Life isn't fair, but compared to the arts, the rest of life is like a shining utopia atop a hill. It's because of the very perfection demanded of artists that the selection process by which we find the great ones is so absolutely skewed. Auditions only give reliable indications of a person's capabilities at the very moment they are auditioning. Potentially great artists sacrifice their entire childhoods to their training, only to have their gifts stripped away from them in all too brutal fashion by the most arbitrary of circumstances. The great pianist Murray Perahia lost ten years of his career to a paper cut. The great tenor Ben Heppner has never sounded the same after taking the wrong anti-biotic. And yet even artists like them are lucky enough to play on and fight against the randomness of life. What about all the potentially great artists we'll never hear about because life took their gifts away all-too-soon? Growing up in Baltimore, our piano tuner was a man named Leonid Grossbaum (a pseudonym). Mr. Grossbaum was the son of Russian immigrants but grew up in Venezuela. As a child his skill on the violin was quickly noticed. He was soon discovered by Henrik Szeryng and brought to America to be taught by Oscar Shumsky. He was once touted as a potential Yehudi Menuhin for the southern hemisphere, but his fingers crippled themselves from overpractice. For the rest of his life, Mr. Grossbaum could only play the violin for five minutes at a time. For a time he eeked a living in Baltimore as a violin teacher, teaching my uncle among some others. But Mr. Grossbaum apparently had no real gift as a teacher, and by the time I knew him, he made his living as a piano tuner.
No doubt, such is the life of most potentially great musicians. For every Yehudi Menuhin whose genius is allowed to develop unfettered there are probably a couple dozen Leonid Grossbaums who are trained for great things only for reality to hit them past an age when they can be properly prepared for a life of normalcy. It's true that artists shouldn't be allowed leeway for their temperaments, but many real artists can't help being helpless outside of the professions they spent the first third of their lifespans preparing for. No matter how many times our parents told us that we couldn't have possibly chosen a harder life for ourselves, each of us has to believe that we are the exception to the rule. Most of us haven't even thought much about it, our minds were solely on the next gig.
There will always be a place in life for accountants and lawyers, but there is only a place in life for artists when accountants and lawyers decide to make one for them. It's often said that the most important step to adulthood is the moment we resolve to give up on our childhood dreams and fantasies of greatness above what 'normal people' achieve so that we can begin to make it in the 'real world.' Many abandon such dreams and pursue the life of John Q. Public with a steady income and the lucky ones have good friends and a loving family to ease the regret of what might have been. The really lucky ones find that steady income in a manner that lets them channel creativity. As Woody Allen once said (through the mouthpiece of Billy Crystal) 'some people turn their lives into art, other people put art into their lives.' And who can deny that 99% of the latter are happier people than the former?
This 'art' thing is an incredibly lonely business. Who can deny that? Composers sit at their desks for hours a day with no human company and no reliable sounding boards for their ideas. Conductors are like bosses who must supervise every move of their subordinates and correct mistakes in front of the entire company. Good conductors will inevitably be resented for doing their job properly.
And yet, the music is its own reward. Every time - a well done passage in a new composition, singers singing a passage at a rough approximation of what you hear in your head, the knowledge that you made it happen and the promise of still better things later - it is a drug more powerful than all the heroin in Afghanistan. You feel like this is what you're born for and that you're the instrument through which a greater power is working. Egotistical you say? You don't even know the half of it.
But a promise held out that everything we strive for in life is not in vain can motivate us to do anything at all.
...This started as a post about Elisabeth Soderstrom. I think I'm going to start that one over.