Find your Own Way to Leave your Mark
Tips from the Life of Oscar Peterson
By Maria for Ekko
If you have something to say of any worth, then people will listen to you — Oscar Peterson
There are many ways in which we can have an influence on the world around us. Contrary to popular belief, we can stay in the memories of others and bring positive changes even if we don’t create artworks, music or literature. What is important when building our lives is to reflect on our goals, on our attitude towards change and on how to deal with problems. Thinking about what is means for us to live a fulfilling life is the first step in achieving it.
The story of Oscar Peterson is indeed the story of an individual who became famous by creating and performing music, but the general dimensions of his life can be a source of inspiration and guidance for all of us.
With a career of over 60 years, the Canadian composer and piano performer gained worldwide success and recognition as a jazz musician. He released more than 200 recordings and received many awards, including eight Grammy Awards. He was widely influenced by the style and technique of the great jazz pianist Art Tatum and he took a decisive step in his career when he joined the label of Norman Granz and the project “Jazz at the Philharmonic”. His relation with Norman Granz went beyond the professional field, especially because the manager stood up for Peterson and other jazz musicians during the 50s and 60s when racial segregation was so strong in the South.
There are several examples from Peterson’s life of how to use skills in a meaningful way and how to embrace life as it is, with big and small victories, problems, challenges and criticism. Three general ideas of how to build a fulfilling life stand out when looking at Peterson’s past.
1. Work hard and be perseverant in your undertakings
Starting from his childhood, Peterson took piano lessons from his sister and practiced daily, thus building his virtuosity. For the whole time when he was in good health he practiced daily between four and six hours and was able to play the piano with an impressive level of control. In time, he developed the reputation of a melodically inventive pianist, but also of a brilliant technician. Not only he had the skills to play complex musical parts, but he was also knowledgeable about jazz history.
The following quote from a discussion with the jazz writer Len Lyons is a good illustration of his vision on how to be successful in your work: “Technique is something you use to make your ideas listenable. You learn to play the instrument so you have a musical vocabulary, and you practice to get your technique to the point you need to express yourself, depending on how heavy your ideas are.”
Similarly, no matter which professional path somebody takes, a first step to gain success is to think of the skills that are important for the job and work on them. There is no extraordinary ability that you can apply to situations like a magic formula. Working hard and being persistent is the magic formula.
2. Don’t let problems and challenges stop you.
Peterson suffered from arthritis since his youth, his weight gain also hindered his mobility and in 1993 he suffered a serious stroke that weakened his left side. After the stroke, he was afraid that he would not be able to play the piano again, but after several months of therapy he was able to come back on stage and to start recording again. Overall, despite being in poor health most of his life, Peterson managed to do what he loved the most: play the piano and create music.
This story of struggle and hardship is an important lesson of how to approach such problems. It depends a lot on the attitude. If we let such circumstances dominate us and we live our lives depending on the difficulties we have we will end up frustrated. It is important not to let problems dictate how to live our lives, but to build the lives we want while trying to handle these issues the best we can.
3. Pass on your knowledge and skills
Peterson also passed on his knowledge and skills in playing the piano and musical improvisation. He was a teacher in Canada, mostly in Toronto, he was a mentor in the York University jazz program and a Chancellor in the same university during the early 90s. He also published his original jazz piano etudes for practice, but advised his students to build their musical education around the music of Johann Sebastian Bach. He had among his students the pianists Benny Green and Oliver Jones.
It is important to find ways to transmit our knowledge and skills to those around us who could use them. It doesn’t have to be through the formal education system. Sharing information, advising friends who are looking for a change, supporting someone who is in a rut, these are also ways in which we can help others.
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