April 25, 2014

David Helfgott: The Freedom to Be Yourself

David Helfgott, arguably one of the transcendent pianists alive in our time, played at the Tonhalle in Zurich on WednesdayIt was an experience I will likely never forget. His piano recital of works by Scarlatti, Beethoven and Liszt was brilliant. But it was the man and his being that roused the audience to several standing ovations and four encores. Helfgott, who is mentally ill and whose life story was movingly portrayed in the Oscar-winning movie "Shine," showed us something rare: being completely yourself, utterly unguarded and connected with all others around you without armor or mask or censorship. It is a lesson that we as leaders and managers might all heed in a world of egos, hidden agendas and power plays.

From the moment he appeared on stage, David Helfgott jogged--no, bounced--to the piano waiting for him in the center.

He gave multiple thumbs-ups to the audience, pivoted around himself, smiled his radiant and disarming smile, gave eye contact to each person in the room. He was simply happy to see everyone, in love with the audience, taking a childlike pleasure in being there.

It was as if he did not want to exclude anyone from his attention. You can see a short example of what I mean in this video of another performance by David Helfgott with the Stuttgart Symphony Orchestra.

Helfgott's story and struggle  are well-known through the movie "Shine" in which he was portrayed by Oscar-winning Geoffrey Rush. He was born in 1947 to Jewish parents in Melbourne.

His father started teaching him the piano when he was five. He became a child prodigy. At nineteen he won a scholarship for the Royal College of Music in London. He developed signs of schizoaffective disorder, returned to Perth in 1970, and was institutionalized there in a mental hospital.

Now, at 66, Helfgott is experiencing a renaissance, performing to packed concert halls in Milan or Istanbul.

While some call him an "unsung genius," Helfgott's performances have their detractors, judging them "pallid, erratic and incoherent." One critic said that "he stares into the hall and renders a nonstop commentary of grunts, groans and mutterings."

Indeed, during most of the show on Wednesday night, Helfgott grunted, counted "one two three four," laughed during his performance. If that ruins your music experience, you better stay away from him. It's a bit like being in a Keith Jarrett concert.

To me, it is an act of complete self-expression. No censorship, no right or wrong, no guile, no "That's the way you are expected to behave as a classical pianist." Helfgott shows unbound delight and you feel as if he were playing at home in his living room.

Two centuries ago, Rabbi Zusya said that "In the world to come, I shall not be asked, 'Why were you not Moses?' I shall be asked, 'Why were you not Zusya?'"

Our job is not to be like anyone else, no matter how brilliant. We don't need to be like Mandela or Federer, or Gates or Jobs. They already did that. Our job is to find our unique life purpose, and then fulfill that purpose. Our job is to do something that has not been done before.

It was profoundly moving and inspiring to witness Helfgott having found his purpose, his expression, his essence, and living that each moment.

Helfgott did something else too that was remarkable. Far from being lost in his music, Helfgott kept looking into the audience, kept delighting in the connection with his listeners. It was a moment the philosopher Martin Buber would have called "I and Thou"--a relationship where not one side does something to the other, but where both parties in the relationship, the speaker and the listener, are transformed.

After the show, Helfgott came to the lobby to sign his CD, something unheard of for a major virtuoso. I told him that my mother lives in Sydney. Being from Melbournee, he beamed: "Oh, really?" he asked in his broad Aussie accent. "Great!" His wife, 16 years his senior, held his hand and told him to focus.

What do you say? Does a classical pianist have the right to interpret classical music freely, is he free to express himself, or must he stay within the bounds of decorum? Do you see "I and Thou" as irrelevant or essential to successful performance? I look forward to reading you on my blog:

Dr. Thomas D. Zweifel is a strategy & performance expert and coach for leaders of Global 1000 companies. His book The Rabbi and the CEO (with Aaron L. Raskin), a finalist for the National Jewish Book Award and the Foreword Book Award, explores business strategies for 21st-century leaders based on the Ten Commandments.

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