William Faulkner and Ernest Hemingway were not friends. In one memorable duel of quotes, Faulkner remarked of Hemingway, "He has never been known to use a word that might send a reader to the dictionary."
Hemingway responded, "Poor Faulkner. Does he really think big emotions come from big words?"
There is a similar sentiment in the musical community, one that praises grandiosity and virtuosity for its own sake. It's a philosophy with the tenet that complexity and execution of music are the strongest indicators of its emotional impact.
While I respect the incredible skill of "top-tier" composers and players, I'm wary of this thinking. It parallels the similar belief, ubiquitous throughout history, that newer, bigger, and shinier are, inherently, of greater value. It ignores the joy of subtlety, the pleasure of understatement, the rush of a single perfect note floating in at just the right moment.
Such is the music of Jacob Nault: composer, pianist, vocalist, and senior music student at Lakeland University near Sheboygan, Wisconsin. Jacob is nicknamed "The Six-Fingered Pianist" by his friends and followers, and he makes no secret of the reason: cerebral palsy limits his left-hand playing to only one finger.
"I play with all five fingers on my right hand, and then I play with my pointer finger on my left hand," Nault said in our recent interview in the Maud Moon Weyerhaeuser Studio. "I always say that my right hand, my fully functioning hand, is doing two hands' worth of work. I'm doing the right hand and then I'm bringing that over to fill in the other notes that might be played with the left hand."
Most pianists couldn't imagine losing 40% of their playing tools. But it would be a mistake to assume that this would decrease their playing power by 40% as well. If music's purpose is to entertain, connect, and share, Jacob's music not only equals that of 10-fingered pianists, in many ways, his music surpasses them all. "It's very deceiving to a lot of people because they think I'm playing with ten fingers, but I'm really only playing with six," said Nault.
Jacob, an aspiring music educator, will certainly bring a unique perspective to his future classroom. "I really believe that every student that I work with has enormous potential inside of them, and I want to challenge them to unlock that potential, and realize that everybody has challenges, and everybody has things to overcome in their lives, whatever it might be. And I really think that music can speak at a level that transcends a lot of other ways of communicating."
Mentors have deeply affected Jacob's perspective on music education. While some teachers have regarded his physical challenges as a roadblock, he said others "saw it as an opportunity and possibility." His first piano teacher, Ann Boeckman of the Lawrence Academy of Music, taught him that challenges need adaptation, not surrender.
Nault's music might not be considered technically complex or difficult in the traditional sense, but the evocative nature of his compositions, coupled with the incredible system he has developed for playing with six fingers, is breathtaking.
Sometimes, big emotions come from big compositions and big playing. But Jacob Nault, like Ernest Hemingway, doesn't need fancy ornamentation to make an impact.
Chopin - Largo in E flat major - Jacob Nault
Nault - Flying Eagle - Jacob Nault
Nault - Waiting for You - Jacob Nault
Nault - Praise - Jacob Nault
This feature was produced by Mike Pengra, and engineered by Michael DeMark.