Genius

The parents of my young piano students know that I have a serious problem with the name of one of the piano methods for young beginners, “Music for Little Mozarts”.  Not only do I find it presumptuous and misleading, I find it unfair to the children:  they are being taught that if they only try hard enough, they can be “little Mozarts” which leads some of them to think that they are expected to become little Mozarts.  

There’s a misconception here in the United States, arising from the statement, “All men are born equal.”   People equate “equal” with “the same”.   The fact is, we are not all the same.  We are born male, female, (or, in moderately rare cases, intersexual – persons incompatible with the biological gender binary); we are born tall, short, in-between, easy-going or not; we are born first, second, the last of ten.  We are not all the same.  Nor should we be.  In a truly great society, everyone finds his/her place, with room and encouragement to develop his/her individual talents. 

Dylan Evans, in an article that was published in The Guardian, speaks of talent:

We can’t bear the idea that some people might be better than us, so much better that we could never be like them, no matter how hard we tried. That upsets our democratic ethos, our belief that all people are born equal.

But raw talent is not distributed equally. By definition, most of us are not exceptional. We are neither particularly stupid, nor especially intelligent. Only a very few are extremely gifted. […] The Mona Lisa, the Goldberg Variations and King Lear were not the work of ordinary people like you and me. They were the work of geniuses, people so much more talented than us that we could never paint or write anything comparable to their achievements, no matter how hard we tried or how long we lived.

And here’s a thought that’s particularly dear to my heart because of its relevance to piano competitions:

The just allocation of admiration is a virtue that requires judgment and integrity: judgment to distinguish genuine talent from mere showiness, and integrity in refusing to bestow praise on those who do not fully deserve it. Prizes are only valuable if they are restricted to the very few. Not winning a prize is not something to be seen as shameful – it should be the norm, something that happens to the overwhelming majority of people.

This kind of thinking usually doesn’t go over too well with American students and parents who by now are used to receiving some kind of prize or recognition for just about everything.   While I wholeheartedly believe in and teach supporting young people’s efforts and accomplishments, I think this society has gone overboard in its attempt to reward expected behavior.  Making people, especially young people, think that they are exceptional just because they follow the rules or because their work is acceptable is dangerous.

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So, what’s wrong with naming a piano method “Music for Little Mozarts”?  It is the arrogant assumption that all children are geniuses in the league of Wolfgang Amadeus Mozart.  It is degrading to the genius of Wolfgang Amadeus Mozart to put him on the same level as the majority of people who just happen not to be geniuses.  It reminds me of the story of the 4-year old whose parents manage to grab him just as he’s about to step onto a busy four-lane highway.  The parents, distraught, demand to know, “What on earth and in heaven’s name did you think you were doing?!”  The 4-year-old answers, “I am going to cross the highway because I can do anything if I just believe in myself.”

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