(This week’s letter is adapted from my recorded remarks to all MICDS students in lieu of our planned all-school assembly on Thursday, August 27.)
Some of you may not know this about me, but I love to play the piano. I was sad to learn recently of the loss of an extraordinary American piano player, Leon Fleisher, who died at the age of 92 a few weeks ago. When he was only 16 years old, Fleisher made his debut at Carnegie Hall, and for 20 years after that he distinguished himself as one of the most talented piano virtuosos in the world. Just before he turned 36, though, he began to lose the full use of his right hand. His fourth and fifth fingers would curl uncontrollably under his palm—he suffered from a condition called focal dystonia—and he could no longer play the Brahms and Beethoven concertos for which he was renowned.
Although there are many piano compositions written for the left hand, for about twenty years after his right hand began to fail him, Fleisher resisted playing those pieces. The right hand almost always carries the melody on the piano, the high notes, and in most classical compositions it manages the trills and elaborate runs across the keyboard from which emanate the beauty of the music. Sometimes it seems as if the left hand is merely along for the ride.
Fleisher longed to play again, though, and eventually, in his late 50s, he resumed his career at the piano and began to perform such left-hand masterpieces as Bach’s Chaconne from Partita in D Minor. Fleisher’s obituary in The Economist magazine notes that “he discovered that his left hand gave him more to say at the piano,” that “it was built for the instrument, since the high tune could still be tapped out by the thumb while the other fingers kept to the bass.” Fleisher began to pay less attention to melody than he did as a two-handed player and paid more attention—and discovered more beauty in—the rhythm and harmony of music.
Being in school during a pandemic is like having to make music only with our weaker hand when we are used to playing with both hands. Fleisher’s response to this challenge at first was simply to stop playing, but we do not have that option at MICDS. Your learning and your growth must continue here. We should not look to Fleisher’s initial decision to quit playing as justification for giving up because wearing a mask can be uncomfortable, or because physical distancing can be impersonal, or because online learning can be awkward. Rather, we should look to Fleisher’s ultimate decision to resume playing, predominantly with his weaker hand, as inspiration for persevering and discovering strengths and talents in ourselves and our peers that would otherwise have remained unknown to us, just as Fleisher discovered his talents for rhythm and harmony.
Eventually, when Fleisher was in his 60s, his doctors identified a combination of treatments that gave him back the full use of his right hand, and he began to perform again the two-handed concertos that had made him so famous as a younger musician. In the same way, we will eventually regain the use of both of our hands at MICDS, and we will return fully to the work of learning and growing together, in person and in community. Until that time, I wish you Leon Fleisher’s same journey of perseverance, discovery, and joy in the face of adversity.
We can meet this challenge together, and we will. I am so very lucky to be your head of school, and I will work hard every day to earn the leadership position with which I have been entrusted. You are also very lucky to be an MICDS student, and I hope you will work hard every day to earn the extraordinary education with which you are being entrusted here.
Always reason, always compassion, always courage. Best wishes to you for a fantastic school year.
Head of School