Lin-Manuel Miranda and Sergei Diaghilev

Posted by Ben on September 16, 2016 at 2:05 PM

A core goal of the American education system is to create well-rounded children (and eventually adults). Even in specialized schools such as music conservatories, the curriculum still emphasizes the “a little bit of everything” approach, albeit within the confines of music. While there are of course many benefits to having a wide variety of skills and areas of knowledge, and while it is very admirable when people seem to have across-the-board talent in their field (for instance, Meryl Streep's seeming ability to play any role), there is also something to be said for people who truly lead with their strengths. For instance, Sergei Diaghilev and Lin-Manuel Miranda both have several domains in which they are immensely gifted and several domains in which they are not. Rather than rigorously working on improving their weaker areas, they carved out unique roles for themselves in which they could truly hone in on their strengths, and in which their weaknesses were left behind.

Sergei Diaghalev was the founder of the Ballets Russes, an early 20th-century ballet company in Paris that performed groundbreaking collaborations among artists of all disciplines, from designers to composers to painters. Though he attended the St Petersburg Conservatory of Music with aspirations of becoming a composer, he abandoned that ambition shortly after graduation when his teacher, Nikolai Rimsky-Korsakov, told him he had no talent for music. Diaghalev said of himself, “I am at first a charlatan, but full of dash; secondly, a great charmer; thirdly, cheeky; fourthly, a very reasonable man with few scruples; fifthly, someone afflicted, it seems with a complete absence of talent. And yet I think I have found my true vocation: to be a patron of the arts.” This acute level of self-awareness caused him to diverge from his original career goals and move towards a much more unique route. Through careful consideration of what exactly he could do and couldn't do, Diaghalev was able to become successful in a way that no one else at the time was attempting. 

A similar situation can be found with Lin-Manuel Miranda, the composer, lyricist, and former star of the hit Broadway musicals Hamilton and In the Heights. Unlike many other musical theater composers, his musical training is quite minimal. In an interview with Charlie Rose, he said, “I remember calling my friend Alex and saying 'I'm playing an F sharp, an A, and a C, what is that?' He says, 'You're playing an F sharp diminished chord.'” For comparative purposes, many of my elementary and middle school-aged students would have been able to tell him the name of that chord. Additionally, Miranda and some of his co-workers have admitted that he is not as versatile or polished of a singer as are most other Broadway performers. He is, however, an outstanding lyricist and rapper, and he has unparalleled visions of how to tell stories through musicals. With this skill set in mind, rather than going the traditional route and trying to become the next Sondheim, the way most aspiring musical theater composers do, Miranda carved out his own path. He wrote music that would not benefit from a Sondheim-esque level of harmonic intricacy (in fact, it would probably distract from the fast-paced, high-density nature of his lyrics), and he wrote vocal parts for himself that carry much more demand in rapping than in singing.

Steven Mackey, Professor of Music Composition at Princeton University, says of his teaching philosophy, “I believe that, in order to make a contribution to music, one should lead with their strengths rather than shore up weaknesses to a uniform level of mediocrity.” While there are of course many examples of people who would have achieved greater success had they spent more time repairing their areas of weakness, I believe that many people give up on their passions not because there isn't a role for them in those fields, but because they unthinkingly accept the “you need to be good at everything” mindset. But in the cases of Diaghalev and Miranda, not only did they carve out situations that allowed them to not have to worry too much about their weaknesses, but they also transformed their fields in staggering ways. Had there never been Diaghalev, 20th-century ballet would have been much more narrowly focused and conservative. Had there never been Lin-Manuel Miranda, musical theater would be more elitist and, for lack of a better word, white. Can a parallel statement be made about most other celebrities?

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