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The Statesman
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July 2013
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Home / Archive / Submissions - April 2008

To the Artist

By Emily Black

When asked about the impact an artist can have on the world, the first thing that comes to mind is an old magnetic cassette tape, now faded through much use. I have a vague impression of the cover – a stylized ink caricature of Franz Liszt, I think – but it is the name of the performer and the piece he played that I will never forget. To the rest of the world, a somewhat obscure pianist and his rendition of one of Liszt's little-played opera transcriptions means little or nothing. To me, the musical gift of Andreas Pistorius laid the foundation for my life. 

I was listening in the back seat of my family's mini-van, contemplating the fiery coral clouds and the gloamy blue grey sky in the west when it happened. The battle I had been listening to between the brilliant trills and crashing chords of the soloist and the sonorous power of the orchestra ended. In its place was the opening tremolo of the Pistorius solo. As I listened, I slowly moved beyond the sunset and the humdrum of life that would have told me that I was only a little girl and could do nothing, beyond what said that the purpose of life was to get from here to death as painlessly as possible. With Liszt's stunning variation on the soaring opera theme, my entire world changed forever. Had I known then, I would have compared it to the triumph of scaling a mountain peak, to the majesty of Bernini's Ecstasy of St. Theresa, or maybe to hearing for the first time the cheers of a people whom your pen and sword has helped to free. What I did know then was that I was born with a destiny that nothing could keep me from achieving. I knew I had a mission. I knew I was an artist.  

...

Like most musicians, I spent hours and hours in my growing up years practicing and dreaming about winning huge competitions, going to prestigious graduate schools, performing innumerable concerts and generally living and dying in a blaze of glory. In high school, I averaged three hours a day at my piano, occasionally stretching to ten or more. Discouragement, in the form of a lost competition or teenage trauma, only drove me to work harder - and to return to the Pistorius recording. No matter what those around me said or did or how often I heard that my choices did not really matter in the long run, it was all replaced by a confident, even triumphant sense of purpose when I heard the opera melody. 

Excellence in my art was the only way I could see to achieve the destiny I knew was mine. I aimed high, planning to major in piano performance through a doctoral degree and then to perform, compose, and teach at the university level and beyond. I arrived at music school with high hopes and substantial musical and academic scholarships. I could not understand why those around me were not as enthused as I was. After all, here we were, living our dream, so why were we not happier because of it? Through the weeks of classes, performances, and practice, I felt a growing sense of emptiness. What I had always imagined was happening, but somehow, I was not living up to my purpose. In the middle of my freshman year as a music major, I lost what to me was the most important competition of my life to that point, and I became overwhelmed with questions I never thought to ask. Later, I transferred to an even more prestigious and competitive music school, thinking that perhaps it had the answer I was seeking. I looked into many others schools and spoke with students who attended them. I raised my concerns with various teachers and professors. I tried not to understand what appeared to be the real the goal of the music world I saw around me. 

I went into a lesson one day, determined to find the answer, or at least the real question. When I came out, I cried, because I could no longer hide it from myself. Was the purpose of all my effort and all my art really to prove that I was better than someone else by beating them in a test of perfect key-plunking? I doubt that anyone in the whole school would have answered “yes” to that question, but all of them appeared to have built their life around it. Was this what life was about, to stake everything on one competition, to constantly march to someone else's call, to get the highest grades because one could manipulate a teacher and yet not be able to accomplish anything that has an impact on the real world? Was this the destiny I had felt from Liszt's immortal music?

So I left. I walked away from the scholarships and competitions and performances. My teachers and friends all thought I was crazy. I felt as if I were betraying myself and everything I had always wanted, except for one thing. There was something deeper in what I felt from the Liszt transcription than even my vow to play it someday.

I went to a small leadership school that did not appear to have anything to do with music, but a great deal to do with mission. With this perspective I found what I was missing from the world I had been in. I saw what left me empty even when I thought I was living my dream. 

Today's artists, with very few exceptions, see life as a career. The number one goal of an artistic career is fame. The things I mentioned earlier, concerts, competitions, graduate schools, are the vehicle to what is seen as a successful career, which is simply self-aggrandizement, wealth, and leaving behind the competition. What I experienced in music school is typical of most schools in most areas of the world today, which are built around creating the kind of musician-athletes that can beat everyone around them and therefore bring recognition to themselves, their teacher, and, of course, their Alma Mater. Growing up, I, like most of the world around me, saw this as natural and as it should be. Actually, however, virtually none of the great composers, painters or performers saw their life this way. One can only imagine what would have happened if they thought the goal was to make themselves look good and prepare for an easy retirement! If they had, Handel would have given in to discouragement and become a lawyer long before writing the Messiah; Michelangelo may have been induced to redesign his David to please the whims of his patrons; and Beethoven would have ended his work with his life when he discovered he was going deaf. In all likelihood, their names would mean little or nothing to us today. 

This is clearly the case with the story of Chopin and Kalkbrenner. Frederic Kalkbrenner was perhaps the most prominent musician-athlete in Europe in the early 1800's, especially in Paris, the center of musical life. Upon arrival in the city, young Frederic Chopin, who was little known, applied to take lessons from the renowned performer. Kalkbrenner found fault with Chopin's playing and would agree to teach him only if Chopin would study with him exclusively for three years, at the expense of his composing and other activities. Chopin consulted his mentor, who advised him against it, fearing that Chopin would lose his originality. Had Chopin been in search of today's definition of a career, there could have been no better “break” than the chance to study under the most famous pianist of his time. But Chopin said no. He “refused to be a copy of Kalkbrenner,” and today has become immortalized, while only musical scholars still talk about the once-famous Kalkbrenner. 

Every artist faces this choice, whether they realize it or not. While most of today's art schools prepare artists for Kalkbrenner-like careers, the great artists saw and continue to see life as a mission. People who are mission-centered still believe in and welcome concerts, prizes, and fame, however, their focus has shifted so that their prime concern is to live up to what they were sent to earth to do. Most great artists described this purpose simply as “art.” Beethoven, for instance, in his Heiligenstadt Testament, said that the only reason he did not end his own life was virtue and his art. He would not give up until he had lived up to his mission, something far beyond his own comfort and pocketbook.   The great artists may have understood the reason for their purpose and art differently, but when they said “Soli Dei Gloria,”[1] and “Brüder! über'm Sternenzelt Mu? ein lieber Vater wohnen,”[2] they surely meant it. Competitions and performances are important, but only to the degree that they help feed the hungry, clothe the naked, liberate the captive, and create beauty in the context of a larger plan.

By walking away from everything I had thought my life should be, I walked into a realm of the great artists that I never knew existed. I found that my old friend Liszt spent his formative years divided between technical exercises and Plato. I marveled that I and generations of other students and teachers had spent years learning and performing the Mephisto Waltz without reading or thinking to read the German classic, Lenau's Faust, on which it was based. I discovered essays by Liszt on the purpose of art, why and how it can express things nothing else can in the context of humanity as a whole. I found that Bach understood the books I had built my life around far better than I did, and described them in his music so profoundly that I uncover the mysteries of each best when studying them together. My performing and composing ability increased exponentially. When I began to see life as a mission instead of a career, I found myself and the secret to greatness in my art, as well as something more. 

I found that art is not simply self-gratification, or a way to become wealthy and well-known, or a pastime for the cultured who have nothing else to do; although it has been assigned all of these positions both in the past and currently. The world of today and tomorrow is increasingly built around relationships. This is seen in business, government, media, religion; every aspect of humanity. The most prominent emerging philosophies of today identify and promote themselves in relational terms. The way that communities and individuals create and respond to relationships will in large measure determine their success and survival in the days to come. If this the case, then art will have a more important role in the next 100 years than it has ever had in the history of the world.

In addition, the future we create will stand or fall depending on how people view themselves and their mission. Individual choices do not just affect the individual. A career based mindset cannot meet the challenges of the 21st century effectively because it believes that "I" don't really matter unless I am rich and famous, and that if I am lucky enough to be one of the few to make it, it is about carving my own name into history and then retiring so that I can amuse myself. A career cares about reaching and inspiring people only to the degree that it affects the career, and such an effort can never by itself promote peace, prosperity, or freedom. 

Why should we care about art? Because in a way that is quite indescribable in words, art teaches the minds and hearts of people their purpose for living. It, like nothing else, reaches the unreachable. No matter what philosophers say, nothing sways and inspires the masses like what they see, hear, and feel – nothing affects them like art. It is especially relevant now because art is the language of relationships. I have seen people enter a concert enemies and exit friends. Career-based art can do little but keep the status quo.  Degrading art destroys. True, mission-centered artists can and will transform the world for the better. Art can break barriers, unify cultures, change hearts, and call up courage.   It can make the difference in people's lives. 

I, of course, have a personal reason for believing this. I know that art can change the world, for better or for worse, because it has done so for me. If I could have the kind of effect on another person that the collaboration of Liszt and Pistorius has had on me, I would consider my life well lived. What I heard from that old cassette tape formed my character, courage, and determination. Even today, I find I must search my soul every time I seriously attempt to practice, and I know I am in a good place when I live up to the questions posed by Brahms' 2nd concerto or the introduction to Chopin's Fantasie-Polonaise. And as I, with my fellow artists, truly find our place in the past and the future and pursue the missions that truly change hearts and minds now and for centuries, we too may have occasion to say “Soli Dei Gloria.”

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Emily Black has been playing the piano for most of her life.  She won her first regional solo competition when she was eleven years old, and went on to perform in festivals and competitions through high school, winning prizes in events such as the Music Teacher's National Association (MTNA) state competitions and the International Festival for Creative Pianists.  As a high school senior, she received the Wilson Memorial Award, given to only one musician per year in her home state of Idaho.   Although Emily is passionate about music, she feels that her life's mission is to move the cause of liberty, through writing, teaching, and inspiring others to their mission as well as performing.   She recently founded a youth humanitarian organization designed to inspire youth to find their missions in many different areas while they foster life and inspire freedom around the world.  She says that the decision to attend George Wythe College is one of the best things she has ever done.  When she is not practicing or studying, Emily loves spending time with her family and friends in the beautiful mountains of Utah and Idaho. 


 

[1]    “To God alone the glory,” how Bach signed virtually all of his musical manuscripts. 

[2]    “Brothers, surely a loving Father dwells above the canopy of stars,” Near the close of Beethoven's 9th symphony, considered by some to be the greatest piece ever written.