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Say yes!

Nathan Cole

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Published: May 9, 2014 at 10:12 PM [UTC]

Since Lang Lang is here with the LA Phil this week, I thought back to a time in school when I said "no" and should have said "yes". Actually, there were many of those moments, so take this post as free (if unsolicited) advice, especially to those still in school or just about to be.

I grew up in a smallish place, at least when compared to the musical capitals of the world: Lexington, Kentucky. As an adult I've come to appreciate the great cultural foundation I received there, as well as to marvel at all the great Suzuki teachers that worked there as I was growing up. But that's another story. Suffice it to say that I was pretty nervous heading to Curtis after my senior year of high school. I had always been the best around, or close to it, and now I was decidedly not going to be the best. Hilary Hahn and Leila Josefowicz were going to be just two of my classmates and that was that!

Therefore I became concerned with surrounding myself with the "right" people: namely, people who appreciated how wonderful I was, and who would reinforce my own beliefs about my playing! This worked great at first: I found that I had a special affinity for string quartet playing, and I was invited to play with a group of older students that had worked regularly the year before. I had found "my" crowd, and we spent many hundreds of hours working together. Sure, they were tough on me, but coming from them, I could take it.

The problem was that I had drawn a box around me that included my new friends and, though I didn't realize it, shut others out. I wasn't much interested in the new students coming in, or those in my year who played with groups I thought inferior to mine.

None of this was intentional, of course. I considered myself a nice guy, and I really did want to learn and improve. But only from the right people. I had underestimated the value of exposure: to new ideas, new directions, just new people. This new person knows a burger place you haven't heard of, this new person knows a great recording you'd like. Or more to the point, this new person knows another person who could really show you a thing or two.

When a new piano student, Lang Lang, came to school everyone already knew he was a big thing at age 14. So when a fellow student asked if I wanted to read trios with him, what possible reason could I have had for saying no? I said no. Maybe I felt busy that day, but I don't think that was the reason. I overthought it. I felt that by saying yes, I would be doing it just because he was thought of as a "big deal". I would be feeding the hype. I would be reading with a talented kid when I could be reading with a serious musician.

Well, what would have been wrong with any of that? It was reading trios, for crying out loud, not asking him to go to the prom! I had forgotten something a semi-pro uncle had told me about tennis: "Nathan, your problem is that you don't want to play with anyone who's better than you. That's a sure way to stay the way you are." The worst-case scenario: Lang Lang would have been stuck up, unprepared and I would have had two hours of mediocre music-making. But the best-case scenario? Pretty much what would have happened if I had said yes: Lang Lang would have been a great guy (true), totally prepared (true) and I would have had a blast.

And you know what else? The next time he wanted to perform trios, who would he have called first? The people he had just read with. And even if he didn't, what did I have to lose? The connections you make in just one afternoon might transform your life.

Now don't get me wrong. I don't feel that my life took a wrong turn that day! That was one decision out of many that shaped my life and career. Some I look back on with pride, and others (like that one) with regret. But I feel lucky to share the stage with Lang Lang this week, and to reminisce a bit about school. He's a great guy after all, and a superb pianist as we know.

The point is this: seek out greatness. If you believe in talent (that's a bit of a sticky topic these days), search for it and be open to it. If you want to call it something else - facility, mastery - search for that. Learn from other people. Not because they're famous or on their way to being famous, but because they're better than you right now. Don't draw a box around yourself unless you want to stay in there for the rest of your musical life. I spent some time in there, and I can tell you it's lonely! And not the lonely-at-the-top kind of lonely. The kind that stunts your growth. I broke out eventually, but I want you to expand from the moment you get to school.

You don't yet know everything about who you're going to be in four years. Or ten. So you can't hope to know that about anyone else either. Seek them out, and make music with them. Eventually you'll be so busy with great projects that you'll have to say no. Then you'll know that you said it for the right reason.

Posted on May 10, 2014 at 9:19 PM
Thank you for being so honest and open! Very helpful for directing young musicians to be great!
From Carter Asbill
Posted on May 11, 2014 at 12:12 AM
Nathan, I have enjoyed reading your article about your experience in Music School , not accepting the chance to play trios with Lang Lang.
Your writing should be posted in every serious music school for students to read and apply your experience to their own path.
When I a young student, my teacher also told me that anytime that I had a chance to play with others that were better or farther along than I was to do it. It was some of the best advice that I ever got.
Great article

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