The first time I realized I didn’t have the temperament to be a concert pianist, I was sitting in an enormous practice hall at San Diego State University with my teacher, Dr. Conrad. I was 16 years old. Eight years before that, through a serendipitous confluence of family connections, happenstance, and generosity on the part of my mother, I’d started taking piano lessons from him at $10 a week.
Even in 1989, that amount seemed considerable, given that living in San Diego ate up most of my father’s middle-class teaching salary and my mom wasn’t working. So I felt rightly privileged to learn from a professor of piano and composition, who I discovered many years later, actually had a reputation as being one of the most difficult, ferocious members of the music department.
To me, he was a kind gentle person, always willing to cancel a session to talk about the lives of the composers or take me down to the recital hall to look at the harpsichords or just tell jokes. One day, we took an upright piano apart, piece by piece, to look at how it worked and produced its range of sounds. The experience had me fantasizing about becoming a professional piano tuner for years.
But really I was just in awe of Dr. Conrad, who seemed surrounded at all times by an aura of brilliance and gentility and yet had a goofy sense of humor and a love of children. I learned more from him about music, teaching, and life than anyone I can think of. He was an important person to me.
But the day he told me I just didn’t have it, I took it very hard. I knew a number of kids at my school who were into theater and music, many of whom had formal training like me, but who always seemed better, sharper, one step ahead. It kept me up at night. I wanted to be like them, as good as they were.
Having been surrounded by poets, painters, and professors throughout my short life, I thought creative artists, especially classical musicians, were a breed apart. My idol at the time was John Field, an Irish pianist who studied under Muzio Clementi. He was considered a weak student early on, but he rose to greatness later in life, praised by Beethoven, and even mentioned in War and Peace. The reasons I took him as a model should be obvious.
That improbable dream seemed to melt away the day I asked Dr. Conrad the ultimate stupid question, one that I have since been asked many times by young (and more than a few older) writing students: Do I have the talent to make this a career? It’s a horrible question, one that should never be asked by or of anyone, not even of oneself.
Unfortunately, it’s asked by everyone at least once, and it’s something every art teacher hears over and over. Do I have it? Am I good enough? Am I worthy? Will Béla Bartok let me into heaven? Will Gustav Holst discourse with me on the nature of the spheres while Mozart packs my bong? I know das Leben ist kurz, aber die Kunst ist lang, but I’m ready to go the distance.
Up to that day, I’d had no idea Dr. Conrad smoked. Besides, it was forbidden in the practice halls. But before he answered my question, he motioned me outside. The hall with about 50 grand pianos was on the second floor and, from the balcony walkway outside, we could see the women’s gymnasium, the campus tennis courts, and the great parking lot beyond, packed with cars glittering in the late afternoon.
It was windy that day. I remember Dr. Conrad setting a lit cigarette in the corner of his mouth, crossing his arms, looking into the distance, and thinking for a moment. He had the habit of stopping to think, as if he were listening to a voice only he could hear, and I knew not to interrupt him. But it only made the moment heavier, more dreadful, as if my entire future depended on what he was about to say.
After what seemed like a very long moment, he flicked ash over the metal railing, looked at me, and said, “Michael, you’re very creative and I have no doubt that you will find the right way, but you lack the temperament for serious musical study.”
I nodded. What could I do but nod?
Then he said, “I think we’re through for today.” Because he knew that if you’re going to tell someone what you consider to be a hard truth, you have to allow them time to mourn their lies, their comforting illusions.
Of course, I was crushed. But there was nothing but honesty and kindness in him when he said it. And even then, I knew that when someone speaks the truth at that level, with that much transparency and, actually, compassion, you should accept it at face value. You might not agree with it, but you cannot disagree with the sincerity behind it.
A very deep part of me knew that he was right. It would take years for me to fully accept it, years spent both struggling with music and becoming fascinated with English literature and essay writing. It was me finding my true will, that path Dr. Conrad said he had no doubt I would eventually discover. But it wasn’t pleasant; it took a long time; and it demanded a lot in return—the general template for most things in my life.
I was a weak music student, but not because I didn’t practice hard. I practiced so hard that at times it affected my health. I had the obsessive nature of a musician without the bifurcated mind necessary to be both mathematician and sculptor at the same time. In retrospect, even then, I thought more like a writer, but I wouldn’t realize this about myself for almost a decade.
At the time, my dedication to piano, though misplaced, brought me a certain amount of instructive grief. I took a long time to analyze pieces; I was often deeply, inconsolably frustrated at my technical inability; and my adolescent self-doubt was only amplified by these things, rendering me morose and miserable much of the time. Add to that, my lack of social development and the fact that my heroes weren’t celebrities or pop stars but 17th and 18th century composers. And I had the perfect recipe for spontaneous teenage bridge jumping.
Though I came close a few times, I would not trade those grueling hours in the practice rooms or my loneliness—as much due to the other facets of my life as my musical studies—for anything. I learned discipline. I learned what it is to do everything right and still fail. I learned compassion. I learned to revere the creative life as one of invisible risks, enormous sacrifices, and sometimes rewards that make those things worthwhile. And I learned the value of telling the hard truth as I understood it to my own future students.
Dr. Conrad never told me I didn’t have talent. He always said that’s something no one can know, not even about oneself. He told me I didn’t have the temperament. And that’s why he was correct. I have the temperament of a writer, something he recognized but didn’t know well enough to name. His world was music. And because of him, I was able to exist in that world long enough to acquire some of its virtues and vices.
When I do play piano these days, it’s for my own amusement. And I can only be amused at my ability (and lack thereof). In the fullness of time, when I get my Roland out of storage, I think I’d like to start practicing again, maybe learn some Professor Longhair. If I manage it, one day I can be that grinning old man with long white hair, playing boogie woogie on his balcony.
Who’s that up there?
Just some old creep, honey. Don’t look at him. Get in the car.