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It's Not the Piano

I heard a story once about Bill Evans, jazz pianist (and legendary musician.) It basically went like this:

There was a party for some purpose or another. The host of the party had a piano. As tends to happen when musicians gather and an instrument is available (and alcohol is flowing, but you assumed that, given this was a party with musicians), plenty of folks sat down at the piano, inflated with booze and ready to show off their chops.

The storyteller – I believe it was Kenny Werner in his book Effortless Mastery, but I can't find my copy – watched as his fellow pianists pounded out standard after standard, wincing at the tinny, slightly out of tune sound of the old piano.

Until Bill Evans sat down.

I haven't looked at this book since college, but I remember the gist of it: "Evans touched the keys, and suddenly we were listening to a Steinway grand, rich, beautiful, perfectly tuned."

Is that possible? For a piano to completely change in tone, timbre, and tuning for one man? One master?

When someone shows you an incredible photograph they took, one with amazing color and lighting where the angle is just right, do you say "Wow! What kind of camera do you have?"

When you hear a violinist pouring his heart out through Beethoven and strings, do you ask how much that Stradivarius cost?

What made David perfect – the quality of the marble, or Michelangelo's touch? Was that guy on the island talking to a volleyball so memorable because of the $90,000,000 movie budget, or is it really because Tom Hanks can act his ass off?

Relativity – Escher's pencil, or his unique perception?

I'm not being facetious – well, I'm not trying to be. I'm guilty of a few of these myself, the camera scenario in particular. Someone could shove a decked-out digital SLR in my hands, but I'm thinking that probably wouldn't guarantee my photos a spot in National Geographic.

It's just so easy to credit the final work of art to everything but the master who created it.

So next time someone finds out you're a writer and says "hey, I have an idea for a novel! You should write it!" Or "I thought about writing a book, but I don't have the time." Or anything that implies it's something anyone can do, that a great novel is merely an idea and the time it takes to write it, that it's not creativity and passion and dedication and practice but rather hours and hours of free time that you clearly have and no one else does...
Just smile.


Walk away, and keep writing.

Because when the words are written, the prose is crafted, and your art is on the page, you'll know – it's not the piano.

It's you.
Michelle Schusterman

Michelle writes books for kids, screenplays for a tv/film production company, and music for anyone who'd buy a "groove matters" bumper sticker. She lives in New York City with her husband (and band mate) and their chocolate lab (who is more of a vocalist). She is the author of middle grade series I Heart Band - 2014, and The Kat Sinclair Files - 2015 (both from Grosset).

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  1. My father is notorious for giving me ideas. Just last week he told me that all I needed to do was write the science fiction version of Catcher in the Rye. I don't even know what this means, but I told him that I've got plenty of ideas. Everyone's got the ideas. It's the ability to turn those ideas into a story or a novel or a screenplay or whatever that makes someone a writer.

  2. Alissa, THAT is funny. And you are absolutely right.

    Thanks, Kate! 3>

  3. Your Bill Evans story--and the lesson of this great post--reminds me of a similar story, this one allegedly about Picasso:

    Legend has it that Pablo Picasso was sketching in the park when a bold woman approached him. "It's you -- Picasso, the great artist! Oh, you must sketch my portrait! I insist."

    So Picasso agreed to sketch her. After studying her for a moment, he used a single pencil stroke to create her portrait. He handed the women his work of art.

    "It's perfect!" she gushed. "You managed to capture my essence with one stroke, in one moment. Thank you! How much do I owe you?"

    "Five thousand dollars," the artist replied.

    "B-b-but, what?" the woman sputtered. "How could you want so much money for this picture? It only took you a second to draw it!"

    To which Picasso responded, "Madame, it took me my entire life."

  4. SUCH a beautifully written post! I love it :)

  5. Beautiful post, Michelle. I love the story and the different ways we think of the tools as being the master, rather than the person behind them. I've been going through that a lot as I learn how to take decent pictures with a crappy camera and keep telling myself: Learn the art, don't worry about the tool.

  6. Love this post, Michelle! (And the Picasso story, Johnny! :D)

  7. Thanks guys - and Johnny, GREAT story, I hadn't heard that one! So, so true.


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Item Reviewed: It's Not the Piano Rating: 5 Reviewed By: Michelle Schusterman