Virtue and Virtuosos

- posted by Len Thompson

I watched a documentary of a competition of young concert pianists on PBS last week. The documentary was split up into several segments. The first segment introduced all the competitors playing technical pieces. A few were featured with both interviews and footage of actual performances so I felt up close and personal with the half dozen chosen ones. Their level of skill was amazing! It takes huge levels of technical acuity to even qualify for that level of competition even though most were under 20 years of age. Then the judges eliminated all but a dozen competitors. I dropped my chin in shock as the featured musiciansall were eliminated. The chief adjudicator explained that the level of competition is now so high that choosing the finalists is incredibly difficult. He would have liked to keep all of the competitors because of their hard work and skill.

The next segment gave insight into the finalists and their relationship with their instructors. Most had gotten to this level in the competition in previous attempts so this was their second or third attempt to differentiate themselves from the other performers. The main task at hand for the instructors at this level was to get beyond the technique and coax the musician to tell a compelling story with the music. It became clear that much more than technical skill is needed for virtuosity- passion has to accompany the technical brilliance. As the performers played and talked about their craft, I could begin to feel the heart and soul of each performer through the music. The moments on stage became more than a performance; I felt like I was learning about the core values and emotions of each musician. Over the two hours of footage it became harder and harder for me to differentiate between the artists and their art; fusion created virtue.  The music shaped the souls of the pianists; the simple appearance of the artist on stage triggered a presence that was hard to explain. Was it their art that embedded itself on my memory or was it the person? Both. I knew better now why these musicians were called virtuosos.

Virtue is more than simply doing certain things very well. It is when technical excellence and passion merge in an alteration that affects the core being of a person. All of the finalists devoted 8-10 hours a day to practice; they all had a single focus. Each one also moved far beyond the concentration of hard work and into the joy of the music. Their technical skills allowed them the freedom to express the heart and soul with all of its passion. My wife commented, "It makes you think, doesn't it? I feel so small compared to them. What if I could be devoted, wholeheartedly to one thing?"

I felt the same. What if I devoted myself to the spiritual disciplines in such a way that the forms came without any conscious thought and I could know God without holding anything back? Isn't the fusion of the the character of Christ into the core of my being the goal of being a Christian? What I saw clearly that night was the path. The musicians' lives showed the it clearly. Many things have to be dropped in favour of the one thing and yet the musician becomes stronger because of the music. Neither the music nor the performer overshadows the other. What separates the performer from the virtuoso is the personality of the musician dancing with the form of the music in harmony. Performers play music while vituosos show up on stage with the music.

Yet a virtuoso pays an exacting price! So much practice and knowledge of one's self goes into developing virtuosity. Will I give the same sort of effort and soul work to create virtue in my soul? Can Christ dance with me in the same way as a virtuoso dances with the musical form? In that mountaintop experience I could see the path clearly and that is a gift worth more than I can measure.


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