Some years back, when my wife and I lived in Evansville, Indiana, I had the very good fortune to meet a young man named Kevin Olusola. He was a high school student then, living in Owensboro Kentucky, and when we met, he was already committed to moving to Boston for school. I think it was Phillips Academy.
Kevin took lessons for a while. It couldn’t have been more than a month or two — so I can hardly claim to have made any lasting impact on him as a cellist, but he certainly made a lasting impact on me as a teacher.
You see, Kevin was obviously talented, and like most students so touched, he was searching for what to do with his gifts. Besides the cello, Kevin played the saxophone and excelled academically. Though I recall he was still a freshman in high school at the time we met, he was already wrestling with career choices. Musicians and doctors are made young, and those were the top two choices on his list.
You might think this made him a little nutty. After all, so many children are driven hard to achieve what a rare few manage with grace. Kevin is one of those. His charm, infectious smile and zeal for life obviously impress. He wasn’t nutty. In fact, Kevin had it all put together in a way that most graduate students can’t manage — all while retaining the facade of the ‘normal’ kid.
Important to him in those days was whether or not he had what it takes to become a musician. OK, who would like to answer that question. Oh, I don’t mean now — you’ve clicked the link, and have formed an opinion on the basis of seeing where he is today. What I mean is: Dial the clock back, say, eight or nine years. You have a gifted student who could also have a career in medicine. For you veteran teachers, how would you have advised this kid?
As far as I could tell, Kevin was surrounded by people singing the praises of Kevin. All of them lined up to push him into a career in music — but why? The whole industry is falling apart. Our nation’s most gifted musicians struggle for work, and most won’t make it. Our best conservatories continue to pump out highly trained specialists in droves against the backdrop of top orchestras filing for bankruptcy. With the advent of internet piracy, even pop stars are feeling the heat. Record sales continue to plummet, and there is increasingly less room for second best rapper, second best country singer, or second best oddly androgynous pop star.
My advice was devious. I keep my opinions about these things close, and they’re not always what you might think. I’ve had a few students over the years who I thought were capable of “making it” in a tough as nails industry, but I’m loathe to recommend it — even for a Kevin Olusola. When a teacher pushes a student towards a goal, that teacher is assuming responsibility for the merit of the goal itself. We do it all the time. Here’s Popper. Practice it. It is good for you. Here’s Haydn C Major Concerto. Practice it. You’ll need this later. But when that goal is: Here’s a career in music. Do this. You’ll thank me. Now the teacher is on porous terrain. Only the student can know if it is right. Trouble is, students often don’t come equipped with knowing the right questions to ask. Is their’s the heart of a musician?
I think that we musicians are a self-important lot. We’d like to believe that what we do matters. We’d like to believe that playing well in tune makes the world a more beautiful place. We’d like to believe that a Beethoven Symphony stretches through the mists of time to grab our listeners by the collar and cries, “Listen to this! This means something!” In fact, the surest way to cut the heart of a true musician is to challenge his/her relevance.
So with two lessons remaining with Kevin Olusola, I ventured, “You know, Kevin, it’s not like the world is going to miss you if you decide not to be a cellist.” We finished up that day — I think it was with Lalo Concerto, and we talked about setting up a lesson with Paul Katz once he got to Boston. Then, Kevin’s parents picked him up, he packed his cello into the car and settled in for the forty minute commute to Owensboro. Forty minutes, I imagined, for him to stew on my remark.
The following week, Kevin came in for his last lesson. His conclusion? “But I want them to miss me.”
Rock on, Kevin. Rock on.