.
Last night I was in row H of the mezzanine of the Washington Pavilion, joined by 1,800 other fans, to hear Ben collaborate with the South Dakota Symphony Orchestra. A decade since that night in a gym, we’d both come a long way.
He’s still an amazing piano player, but what am I?
I could take the concert apart, from the initially muddy vocals to the excellent lighting sequences, but this experience wasn’t meant for that type of reflection. Suffice to say it wasn’t exactly what I’d expected. I left thinking that I’d paid a lot to not feel “wowed,” but to still feel somewhat inadequate. Let me explain.
At one point after intermission, Ben stood up and gave a speech. He even called it that. The excessive, subconscious use of vocal fillers aside, his point was clear—I’m a pop music guy, but I’ve teamed up with orchestras for the past ten years to bring people back to the orchestra because their presence is the hallmark of civilization.
He gestured behind him as he recognized the countless hours of work each member of the orchestra has put in over decades to “show up” and collaborate with folks seeking the same goal. They can count on each other, and because of that they can enrich the lives of others by bringing music to life in an unparalleled shared setting. He didn’t mention talent, and I was reminded (by a friend after the show) of Malcolm Gladwell’s account of 10,000 hours as the amount of time needed to master something. If, starting on the day I first heard Ben Folds live, I put in three hours of work daily, I could possibly be a master at something right now. It doesn’t seem that hard, so why didn’t I do it?
There are things I’ve done, and places I’ve gone. I visited 11 countries, held 10 jobs (many of them simultaneously), lived in three states, earned two degrees, dated a few guys, picked one, got engaged… lots of great stuff! Still, last night I felt like I need to be more focused. If I spent three hours a day practicing something for the next ten years, what would it be? By that account, since I spend six hours with students each day, I should be a master teacher in just a few more years! I’m sure I’ll grow, but there’s too much going on within those school days, however, for me to feel like I’m diligently practicing any one thing.
On the drive home it was a chore for me to motivate myself to grade my students’ journal entries, but I never bored of talking to Kevin. When we got home I didn’t sit down at the piano bench and start running scales, nor did I pull out a cookbook. I didn’t pick up my weights, or even go for a walk. I thought about doing some writing, but what I really wanted was to just play some games and enjoy the company of my friends.
I am going to do some reflection over the next few months to try and uncover something that I really want to master, but I already know that I want to continue building up the relationships in my life, as I have been. While at John Carroll, I made the important shift from studying biology with an end goal of medical school to studying communication and theatre arts with an end goal of changing the world. Medicine has already changed the world, and innovations will continue to enhance our way of life, but communication is an art and skill that many pass up taking the time to refine. Whether it be understanding ourselves, conversing with a neighbor or trying to understand the story of a stranger, communication has an ability to be seized by almost everyone in our world to bring us closer to a universal understanding as to why we are here.
The other part of Ben’s speech was that if we let orchestras fade from our shared experience and cultural identity, we are allowing for a loss in our civilization. He pleaded that after he left we return to hear and support our orchestra.
I think we might go back in a few weeks for the Classical Series Boléro concert. I heard that piece for the first time on a different stage in Cleveland, and I’d love to tell the story. It’s three hours to Sioux Falls, and thankfully only a $10 ticket this time. Are you in?