The Price of Virtuosity

Not long ago we had the pleasure of hearing (and watching) the young soloist Hillary Hahn play the Mendelssohn violin concerto with the Los Angeles Philharmonic, at the Hollywood Bowl. She was sublime. The notoriously difficult music, which is hard even to hum accurately, came through her fingers with supreme grace, as though her body were being guided by a divine force, not years of muscle memory. The effect was electrifying.

One feels the same reaction witnessing Tiger Woods hit a golf ball, Kobe Bryant shoot a turn-around jumper, or Oscar Peterson play the piano. Their virtuosity is so advanced, so elevated, that there seems to be something inhuman about their greatness. On a planet of more than 6 billion people, they’re better at their chosen craft than almost anyone, and by being the best in the world they take on the aura of godliness, as though they’ve been imbued with special gifts that mere mortals shall never know.

The truth, I suspect, is far less fanciful, less beholden to the power of myth making. Virtuosos get to be virtuosos by working harder at one single craft than most people work at a lifetime’s worth of tasks. Their determination to master that one thing to the exclusion of almost everything else is not necessarily pleasant, despite the fact that the root word of virtuoso is “virtue.” The pleasurable part is the public display of their virtue, not the unfathomable sacrifice that obtaining their skill required. To play the violin as beautifully as Hillary Hahn, one is not able to spend idle afternoons at the mall, the Cineplex, or the softball diamond. One cannot waste time on soap operas, Internet chats, or People magazine — unless it’s to grant an interview. The precious minutes life allows must be used wisely, always nurturing and growing the divine gift, raising it ever higher toward the heavens.

In one of Tiger Woods’s most famous commercials, while the camera pans around an empty house and a storm rages outside, he says, in voiceover, that rainy days are for lounging around and doing nothing. Then the camera peers through a window into the yard, where Tiger Woods, dripping wet, is hitting golf balls He intones, “The problem is, there are no rainy days.” In that moment, we understand why Tiger Woods is the greatest golfer in the history of the game and why the rest of us are not the best at anything, except perhaps slothfulness.

Virtuosos are freaks, beautiful and inspiring monsters who have dedicated themselves to the impossible pursuit of perfection. At those ineffable moments when they share their quest with us — in performance, in public — we should be profoundly grateful that they, like Jesus Christ and fallen soldiers, have made monumental sacrifices for our collective pleasure.

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