Phil is the best tenor banjo player that I have ever met. I should probably apologize to the rest of the banjo players. Where it might be thought that there are not so many tenor banjo players that would be jealous of this praise, as the golden years of the tenor banjo are quickly approaching the century mark, I actually know a few. Many of them are very good at playing the 20s New Orleans style which the tenor banjo is famous for. Still, Phil is unique. Though he is a close friend of my father, and I, I know little of his non musical past. I do know that he was a very successful academic. Head of the department kind of success, but he never talks about it. Instead he talks music, and translates his ideas, which are beautiful interpretations of standards. He also sings with a floating yet crisp tenor voice; with every syllable clear enough to communicate what would have been long forgotten lyrics. I once asked him if he played the guitar, and his response was surprising. He said “I am still trying to get it right with these four strings.” Though to my ears he played perfectly, he wanted to be better, so wasn’t going to distract himself with other instruments.
I had a friend who was completely the opposite in some ways. This was Waldemar who died several years ago when he was in his 80’s. Waldemar knew everything. When I say this I almost mean it in a literal way. He could recite thousands of poems, he knew every major painting of the last 200 years, he wrote, he played piano, he was a chemist for the Manhattan project. Mostly he lectured about great people of the past and the many historical facts he knew. He was brilliant. Still he was not a master at anything. He spent a lifetime of frustration, relegated to the footnote descriptions on famous biographies, as the intellect that never produced anything original.
I wonder if these two examples are extremes, or really the struggle many of us face every day with our choices. That is whether it is better to become truly great in something, or to comprehend the greatness in others without fully achieving it ourselves. The answer seems so obvious, but is so hard for many of those of us who don’t have the focus required to pursue this kind of perfection all of the time.
I can’t do anything as well as Phil does the banjo. I play several instruments every day, and work on several scientific and business ventures. All of the time I know that I don’t have four strings of life that I have gotten right. Then I thought of this some more, and realized that it is not a choice to be a Phil or a Waldemar, but rather a perspective of what point in life you look at it. It is likely that through the thousands of days in both of these lives, there have been those when an outsider could see various types of successes. When Phil was leading a University department, and publishing as a Ph.D. in Psychology, his skills on the banjo were probably not being judged as important. When Waldemar was lecturing on Chopin, his inadequacies as a poet were not being considered. Perhaps we are all great in our ever changing moments.