On Not Being Van Cliburn

An artist can be truly evaluated only after he is dead. At the very 11th hour, he might do something that will eclipse everything else. ~ Van Cliburn

I knew pretty early on in life that I was not Van Cliburn. Despite the fact that he and I are both Baptists, the resemblance appears to have stopped there. This may seem like pretty straightforward logic now but I’m not certain it was when I was a kid with a dream.

Van Cliburn gained international fame in 1958 at the age of twenty-three, just about the time I was turning five and a half years old. Looking at pictures from that year, it may be a little hard to believe that he was a sensation around the world at the time. Hey, he even appeared on The Steve Allen Show. I believe we were actually allowed to watch that show, though we might only just be getting home from Sunday night church services.

So, anyway, Van Cliburn was hot stuff back when I was five and a half and even into my teen years. I wasn’t terribly impressed with that young, upstart rock-and-roller, Elvis. For one thing, all that staccato pelvis-swaying looked a little painful. Besides, he made me nervous. No, Cliburn was more my speed. His recording of Tchaikovsky Piano Concerto No. 1 became the first classical album ever to go platinum, remaining the number one classical album in the world for over a decade.

Van Cliburn

Van Cliburn in 1960.

I don’t remember exactly now what age I began piano lessons, but I know they continued for seven years. I’ve mentioned before that the piano lessons were a safe place for me during those years. My piano teacher was Ada Preston. I loved that woman. I believe she also played the organ at church, at least some of the time. She tried to teach me to play the organ but I’m not sure her nerves were up to it. I was a dreamer, though. I could see myself at Carnegie Hall playing for my many adoring fans. Man, it sounded great in my head. My piano playing, however, didn’t quite live up to the concert playing in my head. Of course, there’s a full orchestra in residence in my head at all times, just waiting for me to step up to the podium.

I suppose I probably should have learned to read time at some point during those seven years. And perhaps I did and simply no longer remember. It didn’t seem terribly important to me at the time. I can tell you I now don’t much know the difference between a half note and a whole note – I mean beyond the fact that one is colored-in and the other has a hole in it. Technically, though, that does not qualify as knowing how to read musical time.

But I remember those as wonderful times, those hours with Ada. She seemed to know instinctively that there was something not altogether okay for me. She smiled and laughed and talked with me and, on occasion, she tried to teach me how to play the piano. I felt like I could just be Ben when I was with her, whatever that meant. But whatever it may have meant at the time, it meant a great deal to me.

Do you have an aversion to cutting your fingernails? I do. I’d love to know why, but it takes a Herculean effort on my part to finally break down and clip the darn things. I wonder where those little quirks start? I’m not certain, but I think I may not have started cutting my own fingernails until I moved away from home. Of course, that may be part of the reason I’m so reluctant to keep my nails trimmed. My mother used manicure scissors to cut my nails. You know how much it hurts when you cut into the quick, right? Yes, I can see you wincing at the mere mention of it. When that happens on a regular basis, you try to avoid putting yourself through the pain. I seem to remember having to be more or less held down in order to get my nails trimmed.

“Ben,” you ask, “what in the name of Bugs Bunny does nail clipping have to do with any of this?” I’m glad you asked. One of the things I remember about piano lessons was the annoyance Ada Preston seemed to have about my long nails clicking on the piano keys. It was perhaps the one thing about me that drove her crazy. “Ben, I need you to trim your nails before you come back next time, okay?” she’d say. “Yes, Mrs. Preston,” I’d reply, knowing full well someone was going to have to catch me first. Catching me wasn’t all that easy, either. I had a bicycle, after all, and I knew how to use it.

I wonder if Van Cliburn hated cutting his nails as much as I do? Probably not – at least not after he’d played at the International Tchaikovsky Competition in Russia and won. Russians may put up with nails clicking on the piano keys during a solo of Rachmaninoff’s Piano Concerto No. 3, but Americans are probably a little more twitchy about that sort of thing. Besides, Cliburn was probably able to afford having someone else do his nails from early on. It occurs to me that if you file your nails frequently enough, you can probably forego the trimming part altogether. I think I’ll add emery boards to my shopping list.

My career as a pianist pretty much ended in my teens. I have no idea how many recitals I’d endured by then, how many times others had endured my recitals. I don’t remember the last recital, but I do remember what may have been the last. I was to take part in one of those six-piano duets. You know, twelve people all playing the same duet together. Each person had their part of the duet to play. I don’t recall whether I was treble (right side of the bench) or bass (left side of the bench) clef. It was mayhem, I tell you. I don’t remember well what triggered it, but I ended up storming off the stage in a huff during rehearsal. I didn’t much like the woman who was acting as director to begin with. She was a teacher at school and something of a taskmaster. For all I know, she may have insisted that I trim my fingernails.

For whatever reason, I got up and stormed off – exit, stage right, as I recall. I didn’t return, either. I was already a pretty confused kid, so I’m sure it hadn’t taken much to get me to walk off in a huff. It wasn’t the last time in my life that I’d walk off in a huff, but it was probably the last time I could do it by literally storming offstage. Van Cliburn may never have walked offstage in a huff but then he probably wasn’t the prima donna I had become. Prima donna is perhaps too harsh a term. My dreams were in the process of dying off almost faster than I could replace them by that time. Sadly, walking off in a huff became one of the signature traits of my life.

I think it’s as important in life to know who you are not as it is to know who you are. That’s the lesson I’ve taken from years of walking off in a huff. You see, I was angry as hell and wasn’t going to take it anymore. The problem was that I was, indeed, angry but I was still taking it. I was taking all the pain right along with me and you were not allowed to take that from me. When you feel you’ve lost all control over your life and your circumstances, you hold on for dear life to the few things you believe you have left. Increasingly, I didn’t know who I was.

And then the drinking began. The more I drank, the less me there seemed to be. My saving grace came in finally taking a long look at who I was not. I may not have known who I was, but I was gradually backing my way into accepting wh0 I was not. I was not, for instance, Van Cliburn.

In many subtle ways, I was told early on who I was. Some of it was good, lots of it not so good. The not-so-good won out — at least in my head. Though I was often told I could be anything I aspired to be, I was learning fast that damaged kids needn’t apply. I’m still trying to understand how that process works. But once you learn what you’re expected to be, as well as what you’re expect not to be, it doesn’t take long to learn how to limit yourself without anyone else’s help.

It would not surprise me one little bit if this is how split personalities begin. In order to protect myself, I had some wonderful stories about me that I tried to believe. Unfortunately, there were even more bad stories I’d already come to believe about me. I’m living testimony that you can never really drown those things in alcohol. Try as you might, they continue to float to the top. They are truly gifted swimmers. Not only that, they were very adept at holding the good under water for years.

What I later learned, however, is that the good is almost impossible to drown. There was an eight-year-old boy inside who had amazing breath control. Every once in a while, he managed to fight his way to the surface for a little air. He did that doggedly for forty years.

A little over three years ago, I stumbled upon a group of people who apparently saw the eight-year-old struggling just below the surface. I thought I had him hidden well enough to avoid detection but these people saw him anyway. I found those people in a church. No, really! You could have tipped me over with a feather. No, literally! My vertigo was getting so bad it took no particular effort to tip me over.

I’m not sure what happened but these people were in the right place at the right time to be able to begin the process of convincing me what a whole host of people had been trying to tell me for all my life. No, I wasn’t Van Cliburn. No, I wasn’t Tarzan or Superman (though I like to think I’m a little of both). I wasn’t even my father. I had overlooked one little thing for all those years. I am human. And as such, I carry with me some of the bad, some of the good. I have choices in life. No, I can’t choose to not have been abused. No, I can’t choose to undrink that ocean of booze. No, I can’t choose to unharm the people I’ve harmed.

I can, however, choose to be someone new today. Perhaps I can even choose to be the person that eight-year-old thought I was. It’s probably worth a shot. Perhaps I can even choose to be what God already believes I am – one of his beloved children. And, you know, that puts a completely different perspective on my life. Not just different today, but allows me to look backward and see a world I didn’t see while my life was happening.

You know, hindsight really isn’t 20/20. It’s not 20/20 because we can’t choose to do things differently now than we have already done. That’s a fool’s game designed to keep you forever in darkness. Regret merely allows you to wallow in self-pity. Resolve is what’s needed, I think. Resolve to at least try each and every day to be something new, something better. Will you succeed every day? Probably not. But regret simply allows us to use our innate imperfection as an excuse not to even try.

I think today I’ll aspire to be Ben – the Ben who aspires to encompass a little Van Cliburn, a little Tarzan and Superman, even a little of my father. I think that’s the Ben I was probably intended to be from the very beginning. I know that’s the Ben I’d like to be.

Who are you not today? Answer that question and you may well be on the way to being the are that your not will never be.

6 thoughts on “On Not Being Van Cliburn

  1. “…regret simply allows us to use our innate imperfection as an excuse to not try…”
    I collect quotes – this one goes in the book.

    • Thank you, Paulette. This story brought back some great memories of my piano teacher and points up how important it is to hold on to positive images despite what else may happen.

  2. “My saving grace came in finally taking a long look at who I was not” -I’m always looking forward and aiming at who I want to be, regretting what I used to be but never took a look at who I was not or rather what others’ told me I was and knowing their perception was wrong. I started piano lessons as an adult three years ago and struggle through the frustrations and the reality of knowing I won’t be quitting my day job anytime soon. And that’s okay. Self acceptance is hard but it is getting easier. Thanks for a thoughtful post!

  3. That’s a little like this blog and knowing I won’t be quitting my day job any time soon. And that’s okay, too. The joy I’m getting from writing is reward enough. I’m back to playing the piano some these days. I think it’s great you’ve taken it on as an adult. Frustration or not, I enjoy trying, once again, to find the right keys in the right sequence. I know Carnegie Hall won’t be calling but I also know that’s not why I’m playing again. It’s important to me not to pretend to be someone else today.

  4. Ben,
    Thank you. Not only entertaining (and your writing is just too fun to read!), but you really have a way of getting to the heart of us — humanity, and your words always seem to be just what I need.
    Blessings and love,

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