Topic: Sports & Entertainment

The Case of the Persecuted Prodigy Pianist

The city columns of our nation’s newspapers are a rich source of ethical dilemmas, as neighborhood disputes and personal conflicts are revealed and dissected. Unfortunately, a large proportion of the columnists who chronicle these fascinating everyday ethical controversies favor a “good guys and bad guys” narration, which not only serves to obscure the real issue but often arrives at false conclusions. A case in point is Washington Post Metro columnist Marc Fisher, in a recent story he entitled “Young Pianist’s Gift Grates on Ungrateful Ears.”

It tells of 12-year old John Chen, a budding and brilliant pianist who along with his noble mother Li Tong Yang is about to be evicted from their home in a Northern Virginia apartment complex. They have, Fisher explains, nowhere to go. John is truly a prodigy, described by every music teacher who has encountered him as a once-in-a-generation talent. Nurturing that talent requires study and practice, and John’s mother has made every conceivable sacrifice to see that he gets both. “I sacrifice myself,” Fisher quotes her as saying. “I don’t really have a life like other people. I don’t have ‘me time.’ I don’t have friends. I don’t have connections to the outside world.”

A Chinese immigrant, she worked in a retired congressman’s home until she could send for her son. But his constant playing apparently made the congressman’s golden years a Paderewski hell, and he told her that they had to leave. But he also rented her a condo in MacLean, Virginia, where John resumed practicing on his Steinway Grand in two hour sessions from 7AM to 10 at night. He doesn’t get to play with other kids or have time for video games; he doesn’t watch TV. He practices and practices, while his mother revolves her work schedule around her son’s piano needs. “It’s critical,” Pamela Sverjensky, head of the Piano Department at the Levine School of Music, told Fisher. “Behind any great name in the arts — a musician, a ballerina — there’s a mom, a parent who knows they have a truly gifted child, and no one can get in her way. Li is alone with this and she suffers, but she’s doing what she must.”

But John’s playing has had the predictable result from the residents of the other condos. They complained to management. They called the police. Li Yang was told that either her son had to cut back on his playing or they had to leave. Uncompromising with the realization of her son’s gift, she chose the latter.

Columnist Fisher blames the condo residents. “You shouldn’t have to be able to afford your own house to become a concert pianist,” he writes, playing the poverty card with gusto. “Li and John will do the hard work; the least we can do is listen.”

In a word: wrong. In two: wrong and elitist.

This is a classic ethical conflict: two sets of legitimate objectives and worthwhile goals that clash. What is the right way to reconcile them? The first rule of seeking ethical solutions is to determine whether a reasonable compromise will allow both competing parties to get a significant portion of what they want and need. In Fisher’s story, the condo residents were indeed willing to compromise: they were willing to accept John’s loud practicing if he cut back on his hours. His mother was the one who refused to yield. Her attitude is characterized by Fisher as that of devotion and loyalty to her son, but it is also redolent of a complete lack of caring, respect and fairness regarding anyone other than her child. Simply put, she doesn’t believe that other people matter, and Fisher endorses this, a complete rejection of the ethical principle of reciprocity. John, after all, is an artist, and his life’s objective, presumably to become the next Van Cliburn, is oh so much more important than the goals of the mediocre slobs who live on the other side of Li Yang’s apartment’s thin walls. Imagine! Those talent-free peasants just want to have a quiet home, sleep, make a living, raise their children, listen to something other than piano music and watch a little TV…maybe even read a book. What good is that, compared to interpreting Chopin and Mozart? John Chen is obviously special, and they should be “grateful” and join his mother in sacrificing their enjoyment of their puny, work-a-day existence to his glorious future. The least they can do is listen.

Of course, Fisher didn’t write “they,” he wrote “we”…as if he and all of his readers are also stuck in the condos next door, pressing pillows to their ears to ward off around-the-clock pounding (beautiful pounding, mind you) on a Steinway Grand. It’s more than a little absurd for him to announce that he’s willing to sacrifice when he doesn’t have to, so they should be willing to sacrifice as well.

Ethically, his reasoning is backwards. Yang and Chen have no right to require their neighbors to endure such an excessive amount of noise, and the fact that it may be what a budding concert pianist needs to produce to reach his potential is irrelevant. The condo offered a reasonable and fair compromise and was behaving ethically in doing so. Turning the offer down was John’s mother’s right, but her resulting problem is the result of her own decision. None of us has a right to assert that our lives are simply more important than anyone else’s. Fisher apparently believes that being a brilliant musician entitles you to inconvenience and annoy someone who is merely a lawyer, a teacher, a garage mechanic, a construction worker, a secretary, or otherwise toil to make this country’s products, do their services, and make it possible for people like John and his mother to live.

It doesn’t. And truth be told, a concert pianist’s skills are overwhelmingly experienced by individuals in the highest income brackets, and only a minority of those. Music is wonderful, but it is no more important than the other elements of life. Fisher’s conclusion that “we” have some obligation to let a piano prodigy’s development dominate our lives is nonsense.

In all fairness, I believe Fisher may have had a genuinely ethical objective in mind. It is very likely that he wrote the story to bring the family’s dilemma to the attention of a sympathetic music lover reading the Washington Post who might solve their plight. But Fisher could and should have done so without impugning the decency of those whose ears were bleeding from daily exposure to the booming grand piano. In fact, the perfect resolution of this episode is obvious: Marc Fisher should offer Li Yang and her son a place in his home. After all, he’s just another columnist; Li and John will be doing the important work.

The least he can do is listen.

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