The Theory of Brilliance

celloI’ve come to greatly admire my daughter’s cello teacher. The woman is unrelentingly positive. And good at playing cello. During the teacher’s lesson my daughter’s fingers move deftly over the cello’s four strings, as if under a spell, and I’m shocked at how the sounds often don’t match those made at our house.

I don’t know squat about playing an instrument, but I do know a great deal about how to criticize. If there were levels to criticism-givers, I’d be Super Platinum. You know, like good albums or those rankings given to philanthropic donors in the back of event programs? No? Well, trust me.

Even if, as I said before, I know zilch about playing an instrument, I’m all, “Can’t you stretch your hand a little wider?” Or “Your pinky’s not quite on that finger-placement sticker.” I can be a real ass.

But honestly, neither my assholery nor my knowledge (or lack thereof) about music-playing is the point here. The point is my daughter’s instructor, St. Cello Teacher, who every week I watch for thirty minutes as she brilliantly bows her way through Concertino, The Birch Canoe, and Chorus from “Judas Maccabaeus,” coaxing music from the blooming heart of my twelve-year-old.

Here’s what I’ve learned from those weekly half-hours: brilliance, though less frequent, is present from the beginning. What I mean is that even when you very first begin to learn a thing, you will experience moments of brilliance. These moments will be separated by vast unbrilliant stretches, but they are there, amidst dark and frustrating ignorance.

Why does this matter? Because in the short months she has played with St. Cello Teacher, my daughter has improved by leaps. And she’s more willing to practice. Her limited moments of brilliance—when the bow slides over the strings perfectly and the notes ring out true and soulful—occur more often. It is as if St. Cello Teacher has taught my daughter to sniff out brilliance like one of those truffle pigs. Actually, I don’t know squat about truffle pigs either.

My grandmother could sense the presence of water. A water witch. This was a bad thing to her, being a fundamentalist Christian in a small Idaho town. She worried about the rightness. Even so, to sense a thing so potent, liquid shifting beneath earth, is a kind of brilliant magic.

My grandmother rarely used her ability. Why would she? It could be a trap set by the devil. When you are afraid, everything looks like a trap set by the devil. Believing in magic is scary. People might laugh. You might feel ashamed. You might feel undeserving. Maybe it doesn’t really exist. It’s like believing in the possibility of your own brilliance.

How could anyone possibly be brilliant when they are learning? When they are young? When they make mistakes? At any moment they will certainly be swallowed by the great whale of human failure.

But is that really true? Can’t we be both brilliant and imperfect? Can we train ourselves as practitioners—musicians or artists or writers or whatever we are—to sniff out our own moments of brilliance, snatch them more frequently from the ether, tie them together so close that the brightness of each moment obscures the dark and shines in near-continuum?

When I criticize, my lazy eyes bobble onto blackness, observe the wide not-yet-learned spaces, and trigger my mouth to spew pure dumbness. Intervals of still-learning are obvious, including to (perhaps most acutely) the practitioner. What we are often most blind to is our own brilliance.

St. Cello Teacher has trained herself to ferret out those tiny flares where my daughter is brilliant. To point them out so my daughter knows them, can sense them and pull them to her more and more, so that those stretches of darkness—the unlearned—fade away.

Me focusing on what my daughter has not learned teaches her what? I watch her face scrunch and fall after I criticize, the energy she was using to find her brilliance suddenly redirects. Her fingers fumble. The magical realm of music making fades away. She is back in the physical world, frustrated by her small hands and still-developing childmind.

My criticism is useless. That I am afraid to take the same risk St. Cello Teacher, a near stranger, takes with my own daughter every freaking week KILLS ME. Anyone can identify what is yet to be learned. The greater task is to see what is already there, brilliant and bright and ready to burst. The rest will right itself along the way.

4 thoughts on “The Theory of Brilliance

  1. It’s funny to see your daughter is playing cello. My daughter has started playing cello this year as well. I, also, have a hard time not critiquing her practices, especially when I hear a lot of experimentation.

    • I believe my job is to help her fall in love with music. People go to great lengths for something they love, and the love of a thing carries people through the tougher aspects of skill aquistition. But just cuz i BELIEVE that doesn’t mean it’s easy to LIVE that.

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