Early in my musical development I became intensely enamored with the music of Frederic Chopin. Though virtually all of his music was beyond my skill level, I attempted with great vehemence to play just about any Chopin work I could lay my 12-year-old hands on. The polish virtuoso quickly became my hero. Not surprisingly, I also encountered the music of Chopin’s colleague, Franz Liszt, around the same time. I loved Liszt’s music too, but something I read about him bothered me a little: Liszt was said to be “the greatest pianist in the world.” That agitated me because it meant that Liszt was greater than Chopin, my hero.
As was my custom when puzzled about any of the litany of musical information I was cramming into my brain at every opportunity, I took my concerns to lay at the feet of my piano teacher, J. Bruce Ashton. An eloquent, distinguished university professor nearing the end of a long and fruitful career in music, Dr. Ashton always seemed to have the answers, and I, at the beginning of my life’s musical journey, was in awe of his seemingly inexhaustible knowledge and wisdom. So I told him what I had read about Liszt being “the greatest” and asked if that necessarily meant he was better than Chopin. Having braced myself for a mere confirmation of what I’d read, I got an answer I wasn’t expecting—from the Apostle Paul, no less:
“We do not dare to classify or compare ourselves with some who commend themselves. When they measure themselves by themselves and compare themselves with themselves, they are not wise” (II Corinthians 2:12).
Dr. Ashton went on to explain that he did not, in fact, consider Liszt to be better than Chopin. He conceded that Chopin was of slight build and rather ill for most of his life, and that perhaps Liszt could therefore play louder. But, as far as Dr. Ashton was concerned, “louder” does not equal “better,” and both pianists were extraordinary in their own right and had their own unique merits.
And thus I learned two incredibly valuable life lessons: 1) You can’t just blindly believe everything you read, regardless of how reputable the source of information or commonplace the ideology, and 2) it’s folly to try to compare apples with oranges. Of course, I was young and naïve, and didn’t realize that these are extremely basic principles that most people regard as very obvious. The question is, if they’re so basic, why do we forget them so easily? Dr. Ashton taught me in a very memorable way how important these “obvious” points are when it comes to the arts especially. That’s because so little about art is concrete; artists deal primarily with questions of aesthetic and emotion—and not primarily of math and science. There’s so much subjective opinion involved for that reason. It’s virtually impossible to escape biases based on our own personal preferences.
That’s what Dr. Ashton helped me to see for the first time all those years ago, and that’s why, for me, a red flag goes up whenever I hear someone using superlatives or talking about absolutes when it comes to the arts. I consciously avoid words and phrases like “greatest,” “best,” “most beautiful,” “most difficult,” etc. To say that Liszt is better than Chopin is tantamount to insisting that vanilla is better than chocolate. It’s not fact; no matter how many letters are behind the name of the person saying it, it’s nothing more than opinion.
This is why competitions in the arts are for the most part a rather silly exercise. Though it is possible, to some extent, to measure technical skill (i.e. Suzie plays scales more cleanly than Joey), to measure the heart and soul of the matter—the so-called musicality—is another thing entirely. Yes, some people certainly have more “heart and soul” in their work than others, and that’s often readily recognizable. But what if, for example, a Salvador Dali and a Pablo Picasso showed up at the local art contest? Who’s to say that the surrealism of the former is inherently better the cubism of the latter? Or what if a Vladimir Horowitz and an Artur Rubinstein were somehow reincarnated and entered one of today’s major piano competitions? There’s more than one way to effectively perform the same piano piece, and who’s to say which is inherently better? And what of, for example, concerto competitions open to players of all instruments? You might wind up with a pianist playing Mozart competing against a flutist playing Khachaturian. It’s as preposterous as sending your school’s football team to play against the competing school’s basketball team.
On a deeper level, the main problem with competition is that its principles are not in harmony with the underlying principles and chief purpose of music, as I see it. In our society music is often a force that divides us. This isn’t just because of all of the competition in the music industry, but also simply because it’s easy to be so emotional about the kind of music that we think is best, and it becomes a hill we deem worthy to die on. Even churches sometimes become divided because of disagreements about the kind of music that should be used in their services. But I believe that music, if its powers are harnessed and used for good, can bring us together and promote peace in the world in profound ways. It can build a sense of community, of belonging, of feeling like you’re a part of something bigger than yourself.
But the excessive emphasis on competition and big egos in the music industry promote the opposite ideals and often prevent music from fulfilling its potential. We’re told we’ve got to push our way to the top and learn to “toot our own horn” or else we won’t get anywhere. So many aspiring musicians spend their lives trying to prove that they are “better” than their peers, and I too have fallen sway to this mentality at times. But when we think this way we miss the boat entirely. Even if we become “successful” as a result of this “survival-of-the-fittest” system, we won’t really be successful because we will have built a career on ideals that are contrary to what music is all about. And perhaps we’ll regret that some day when we’re old and we look back on a life spent pushing others out of the way.
Let me try to illustrate all of this in another way. I love nature and like to think that the time I spend exploring its wonders has a big impact on what I do as an artist. I’ve even written an essay, with the rather unlikely title of “The Composer on the Infinite Cereal Aisle,” that explores the concept of nature as inspiration for music. It recently occurred to me that nature also provides some interesting food for thought on the issue of comparing things in the arts.
In the summer of 2014 I was out backpacking in the Rockies with some friends from my home state of Tennessee. We set up camp at a sublime spot: a small, crystal-clear lake nestled high among the jagged peaks of the Sangre de Cristo range in southeastern Colorado. We all felt a kind of ecstasy up there, the scene being even more glorious than we had dreamed. But, unfortunately, one of my companions chose to express her ecstasy in a way that slightly diminished mine: “We just don’t have anything like this in Tennessee,” she said. “I mean, people say that the mountains in Tennessee are just as pretty in their own way, but that’s just bologna! This is so much better.” Though I had heard people say similar things before, I was particularly nonplussed that someone would view such an awe-inspiring scene as a reason to dis another beautiful place. I’ll be the first to say that the Rockies are glorious, but I’ll never understand why some people feel that the Rockies should be praised on the basis of how much “better” they are than the Appalachians.
The Appalachian Mountains have a special place in my heart. I grew up in their shadow and I feel like those “smoky,” blue hills are somehow a part of me. I feel like I belong when I’m in those mountains; there’s this sense that they are “my” mountains. So when people say things like, “Out west they have real mountains,” I don’t get it, because the eastern mountains sure feel real to me. On the whole, they offer a quieter, more reserved beauty than their rugged western counterparts; does that inherently make them of lesser value or somehow not “real”?
Perhaps this hits close to home for me because of the analogy I see in it. I tend to write small-scale, quiet, meditative music. I happen to be a quiet, reserved person. Does that mean my music is not legitimate or that it’s inherently lesser than that of composers who are inclined toward grandiosity? In some people’s minds, the answer would seem to be “yes.” After all, there are a lot of composers out there making a whole lot more money than I do, and the majority of them are not writing music that resembles mine. But I keep writing in my own way because I believe that the world needs to learn to appreciate a quieter, unassuming aesthetic. Bigger, grander, louder, longer—none of these are synonyms for “better.” We need to learn to appreciate the infinite shades of beauty in the world. Will certain shades appeal to certain individuals more than others? Sure, but we must be ever vigilant in fighting the notion that that which appeals to us—or to the largest group of people—is inherently the best.
Simply put, in the arts and in nature there is no “best.” I would simply ask anyone who disagrees to prove me wrong. Prove that Liszt is better than Chopin. Prove that the Rockies are better than the Appalachians. Prove that apples are better than oranges and that vanilla is better than chocolate. It’s just not possible. It never has been and it never will be. And that’s beautiful. When we learn to appreciate beauty in whatever form it takes, then maybe, just maybe, we’ll learn to recognize and appreciate the unique, individual beauty in every person we meet—no matter how unlike us they may be.
So let’s set art free—let’s set music free—to do what it does best. Let’s break the arbitrary chains of bias and competitiveness that our society has fastened upon it—chains that threaten to keep it from fulfilling its inestimable potential to promote peace in the world. It’s not an easy task, but it’s ever so worth it. If we spend our lives pursuing that goal, rather than the goal of trying to be “better” than others, we’ll really have something to be proud of when we’re old: We’ll have the satisfaction of knowing that we made music for the right reasons.