Tuesday, November 15, 2011

The Best That You Can Do...

Chris Thile
I promise: BMSA isn’t going to turn into an arts and entertainment blog, but I’m going to tell you about yet another show... My husband and I celebrated his birthday at a one-man show by Chris Thile, virtuoso mandolin player, member of the Punch Brothers and former member of progressive acoustic trio Nickel Creek. (This is one blog entry where it will really be worth it to click on some links, you guys.)

At age 30, Chris has been playing mandolin almost as long as he’s been alive – a prodigy, then a virtuoso, he teases out of his tiny mandolin original songs, traditional bluegrass and folk numbers and compositions by J.S. Bach, Flat and Scruggs and... Radiohead. His fingers move like lightning and his voice is strong and plaintive.

Our seats at the Carolina Theatre show were in the pit - that is, right up under his nose. Tall and lean, clad in a nice-looking suit, Thile picked and chatted his way through an interesting and varied set, making self-deprecating jokes, giving vital song information in the relaxed way that comes from being a natural leader – and a performer for 25 years. 

Chris had been playing a while already
when this record came out.
One of many highlights: His “fiddle-tune request time,” during which he invited members of the audience to yell out fiddle tunes they’d like to hear him play. Of course, his requirements for eligibility were pretty strict, so many of the suggestions were answered with, “Disqualified!” And in the end he settled on 3 tunes – one of them being, not a fiddle tune, but the famous banjo tune Foggy Mountain Breakdown. He then plowed through them, but artfully, one after the other – lightning fast fingers striving to recreate their complex structures. And ... when he’d finished to thunderous applause, he took his bow, but still gave Foggy Mountain Breakdown a few more tries... still trying to work it out. Because, you see, he had improvised the whole thing.... figured out on the spot how to make those tunes written for other instruments sound good on a mandolin.

It made me wonder, what would it be like to be so good at something? I mean, in many ways, I am adequate – even slightly good at some things... but in no area do I possess a noticeable talent that stands out above others... like, say, Mozart... or Leonardo Da Vinci...  or Einstein... unless you count very special talents like "shopping at Target" or "eating french fries"... On top of that, I’m lazy! I did play piano when I was young, but I lacked the necessary drive and ambition to really work hard at it. Sometimes I wonder – had I been born with a measure of natural affinity for music, would my drive been more intense? That is to say, would I have worked harder if I had not needed to work so hard?

I know exactly why Arthur drank.
I guess music and art are just a very showy area of giftedness – but one that is valued by our culture. And, honestly, music and art are an awesome aspect of our humanity... but not everyone comes equipped with the ability to create devastatingly beautiful paintings or music that makes people weep. There is a great part from the movie Arthur (Dudley Moore version) where he says, “Everyone who drinks is not a poet. Maybe some of us drink because we’re not poets.” It always resonated with me because I WISH I were an artist of some kind. Sometimes I think I was gifted with a vaguely artistic temperament, but no talent to go along with it... How depressing, right? I mean, if you’re going to be a jerk, you should have the genius that normally accompanies it – am I right? Not that all artists are temperamental... or that being an artist gives you the right to be temperamental... But really, we do let them get away with a lot, don’t we?

I guess I shouldn’t be sad that I am not a gifted artist... After all: “Shall what is formed say to the one who formed it, ‘Why did you make me like this?’” Does not the potter have the right to make out of the same lump of clay some pottery for special purposes and some for common use?” (Romans 9) I mean, there ARE other, less flashy gifts, right? God gives us gifts to use to serve each other – natural talents like leadership, hospitality, mercy, teaching... Maybe I have some kind of gift like one of these? “There are different kinds of gifts, but the same Spirit distributes them. There are different kinds of service, but the same Lord. There are different kinds of working, but in all of them and in everyone it is the same God at work.” (I Corinthians 12) So artist, musician, genius – or not, we are all gifted by God.

And it is interesting, also, to me that after his discourse about gifts in I Corinthians, Paul writes about LOVE... you know, that famous passage they read at weddings... Where he gives a beautiful description of love, then says that every flashy gift in the world means squat if you don’t have LOVE. So... I guess that means being gifted doesn’t give a person license to be a jerk... It's cool that you don't have to have any particular gifts in order to do the most important thing. Anyone can do it!

In summary: 1. Watching Chris Thile on stage was an amazing experience. 2. God made Chris Thile the way he is – amazing. 3. God made you and me the way we are – amazing, and 4. LOVE is what really matters, after all... So go out and spread some love, people! 

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