That Elusive Quality – Talent
I recently described Jamie Logan, the young tenor in You Are My Song, to one of my readers as “an ordinary guy with an extraordinary talent.” Jamie has an unusually beautiful singing voice; he also has a good ear, which helps him learn music quickly and grasp language pronunciation well. By applying himself he learns to sightread music well, and to retain what he has learned. By virtue of more hard work, he understands those many languages he is expected to use in different operas. Jamie is also fortunate to be blessed with good looks and he is a good actor. As a singer aspiring for a career in opera, he has “the whole package.”
It’s interesting to compare Jamie to Eli Levin, the protagonist of Eli’s Heart. Eli was born with a prodigious musical gift, so despite the complicated and frightening heart condition he was also born with, it’s a given that Eli will be a professional musician. The only question for Eli is how he will use his remarkable skill as a pianist: as a virtuoso, performing solo recitals and orchestral appearances? That is the manner in which most pianists endowed in this way spend their lives.
Eli chooses instead to work with other musicians, as an accompanist or collaborator. The early part of the book includes descriptions of his battles with his mother over this choice. Because of who Eli is, with these dual challenges there is of necessity the sense of a fairy tale in his story. He’s different from most of us. He’s very different from most of us. He was performing professionally as a soloist at the age of twelve. When he is twenty-four, he’s completed his master of music degree and has embarked on a busy career as a collaborative artist that takes him all over the world.
Jamie, on the other hand, starts his adult life with an associates’ degree in business and an early marriage that is in trouble. In high school he had enjoyed singing, and like most of us, sang in the school choirs and the high school musicals. Unlike Eli, Jamie has actually heard very little classical music until a voice teacher plays him a recording of a tenor singing a particularly beautiful and moving aria. Jamie is excited by what he hears to the point of wanting to go back to college at the age of twenty-three and eventually attempting a career in opera.
Many professional opera singers don’t begin serious study until high school or even college, as opposed to instrumentalists who sometimes demonstrate talent and even genius at a very young age, as early as three or four. Serious singing requires muscular and mental development that doesn’t begin to take place until the mid-teens for most men, and the early to mid-teens for women.
The difference between Jamie and Eli, it seems to me – and I know them better than anyone does – is how they perceive their talent. Eli has the ability to play anything to near perfection the first time he reads through it. Yet he practices hours on end, striving for absolute perfection. He has a very revealing moment in the book when talking with his psychiatrist (I think I did him a great service by putting Pete in his life):
Eli was aware of how quiet it was in the room. They were high enough above the street so that traffic noise wasn’t audible.
“You know something, Pete? Nobody ever asked me if I liked playing the piano. It came easily to me, and I could sight read anything, so everybody figured that’s what I should do. What else was I going to do?”
Eli thought a minute. “I love music, Pete. I don’t mean to say that I don’t like playing piano, because really, I do. I’m hard on myself sometimes because I want it to be perfect. But when I’m working with another musician, it can be exciting to feel what’s happening.”
Jamie, on the other hand, has come much later to music and the realization he might have a career as a performer. But he battles self-doubts, partly created by the early marriage that ended badly after only two years. More than once these doubts surface as Jamie works hard to become as good a performer as he possibly can. At one point his second wife asks him:
“What do you want, Jamie? I mean what do you see as the fulfillment of your dream?” She was surprised she had never asked him this. She knew he wanted to sing. She wasn’t really sure what would make him feel he’d “made it.”
He said without hesitating, “Singing Don José at the Met.” He looked a little troubled. “It may never happen. But I guess it’s good to have a goal, and that’s mine.”
Just keep these in mind when you hear a gifted musician perform. No matter how gifted they are, how diligently they practice, how extraordinary they seem to us mere mortals, they’ve had moments similar to these in their lives. What they expect of themselves is even more than what we expect of them. It’s not an easy life. It can be immensely satisfying.