Wednesday, March 08, 2017

Life shapers

We often think of those who have shaped our lives in important ways only after they are gone. It’s not intentional – we just take for granted that those who influenced us will always be there. As I age, more and more of the significant people with whom I’ve crossed paths in personal and professional ventures are dying. I recently discovered one of my life shapers through an encounter sharing musical interests with a new acquaintance.

I met Eileen Cline when I was a sophomore in high school. I had studied with one piano teacher for several years who determined that she had taken me as far as she could. She referred me to a young faculty member at the University of Colorado – Ms. Cline. I’ve always remembered Ms. Cline and her husband (a German language teacher at Boulder High School) but had never attempted to get back in touch. The honest truth was that I hadn’t been a very conscientious piano student so I hadn’t been sure she would even remember me. My hormones raging and the social environment of Boulder in the 1960s swirling around me, I just couldn’t focus. Ms. Cline urged me to work more on piano technique – scales, arpeggios, and theory. Because I had done well enough from my previous instruction to be able to perform in public, I didn’t have the patience and couldn’t muster the discipline to really get serious with Ms. Cline.

I was reintroduced to Ms. Cline when my musical acquaintance handed me an article as I was leaving his home after a two-hour conversation. The article was ”Anyone can win” (American Music Teacher, Vol. 40, No. 1, August/September, 1990). In complete astonishment, I looked at Eileen Cline’s name and said to my colleague, “This may seem crazy but Ms. Cline was my piano teacher when I was in high school.” The article is about the piano competitions that are held around the world that are responsible for identifying the most gifted young pianists. The essence she discovered through her research is that, although the competitions can be very subjective and political, they are helpful in honing young artists’ performance capability. She advised that one’s teacher, the institution where you study, technique, repertoire, and public performance experience are all important. But one of the things that distinguishes an artist who really connects with her/his listeners is a sense of personal vision, and that “a successful career cannot likely be built without it.” One of the most profound questions she raised was how many great piano students are actually destroyed by the competitions rather than built up and encouraged by them. She said, “Some of the most promising artists drop out of the field – because their most important gifts also make them have a distaste for the personal warfare involved in commercial success.”

Ms. Cline’s research and teaching influenced me in profound ways, as I’m sure it has for many others. Maybe had I been a bit more focused… I don’t know. Ultimately, she wrote, that an artist is one who expresses an insightful individuality “combined with a compelling conviction that can move the listener where he or she could not otherwise go.” I intend to reconnect with Ms. Cline in the near future (she is now 80 and lives near Boulder, Colorado). My intent is just to say that, regardless of my lack of seriousness, I’ve maintained my interest in music. In fact, I’ve come back to my musical roots in retirement and have been deeply fulfilled by the rediscovery of music as a sustaining element of daily life. I've also returned to limited piano performance, having played plenary session opening music for the November 2016 conference of the International Leadership Association and in May 2017 I will be an "atelier" performer/presenter for the 4th Transatlantic Dialogue in Luxembourg in May 2017. Ms. Cline was, and is, a delightful, intelligent, and affirming human being. She made a very real difference in my life at a time filled with turmoil.