Friday, November 02, 2007

greatest in the known universe

A couple of blocks from the Epcor Centre, where the Calgary Philharmonic plays, there is a pizza restaurant called "AAA Great Pizza Company". (The name is "AAA Grate Pizza" on the receipts, but it's "Great" on the sign.) It's just your average hole-in-the-wall pizza joint, with a few solitary people sitting at small cracked tables, eating cheap slices with plastic utensils. But just outside the door, one of those folding placard signs boasts:


Then it starts talking about the quality of the dough, the sauce, and the value compared to other pizza options, challenging the reader to make his own comparison, which can only heighten his appreciation for the greatness of the AAA Great Pizza Company's offerings. I didn't memorize the whole sign, but somehow that first line struck me.

I'm not much of a food critic, and actually I didn't even try the pizza, opting instead for a cheesy lasagna in an aluminum dish, with some semi-burnt garlic bread on the side. What struck me more than the food though, was the attitude demonstrated on that sign. I've noticed this kind of chest-thumping bravado at other Italian restaurants - they're always proclaiming themselves "The Famous Original Ray's", for example - and I wonder if it's a part of Italian culture, or just a necessary conceit when you're competing against so many rivals.

In any case, I thought as I munched my respectable if non-universe-shattering lasagna, I sort of like it that the pizza cook at AAA have a certain swagger. If he considers himself the best pizza cook in the universe, he's not going to skimp on the ingredients, or leave it in the oven too long (like the garlic bread), and he's going to make sure when he tosses it up in the air that it doesn't splatter on the wall or the grubby floors.

It reminded me of back before I entered conservatory, and I really thought of myself as a great bass player - I was voted Most Musical in my senior class (along with a violinist, Nelly Kim, who is now playing in the New York City Opera orchestra); I won the state solo competition, and I got to play principal in the All-Northwest orchestra. All this really meant something, before I moved east and realized that I wasn't even the best bass player on my residence hall floor.

Far from it - I had some serious issues to work on. Probably it was a good thing to get that shot of reality, in the long run. In the short run though, it felt like my playing had degenerated. All the things I thought were awesome and amazing, now just sounded hackish and lame, and every lesson brought up something else I couldn't do very well. I think it's a hard adjustment for music students, or any kind of fish moving to a bigger pond. Your self-image is shot, and the confidence that allowed you to rise above yourself, suddenly just pulls you down. I remember hearing another music student say that her best playing had been for college auditions, her senior year in high school - it had all been downhill from there, and she was in her second or third year at this point.

Maybe her self-image had gotten skewed in the opposite direction, which probably isn't that uncommon either. As soon as we rely on comparisons and other people's praise to assess our own worth, we're prone to these kinds of delusional swings of confidence and self-loathing. There may not be any really objective evaluations in the arts, but at least we can find our own values, preferences, and ideals, so we don't have to judge ourselves by a different standard every day.

Or try and measure ourselves against bass players in another galaxy - who can bother worrying about them? At least we know their pizza isn't as great as ours.

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