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Classical Character: Gabriela Montero

April 16, 2010 by ·

Yesterday I was fortunate to meet renowned classical concert pianist and improvisational artist Gabriela Montero ( The occasion was a Master class at the School for Creative and Performing Arts in Cincinnati, Ohio.

Gabriela is a freakishly gifted and thoroughly delightful musician who began giving concerts at the age of 4! Her gift allows her to play at an elite level – despite practicing very little (she played with Itzhak Perlman, Yo-Yo Ma and Anthony McGill at the Obama swearing-in ceremony, and has played with orchestras around the world, including New York Philharmonic).

Her parents made hefty sacrifices to give her the opportunity to study for 10 years with a person who Gabriela simply describes as “the wrong teacher.” Why was the teacher wrong? Because she didn’t see Gabriela’s strengths and help her learn to embrace them in her pursuit of music. Her teacher discouraged Ms. Montero’s innate gift for improvisation and her ability to approach music as a story imbued with feeling and imagery, as opposed to a technical achievement. As a result, this gifted pianist actually quit playing piano for about two years!

Then, at the tender age of 31 years old, she found a friend and most important supporter who saw her strengths and encouraged her to express them. New life was breathed into her! Her public improvisation quickly earned her acclaim as did her performances as a concert pianist. In her own words, “When improvising I connect to my audience in a completely unique way – and they connect with me. Because improvisation is such a huge part of who I am, it is the most natural and spontaneous way I can express myself. I have been improvising since my hands first touched the keyboard, but for many years I kept this aspect of my playing secret. Then Martha Argerich overheard me improvising one day and was ecstatic. In fact, it was Martha who persuaded me that it was possible to combine my career as a serious ‘classical’ artist with the side of me that is rather unique.”

This background helped me understand her interaction with the SCPA student she was coaching. “Each piece of music has character, and the character has many dimensions within the piece. You need to find the character,” she said. Of course, I took notice upon hearing those words. I thought of how our lives are symphonies comprised of many movements – with an overall characteristic theme and then a rich unfolding of many dimensions of character. I thought of how early teachers didn’t ask her what she asked the student – “What does this passage mean to you?” Instead teachers approached her with a preconception of how the piece should sound and then tried to help her play it correctly. That’s why this student seemed tongue tied when the question was posed to him. It seemed to be a new question for him – one that no one had ever posed and one that Ms. Montero asserted was the essential question in playing music.

Wow! That happens to us all as we go through life. People have notions of who we should be, who they want us to be, and then they try to get us to be that. In the course of this we can lose track of who we really are and, like Gabriela, quit. Quit pursuing our passions and interests. Quit having passions and interests. Quit the task that writer Emile Zola described as “living out loud”. Too infrequently do people try to “see” us, and too infrequently we do not put effort into “seeing” others.

Like Gabriela, some of us will be fortunate to find teachers who will help us live out loud – lives that are authentic expressions of ourselves. Others can find that teacher or guide within themselves. You might try it. Close your eyes, be quiet and still for a bit, and try to conjure up in your mind’s eye your “inner guide.” Just let whatever happens happen. I know when I first did this many years ago a figure appeared quickly, one that surprised me in its clarity and characteristics. But, there “he” was. My inner voice.

Further, now we have the VIA Survey of Character Strengths  to help us quickly identify our “signature strengths” of character – those positive personality traits that define what’s best about ourselves. With that knowledge in hand we can be deliberate at infusing our lives – our symphonies – with the enriching layers and flowing of our character. Look at the 24 VIA character traits and the six categories within which they are nested and ask yourself – “What qualities do I want to characterize the music that I compose in my life?”

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