Working Class Virtuosos
Copyright 2011-2013 by Scot G. Patterson. All rights reserved.
“A man who works with his hands is a laborer. A man who works with his hands and his brain is a craftsman. But a man who works with his hands and his brain and his heart is an artist.” – Louis Nizer
When we hear the word “virtuoso,” we tend to think of someone playing a musical instrument. And to be sure, a concert violinist displays an incredible level of skill that reflects thousands of hours of practice and training. In this brief essay I would like to focus the spotlight on members of the working class who have developed hand skills that rival those of the musician or surgeon and therefore deserve the title of “virtuoso.” These are the unsung heroes who have perfected their crafts, but their performances are rarely noticed.
My wife and I like to dance. I have always been impressed by people who are really good dancers because they make it look so easy. A little shuffle of the feet, then the hand comes up to initiate a turn, and so on. The sheer economy of movement is beautiful to watch. The timing and execution of each movement is precisely correct. That’s what makes it look easy. But as my wife and I have discovered, it takes discipline and countless hours of practice to learn these patterned movements.
I have seen people in the working trades who demonstrate the same artistry of movement. The experienced electrician connecting switches and plugs, the factory worker assembling cars, and the logger falling trees all perform their tasks with little or no wasted effort. Every movement is exactly what is required. This economy of movement is so highly perfected by some workers that, for instance, a robot-controlled system for painting new cars was first developed by precisely recording the hand movements of a talented car painter.
It should be acknowledged that not all people who work with their hands become highly skilled in their crafts. I believe that the individuals who distinguish themselves with such high-level hand skills have certain characteristics. First, they have a passion for their trade. Second, they find mentors who can accelerate their learning. Third, they are open to feedback that leads to improvement. And fourth, they take pleasure in their own competency.
As a craftsman, I think there is an important relationship between “mojo” and the artistry of hand skills. Simply stated, there are times when I feel unstoppable, and other times when everything I touch is a struggle. The difference is what I am calling mojo. With all due modesty, I believe that I demonstrate virtuosity when I have my mojo. Sadly enough I’m not sure exactly what makes it come and go.
In summary, I would like to salute the virtuosos of the working class. And for those of you who benefit from their services, I hope this essay has helped you become more aware of their artistry. For the butcher, the baker, and the candlestick maker becoming a virtuoso is the ultimate standard of success in mastering their crafts.