They Came to Play and gender frustration

They Came to Play poster

They Came to Play

A couple of nights ago, Erik and I watched a riveting 2008 documentary called They Came to Play. It’s about the Van Cliburn amateur piano competition, an offshoot of the famous Van Cliburn International Piano Competition held every four years in Fort Worth, TX. In the amateur competition, 75 pianists (chosen from audition CDs sent to the organization) compete for a $2,000 cash prize and recognition of a talent that may have hitherto gone unrecognized. All 75 perform in the prelims, 25 move on to semifinals, and then the winner is selected from the 6 finalists. Competitors must be over age 35, and as far as I can tell from the film, all the judges are previous winners of the International Van Cliburn contest. The film profiles some of the fascinating entrants in the competition, going into their homes (from Oakland, CA, to Berlin, Germany) and interviewing them and their families before showing footage of them backstage and onstage in the auditorium.

We had never heard of the documentary before we joined Netflix (it’s available via their streaming option), and since Netflix had no trailer available for the film, we had no idea what to expect — except that all the user reviews were excellent. When the film started, I murmured to Erik, “If it’s not good, we can always switch to something else.” Within minutes I was captivated. It’s as emotionally resonant as the best competition-based reality shows, only without the cheap dramatic hijinks. All the profiled competitors appeared to be mature, well-balanced adults, who have managed to integrate their musical passions into their lives even if they don’t get paid for their skills. Many of them have found time for the piano even in the midst of otherwise “freakishly accomplished lives“: we saw at least two doctors, a lawyer, and a pro tennis coach (in their sumptuous homes!). But no matter the background, all these amateurs were so good, as one review put it, “see this soulful doc and… you’ll never again think that ‘amateur’ means ‘less than professional.'” I’d pay to see all these people perform, and in many cases their enthusiasm made them even more interesting to watch than better-known pianists filling concert halls all over the world. How can a professional’s stage energy compare to someone who has always loved piano and is now getting a chance to perform?

They Came to Play images

image from

It’s impossible to watch the film — at least as an artist — without being inspired by the pianists’ commitment and exuberance (and, of course, by beautiful music played with love and skill!). I was going to write about how it made me think about the nature of creativity versus recognition; in other words, what does it mean to be utterly gifted at something, yet do it only as a hobby? (Should we even say “only” a hobby?) Of course we know it’s okay, but for ourselves and our own talents, is it something we’re comfortable with? I know I’m not, and maybe I’m just needy for attention, but if I’m super good at something, I want people to see it, and I want them to tell me!

Anyway, that’s what I was going to write about, but the more I thought about it, the more it bugged me that so many of the competitors were men. The filmmakers only profiled a few women, and of them, none had young families (whereas several of the men did). This made me wonder, is a competition like this inaccessible to young women? (As I mentioned, all competitors were above 35, so when I say “young,” I mean 35-50.) It’s not fair for me to assume this about the delightful younger men in the film, but could it be that they had the time to practice, because their partners carried the lion’s share of housework and family duties? I have a hard enough time getting my work done in the full days available to me; I cannot even imagine how anyone could manage a thriving medical practice and put in the practice hours required to compete at this level, while also picking up the kids from school, vacuuming the house, and preparing sack lunches and weeknight dinners. I can’t speak to any of the competitors’ home situations, but just going from experience, it seems like an impossible balance.

Obviously it’s easier to have time-consuming hobbies if you have a partner at home, but also, I suspect young women are much less likely to compete in such a contest anyway. Women are not socialized to be competitive, and we often put down our own skills, turning our attention instead to nurturing those around us. There’s a beautiful exploration of this in Women Don’t Ask, explaining how women’s historical confinement to the home has led us to devalue our contributions (even in a work environment) because for generations they’ve gone unpaid and unsung. It seems to me all too common that women generously support and encourage the pursuits of their partners or children, without seeking (or even imagining) similar pursuits for themselves. Again, I’m not pointing fingers at anyone in the film (or critiquing the filmmakers).

Earlier this week, I lost a good work morning in anger and annoyance when my mom called me to say she and my aunt (her sister) think I should have a baby, because I “have time” and I’m not getting any younger (I’m 29). While I’d love to have children someday, at the moment I have zero interest, and in large part it’s because I have no close-at-hand models for women who’ve become mothers and still carried on with their previous lives. It’s not to say this is impossible, I just haven’t seen it firsthand (and my friends with children are still in early enough stages of motherhood that I can’t include their experiences). It just seems that for so many women, motherhood disrupts the momentum of the parts of their lives that have nothing to do with family, whereas this isn’t usually the case for men. Even for single women I know, much of their energy goes into worrying that they won’t find partners before their biological clock stops ticking; in the meantime, single men might be lonely, but their not finding a wife by 35 has no bearing on whether they’ll get to pass on their genetic material, whereas this is a consuming question for women of childbearing age. I already feel like I’m never going to get through everything I want to accomplish, and it drives me crazy to think I’m going to have to take years out of my life (or at least 9 months plus recovery time) when I’m only just getting started on my grand plans!

There’s a lot more I could say here, but I’ve already written a lot and I’m sure it’s rambly because my thoughts on these subjects are so lengthy and complicated. I’ll return to my gender frustrations at a later date, no doubt, but for now, I’d love to hear your thoughts. And watch They Came to Play!

Tomorrow’s Open Mic will feature fiction by Helena Osorio-Zavala; she’s written a piece I think will resonate strongly with nearly everyone! See you then!