In 2011, the Dallas Mavericks won the National Basketball Association (NBA) Championship by defeating the Miami Heat in the final round of the playoffs. This is interesting because they were not considered a serious contender for the title at the start of the season. Bemoaning their aging stars, the Bleacher Report ranked them 9th out of 33 teams and urged them to begin rebuilding with younger players, declaring: “They need to forget about their championship window because it is all but shut.” Their aging star player, Dirk Nowitzki, was good on offense, but not great on defense and by his own admission was not a terrific athlete.
What in the world does this have to do with playing piano?
As I have hinted at before, my mind works in strange and mysterious ways so just hang in there with me. Before the 2010-2011 season began people were looking at the Miami Heat, LA Lakers or Orlando Magic to pick up all the marbles in the NBA. Portland, Oklahoma City and Chicago were also given a shot, but I don’t know of any major basketball pundit who gave the Mavs the nod early on. Hard work, practice, tenacious defense and b-ball smarts were major factors in their victory. Nowitzki practiced for hours on end making awkward off-balance and one-legged shots. The team upgraded their defense and coach Rick Carlisle and the rest of his team developed strategies to exploit their opponent’s weaknesses. Other teams had better, more talented, younger and more athletic players. In the end, the Mavs walked away with the championship title.
On this little blue planet of ours, there is something I call “the myth of native talent.” This is the underlying theme of the 1997 Sci-Fi film “Gattaca” starring Ethan Hawke, Uma Thurman and Jude Law. The back story is that in the not too distant future, those with the right DNA will be put in positions of power and influence meanwhile people with the wrong DNA will be on the lowest rungs of society. Racial prejudice will give way to prejudice based on biological programming. Without getting too deeply into the plot the overarching concept of the film, hard work and determination will often trump perceived innate ability. It would be naive of me to say that natural talent and ability has no effect on what we are able to do in this life. Interior decorating might not be the best choice for someone who is completely color blind and NFL linebacker might not be a great career path for a slightly built young man who is 5’3” and 150 pounds, but remember that Ludwig Van Beethoven wrote some of his greatest music when he was almost completely deaf. The human race tends to idolize raw natural talent, but the reality is that passion often trumps or at least compensates for natural ability.
My whole point is here that we often become intimidated by others who have been practicing and playing their entire life to reach their current level of musical expertise (see, I told you I would get there). Although it is a silly idea we inwardly disregard their practice and effort and think that there is some special anointing or magic fairy dust that has been sprinkled on great musicians to make them larger than life. Then we start making excuses for not doing something that we really want to do, such as learning the piano. We say, “I am too old” or “I don’t have the time” or “I don’t have a good enough ear” or “I just don’t have the knack” or a cadre of other weak excuses. Grandma Moses first took up painting as a hobby in her 70’s and she had over a 20 year career, Madam Curie broke the glass ceiling stereotype that science was only for men and Django Reinhardt stood with the early vanguard of great jazz guitarists with only a partially functioning left hand. I have often heard the remark, “Boy, I wish that I could play piano (or guitar or violin) like that guy.” I am usually polite but inside I think, “then why don’t you learn how?” It’s just a matter of passion and practice. They used to call Dirk Nowitzki – Dirk No-Ring-Zki – but not anymore. So what is keeping you from claiming your championship ring?