Sunday, 1 January 2012

The Cautionary Tale of Gustav, or why we should let people tell us what's best for us

Gustav saved my life.

We're going back a few years here, to a time when I thought that being temperate meant keeping warm, and keeping warm meant drinking rum.  It was a balmy sunny afternoon, Hyde Park was full of people, so many people, all going hand in hand, etc, and we were celebrating the end of our slavery.

Exams at the Royal College of Music are a horrible business.  You don't get to sit behind a nice comfortable desk, anonymous amongst the serried ranks of fellow examinees, poring in peaceful stillness over your paper, with the luxury of being able to cross out your mistakes and start again, and with the vague comfort of knowing that, even if you screw this paper up, it's still only one of many and you can always work extra hard to ace the others.  Oh no.  You are on a big empty stage, very very alone, being scrutinised by a trio of professional soul-crushers, having to do enormously complicated things very fast from memory and knowing that the outcome of your entire degree hangs on this one performance.

Life running up to this event is, of course, slavery - slavery to your instrument, slavery to practice.  And practice requires a practice room, and the majority of practice rooms are lifeless, airless coffins, buried deep underground, far away from any natural source of light, far away from grass, trees, sun, sky, joy, love - and usually right next door to a bloody tuba player.  (These rooms, for the uninitiated, are never sound-proofed.)  A little tent of blue to look on with a wistful eye?  Pah!  Luxury.

Are you feeling sorry for us yet?

But on this day, we're putting the misery behind us. Exams are over! The long hours of practice are over! Some of us, ahem, may never practise again. We've finished!  And so we all gather in Hyde Park - a place which, for the last few months, has been nothing but a forbidden paradise, something we are allowed to walk through on our way to our squalid musical prison cell, but which we are never allowed to linger in.  Well, today is special, for today we shall linger.

Linger, and drink.
A lot.

I can't swim.  People often look at me aghast when I confess this.  How have you survived all these years without being able to swim, they usually ask. I like to point out to these people that, in case they hadn't noticed, we live on dry land, and therefore the ability to swim is not, actually, an essential life skill, thank you very much.  Unless, of course, you are planning to spend an afternoon in Hyde Park drinking equal parts caffeine and alcohol, and then, for no reason anyone has been able to deduce, charge headlong into a big round pond, the sides of which are covered in a great deal of very slippery swan doo-doo.  Which is, of course, precisely what I did.

So Gustav saved my life.  While the rest of my friends were paralysed by helpless laughter at the sight of me unexpectedly disappearing beneath the waters, Gustav was the only man there who responded to my desperate cries for help, waded in, and dragged me back onto dry land.

Thanks Gustav.

I mention this because I'm now going to assassinate his character somewhat, and I didn't want you to be left with an entirely negative view of him.  Never mind that the pond probably isn't very deep, and I might well have crawled out by myself eventually - he is a hero.  (Also, "Gustav saved my life" makes for a great opening sentence.)

So Gustav's a life-saver.  He's also my main example of why the following statement is a load of nonsense:

"Nobody can tell you what's best for you
and what you should do
because they don't know your truth,
they only know their own."

I came across this little credo a few months back on Facebook.  A friend of mine was researching inspirational quotes, and asked people to comment with their favourites.  This was one of the comments.  When I read it I made a little note to myself:  "Argue with this".  Here's my argument.

Gustav was the poster-boy for this philosophy.  He was possessed of a self-assurance that was frankly awe-inspiring.  No one could tell him what was best for him, because he was utterly convinced of his own truth - the truth that he was a great violinist.

Sadly, he was not a great violinist.  And this self-assurance - a useful, probably essential trait if you are to make it as a musician - just made him unteachable.  Now, when you are being taught by one of the world's top violinists, it makes sense to listen to them.  It's a pretty essential part of learning, really.  But Gustav knew better. Nobody can tell you what's best for you, right?

I found him once, practising a Beethoven orchestral excerpt.  He was playing it quite nicely, but at about half the speed marked.  I pointed this out to him, and his response was "No, this is the right speed.  It doesn't work any faster."  To prove his point, he tried to play it faster, and failed.  In his mind, the equation was quite simple:  If Gustav could not play it at Beethoven's speed, then Beethoven's speed was wrong.

When he failed his technical exam, his response was "It seems they did not like my playing".  Not "Oh, it turns out that I can't play scales," or "Perhaps I should practise more."  Because the examiners didn't know Gustav's truth.

You have to admire his self-confidence.  His teacher, the examiners, and Beethoven himself couldn't tell him what he should do.

Unsurprisingly, Gustav's tenure at the Royal College didn't end especially well.  If legend is to be believed, he arrived on the first day of the new academic year, his worldly chattel in tow, to discover that they didn't want him back.  Presumably they had written to him to let him know, but the news that he hadn't passed his first year wasn't his truth.  So it was that he found himself turned away at the doors of the Royal College's hall of residence, with no choice but to return home.  To Spain.

Nobody can tell you what's best for you and what you should do.

Now, the New Year is upon us - traditionally a time for having a rubbish, drunken night, and then spending the next day hating yourself, cursing your hangover, and trying to work out why no one wanted to snog you at midnight. (Actually, contrary to all expectations, I rather enjoyed my New Year's Eve this year. Big thanks to everyone who came.) It's also, of course, a time for taking stock and making pointless resolutions that no one believes will last into February. So, while we are in stock-taking mood, here's what I want to suggest about our friend Gustav:

He's a picture of us, and how we relate to God.

While you are still reeling from that gear-change, let me ask you some questions:
What if God exists?
What if the Bible really does contain his words to us?
What if there is a teacher - Jesus - who really does know more than us?
What if there's going to be a technical exam?
What if we can't dismiss the results of that exam by saying "I guess the judges just didn't like the way I do things"?
Most terrifyingly, if there's a Great Royal College Of Music In The Sky, when we turn up there... will we get in?

Let's say Gustav had never seen his violin teacher play, had never heard his recordings, had never read any of his reviews, had no evidence at all to suggest that he knew anything about playing the violin.  In that case, you wouldn't blame him for ignoring his advice.

If Gustav had researched Beethoven's score, had investigated how it came to be written down, had examined the autograph manuscript, and had found something to suggest that the metronome mark was just a mistake, or a later addition, or was invented by someone hundreds of years after Beethoven's death - then you wouldn't blame him for ignoring it.

If the examiners at the Royal College were deaf, or stupid, or were singers, then you couldn't blame Gustav for dismissing their judgement of his playing.

And if Gustav's exam results weren't important - if his place at the Royal College was in no way dependent on them - then you couldn't blame him for ignoring them.

Let's call this the Gustav Defence. The Gustav Defence, as we know, was rubbish, because Gustav's teacher's credentials were well established, Beethoven's score was accurate, Gustav's examiners were knowledgeable players, and their verdict mattered.

Now, are we doing a Gustav?

If we've dismissed Jesus' teachings, is it because we've investigated his claims, the eye-witness accounts of his life, and all the testimonies about him, and have decided that he's not a teacher worth listening to - that he didn't exist, or that we know better than him how to lives our lives?  Or is it because we don't like what he says?

If we've dismissed the Bible, is it because we've looked into its provenance, the way it has been preserved, who wrote it, how it was translated, and have decided that it's not reliable?  Or is it because we're not willing to agree with it?

If we dismiss the idea of God's judgement, is it because we don't think God has the right to judge - because he's biased, or deaf, or blind, or a counter-tenor, or doesn't exist?  Or is it because we don't like the idea that our way of doing things might be wrong?

And do we think that we should get an automatic place in heaven, whatever our answers to the above questions?

If we're relying on the Gustav Defence, have we actually checked it holds water?

Food for thought.

PS: If this post has riled you, think what it cost me... I've just drawn a comparison between the Royal College of Music and heaven. Believe me, in three years of study there, it's not an association that regularly sprang to mind.

PPS: Gustav is not, of course, his real name. His real name makes for a much better opening sentence, and I spent a considerable amount of time trying to think of a decent replacement for it. Writing is hard.

PPPS: Happy New Year.


  1. Very well written, Dave. Thought provoking stuff. If I may ask one question? Is the comparison between RCM and Heaven apt? Doesn't God go searching for us rather than waiting for us to apply?

    1. Hi Griz, thanks for your question. Yes, I wouldn't want to push the analogy too far... I certainly wouldn't want to suggest that getting into Heaven depends on reaching the pass-mark in some sort of morality exam either - but we'll get on to all that in a future post, I hope. The main idea was to point out Gustav's mistake of letting his subjective opinions blind him to the objective truth, and then to ask whether we could be doing the same thing, but on a far bigger scale...

  2. Dave, I love that you are doing this. I was able to read it almost all the way to the end before feeling I really ought to do some work. Keep going. We need this stuff. It was entertaining and its good to hear what you have to say.
    Michael Askew