Piano Keys Keyed His Triumph Over His Crucible: Wael Farouk #68

Warwick Fairfax

May 18, 2021

Despite being born with small hands and shortened ligaments that left him unable to even hold a cup as a boy, Wael Farouk has diligently – some would say miraculously — carved out a career as a celebrated concert pianist. This spring, in fact, he performed Rachmaninoff’s piano concerti Nos. 1, 2 and 3 in one evening — the first time the prodigious musical feat has been done. Farouk lives and works in Wisconsin, where he is an assistant professor of piano and director of the Keyboard Studies at Carthage College in Kenosha. In this conversation with Warwick, Farouk explains how he has embraced his physical limitations, and endured the crucible of religious persecution as a Coptic Christian in his native Egypt, because of his strong belief that it is through what he calls “rough waters” that he improves and progresses.

To learn more about Wael Farouk, visit www.waelfarouk.com. To purchase tickets to a streaming recording of his Rachmaninoff performance, visit https://www.atthemac.org/events/np-rachmaninoff/

To explore Crucible Leadership resources, visit www.crucibleleadership.com

Highlights

  • The crucibles of his youth (4:38)
  • A toy bought to exercise his hands birthed his love for an talent with music (9:03)
  • Getting serious about musical training at 8 (11:06)
  • How his parents encouraged his dreams with limited means (15:13)
  • Why music captured his imagination (20:05)
  • The power of crucibles to motivate and spur success (22:39)
  • Positive changes in his homeland — but challenges remain in the U.S. (33:53)
  • Why he refuses to back away from a challenge (44:10)
  • Lessons from Rachmaninov, Chopin and Beethoven (49:10)
  • How teaching music also brings him joy (55:47)

Transcript

Warwick F:
Welcome to Beyond the Crucible. I’m Warwick Fairfax, the founder of Crucible Leadership.

Wael F:
I placed the highest in terms of those entrance exams, but because of my hand size, the Dean of the conservatory, who was an excellent pianist told my father, “There is not even a 1% chance in heaven that your son will be a pianist. These hands are not meant for the piano. You are going to destroy him psychologically, physically. This is not for him. He should be a doctor, he should be a lawyer, should be something else, but definitely not that.”

Gary S:
Those are crushing words for anyone to hear as they pursue their passion and their gifting. Imagine what they could have done to our guest this week, who was just eight years old when they were spoken to him. Hi, I’m Gary Schneeberger, co-host of the show and the communications director for Crucible Leadership.

Gary S:
Thankfully for lovers of classical music, Wael Farouk did not take that assessment of his potential to heart. Despite being born with small hands and shortened ligaments that left him unable to even hold a cup as a boy, he has diligently, some would say, miraculously carved out a career as a celebrated concert pianist. In fact, Warwick interviewed him on the eve of the most challenging performance of his career, presenting Rachmaninoff’s Piano Concerto numbers, one, two and three in a single evening.

Gary S:
As you’ll hear from their discussion, Wael has embraced his physical limitations and endured the crucible of religious persecution as a Coptic Christian in his native Egypt, because of his strong belief that it is through what he calls, rough waters that he improves and progresses.

Warwick F:
Wael, thank you so much for being here. Just to have somebody of your, I don’t know what… Maybe passion, and love, and talent for playing music and just bringing music to future generations or current generations and future generations. It’s really a gift that you have and that you’re giving. But I’d like to go back to, you were born in Egypt, I understand, and from a Coptic Christian family.

Warwick F:
Talk a bit about growing up because I’m sure life is not easy growing up in that environment, but it was particularly challenging for you because you had some physical challenges from birth. You’ve had challenges that other kids you knew didn’t have that you played with. So talk a bit about growing up in Egypt and just some of those challenges in the environment that you had.

Wael F:
Sure, I’d be happy to. As you mentioned, I was born and grew up a Coptic Christian in Egypt. It is not the easiest environment let’s say, to grow up and being a Christian, especially in the ’80s. However, both my parents who grew up in the ’40s and ’50s had even more challenges if you could imagine. But without that kind of challenges, I was born with very unusual eyes and hands situations that it took literally years and decades for me to understand and for my parents to understand what are they.

Wael F:
For example, my hands were very, very unusually small. I have very short finger ligaments, till this day, I am unable to make a fist. It’s challenging for me to do some buttons and to open jars and stuff like that. It took me several years to be able to put on my own contact lenses because before that, due to my eye condition, I used to wear those, what do you call them? Coke bottles bottom. Very, very, very thick glasses right –

Warwick F:
Right.

Wael F:
In regards to my eyes, I was born with my both inner lenses are completely detached from their holding case. And they are actually shifted, they are tilted. And the ligaments holding them are very… The medical term that I was given by my ophthalmologist, they are practically torn, so they’re not really there. So bending down, running, skipping, jumping is off of the table. I am one of the few lucky people that their doctor told them, “You should never exercise,” because of that.

Wael F:
However, again, growing up in Egypt in the ’80s, it was in a way difficult to place or to really understand and unravel all of these issues. I seem like a normal child, yes. Small in build and in size, but the hand situation is really what I am thankful for, it got me where I am today. Because around two-and-a-half years old, when my parents really realized that I am an unable to use my hands on any level, unable to hold bottles, cups, spoons, et cetera, and not realizing my poor eyesight, I wasn’t even seeing where I’m dropping things.

Wael F:
So my dad took me to a physician a little bit before my third birthday and saying, “He cannot really use his hands, is there something that can be done?” The fourth and fifth fingers on both hands are quite curved, not really straight. And a wise old doctor said, “You absolutely leave him alone. You don’t do anything to those hands. Let him practice it somehow, get him a rubber ball, get him a toy where it’s involves a lot of pulling and grabbing, that type of thing. Let there be no injections, no surgeries, just let it be natural. He’s born like that for a reason and let it be.”

Wael F:
Luckily my dad, both my parents really knew nothing about music, nothing about classical music per se, because it is not the most popular language in Egypt as you can imagine. He got me for my third birthday a teeny tiny toy piano. He thought, all right, here is something for his hand to use, here is something for… He doesn’t have to carry, he doesn’t have to drop it, et cetera. So since the age of three, that little toy piano became my best friend, my companion in a way.

Wael F:
Fast forward, then a little bit by the age of five, I started playing at churches because I was in a way able to play tunes that I could hear on the radio or on TV. We were devoted church goers, so I always had hymns and Coptic chants on my head, so I was able to play that on the keyboard, no problem. And of course, I got promoted a little bit, so I ended up getting a bigger keyboard on my fourth birthday, and then a bigger one on my fifth birthday, et cetera.

Wael F:
By the age I was six, I was playing regularly for the Coptic pope weekly services in the main cathedral, which is a big deal in many ways, because in the Coptic church they don’t really allow instrumental music. It is very monophonic, it is very just only human voices and that’s it. So being really the only person who’s allowed to play an instrument and a digital instrument that is, was quite something back then.

Wael F:
Anyway, that was my early experience with music. And by six or seven, I had to get those very, very, very thick glasses that in a way prevented me from being outside playing, but I still was very happy, content, practicing my music. By the age of eight, several people who heard me and that my father had said, “He should be really studying seriously because there is something there and he can have a future in music. You should take him to this place that’s called The Conservatory and he should enroll there and sure.”

Wael F:
Anyway, my dad took me there one day and we learned that there is something called entrance exams, and then there is a panel, and you have to… They test your ear, and if you have a good musical pitch, et cetera, they look at your hand, et cetera. So I placed highest in terms of those entrance exams, but because of my hand size, the Dean of The Conservatory, who was an excellent pianist told my father, “There is not even a 1% chance in heaven that your son will be a pianist. These hands are not meant for the piano.

Wael F:
You are going to destroy him psychologically, physically. This is not for him. He should be a doctor, he should be a lawyer, he should be something else, but definitely not that.” My dad who also grew up Coptic Egyptian, but very, very hard work. He was the first in his family to go to college. When he was six, his father left the family of five and my dad worked two jobs when he was in elementary school, supporting the family.

Wael F:
Often going down to the streets, studying under a lamppost because they did not have an electricity. He told the Dean, “If you say his talented, then you should give him a chance.” And that was it in a way. They gave me a three-month trial period, a grace period and they really tried to make those three months very demanding so I would just drop the ball and quit. Basically they expected me to do the work of three years in those three months.

Wael F:
But being stubborn, being encouraged by my dad who has incredible work ethic and life experience, I was able to stay. I graduated with the top marks in the history of the school. And those professors who told my dad, “He will never be a pianist,” they all come to my concerts when I go back to Egypt. Perform annually with the symphony and they’re all very supportive and are comfortable saying, “We are very glad that you proved us wrong.”

Warwick F:
That is a remarkable story. There’s just so many fascinating elements. One of the things, obviously, as you look back, you were given a lot of challenges, but you were also perhaps given a gift in your family, in your parents. Because certainly in many cultures and certainly in days gone by, I think of… Being back in the era of Franklin Roosevelt who had polio, back then it was considered, we’re talking before the ’50s and it was almost shameful.

Warwick F:
If you had polio, somehow it was your fault and you were meant to sit inside and do nothing, and it was just… And so I don’t know about in the culture you grew up in, but sometimes when you have a challenge, rather than helping, it’s like you just need to be quiet, and just be inside, and not really doing anything. I don’t know if that was true in the culture you grew up in, but your parents weren’t like that. Your parents were saying, “No, we will do our level best to help Wael. To help him have a good life.”

Warwick F:
Not every parent would have approached it with the level of determination and encouragement as your parents and your dad did.

Wael F:
Absolutely. And I cannot agree more. I can give you examples from here till next month, but unfortunately we don’t have time. But my parents did not have much money to begin with. They still wanted to make sure that we had the best education, my brother and I. My parents sold items, so they can mortgage a piano for me when I went to the conservatory, which I did not get a piano till my fifth year with… I did not have an instrument to practice at home, which is very unusual.

Wael F:
All the way through, they were extremely supportive, extremely encouraging, extremely… But what I appreciate more now being a parent, that they didn’t try to put me in a bottle. They didn’t shun me from the world and try to overprotect me or over shelter me, which would have had understandable reasons, but what have had also repercussions later on. But they are very supportive, all the way till my mother’s last breath.

Wael F:
She was a very helpful, very encouraging, would not let you that this is causing somebody else’s pain. Never once worried about what I am doing. Never once saying, “What is this classical music stuff? What is this piano thing? Why don’t you just get a job in the government or do whatever.” Used to practice 13, 14, 15 hours a day in my teens, they never disturbed me once. They never bothered me once. They never said, “You should take a break and go watch TV or go to the movies. Or why don’t you have…” None whatsoever.

Wael F:
It was providential and I think without my parents, you summarize this yourself, without my parents, I wouldn’t have been here. And I cannot imagine what other life I would have rather have.

Warwick F:
And you raise such a good point that sometimes when you have these challenges, your parents understandably, they want to protect you, keep you safe, put you in like a little cotton ball or something. Which they might have the best of motives, but that’s not helpful. You want to help people have not a normal life because what’s normal? But live with other people. And I think about that doctor, there’s a lot of doctors that would either have said, “Oh, there’s no hope. Or we’re got to do all the surgery,”

Warwick F:
But yet you’ve had a doctor that was wise enough to say, “You know what? Don’t touch him. No injections, let him be. Let him use the hands.” That also was providential. Right? You could have had other doctors that would have done, I don’t know, maybe terrible things.

Wael F:
Absolutely. Both him and my other eye doctor, they didn’t really have, again, the latest x-ray technology, they didn’t run tests. They didn’t use me as a study case, they didn’t whatever. Again, I was three, so I barely remember the incident. With my ophthalmologist whom I saw a few years later, I remember a little more of that. But as you said, there are incidents in your life that you go back and you say, “I’m really, really thankful for that.”

Wael F:
And speaking of which, ironically, almost 10 days ago, I got an email from the president of the American Association of Hand Surgeons who said, “I read an article about you and I got to hear some of your recordings. And by the way, Rachmaninoff happens to be my favorite composer as well. May we invite you to be our featured guest speaker in our annual conference in California so you can speak to the hand surgeons and they can… They probably have couple of questions for you. So they promise, we’re not going to do anything for your hands, just look at that and just ask you a few questions.” Kind of a funny coincidence.

Warwick F:
I suppose they’d be tempting to say, “Look, I respect what you do, but don’t be too quick to operate.”

Wael F:
Right. Exactly.

Warwick F:
I guess another question I have is, again, obviously it’s providential that your dad could’ve said, “Okay, a little rubber ball. Okay, that’d be good. Just throw it up against the wall and your room and hand-eye coordination,” or I don’t know quite what, but somehow he picked a piano. And what was it? Because very often as you would know better than me, if you’re musical, there’s a history of music in your family. I don’t know, it’s not always, but it’s so often the case.

Warwick F:
Whether it’s genetic, or cultural, or both, but in your case, there weren’t other examples of that. So talk about from age three through five, what about the piano and music just fascinated you so much so that from there or through the teens, you were playing 12, 14 hours a day. What about music, the piano just captured your heart, if you will?

Wael F:
That’s an excellent question. I think my parents, my dad, especially always loved music and wanted to study music himself, but instead he ended up in the military and getting a degree in accountant. It’s interesting, with music specially or any form of arts that one specializes in from a young age, you see all of those angles of life as if you are going on a merry-go-round in a way.

Wael F:
And it all centers around this subject, but however, during different stages in your life, your relationship with it, not necessarily change, but the frame of it really change. Between three and five, that was my hobby, that was my play time. That’s what I just did. From five to eight, it became more exposure period, if you will. I was playing on TV almost every week, I played in almost all of the churches in Cairo, which there are a lot of churches.

Wael F:
And when I started studying at The Conservatory, I realized, again, thanks to another wonderful parent, if you will. One of my teachers who really told me the fact early on. He said, “Listen, you have a disadvantage with your hands, but if you want to be a professional pianist, this is a serious job. You need to work eight to nine hours a day, just like your dad goes to work eight to nine hours a day. This is not a funny business. This is not a hobby.”

Wael F:
Obviously he was very serious. He was Russian and he was really one of the best teachers in the world. And I am thankful for that, because not only he gave me the facts straight, but he said, “It’s very difficult to be a pianist here, listen to this we’re recording.” And that recording was Rachmaninoff Third Piano Centerto. And then I listened to it and then the next day I was just a different person. I went to him, I said, “I have to play that piece one day.”

Wael F:
This is when I was 13 or so and he said, “No way in heaven. I am twice as big as you are, my hands are three times bigger than you. I still don’t have the courage to play a piece like that.” And again, being stubborn being not bothering much with somebody telling you what you can or cannot do. That’s when I worked my tails off for 14, 15 hours a day and three or four years later here I am playing, that was Cairo Symphony, first Egyptian.

Wael F:
And that piece, it still runs in my life till now, till next week, as you know about this big project we are doing. And if it wasn’t for Rachmaninoff piece that was the hardest, really the Mount Everest of the repertoire, again, I would probably then continue to be a pianist. I wouldn’t be where I am today. I didn’t find the urge of provoking success from yourself. And I think that’s one of the things that you and Gary mentioned in your introduction, these challenges, these difficulties, these crucibles, they are there because really we need them in many ways.

Wael F:
They provoke success in you, they teach you more about yourself. They teach you more about life. And if there are closed doors, they direct you to the open doors, which ultimately end up being the right one for you. And some people have the concept or at least the naive hope that once they experience one or two difficulties in life, that’s it, and then your career is set, your path is set, and then you are on smooth water for… It’s absolutely not.

Wael F:
There are certain things that gives you the challenge, and gives you the option, and give you the choice. Whether you let them define you and to be, I don’t want to say a victim of, because I don’t use this word lightly to be just a reactionary in your life, in your decisions, in what to choose to do, what you choose to represent, in what you choose your life’s work to be about. Or you can make it work for what you want to accomplish and you find it as an opportunity.

Wael F:
And it also teaches you to be grateful because without having sufferings, without having challenges, if you are handed everything so easily, so effortlessly, the concept of being grateful, the concept of responsibility, the concept of working hard, even harder to protect what you gained and what you achieved, I don’t think it crystallizes that as much.

Warwick F:
You said so many profound things there, hard to know where to start, but yeah, it’s almost without the darkness, you don’t appreciate the light. Without the challenges in life, it’s hard to be grateful if life is always perfect. Some young people have been through some challenges, I know you teach in Carthage College, but there’ll be some people that grew up in great families. They’re not particularly poor and everything’s fine. Maybe life isn’t tough right now, but it will be, nobody goes through life without any challenges.

Warwick F:
But just so many things that are remarkable about your story and that it’s hard. Nobody thinks of a crucible as a gift, but sometimes there can be a gift amidst the pain, nobody wants those. But when you think about it, if you had the same physical attributes as a lot of your friends, maybe would have played soccer or thrown a ball, or who knows? Or become a doctor, a lawyer, which nothing wrong with that, that’s an honorable profession.

Warwick F:
But when there’s so many things that you can’t do, whether it’s physically or worried about detached retina, it’s like, “What can I do?” It’s pretty limited right there. Right? I have this piano and I can do that well and it gives me joy. Sometimes narrowing the options is a blessing amidst the pain. Does that make sense? You wouldn’t have designed your life that way, but yet if you’d had all these other choices, maybe you never would have played the piano. Right?

Wael F:
Absolutely. Rocks directs water and determines in a way where the current is going, where the… but also river carves its own way. And even though sometimes you try to reverse its directions, it doesn’t always go your way. But I am a firm believer that because of my faith, not only again, thanks to my family, but to where I am today and some of the incidents that both my family and I were experiencing over the past few years.

Wael F:
It brings some comfort at least that there is a pattern in one’s life that despite challenges, despite, you won’t call it persecution, oppression, this or that, you know that there is a light at the end of the tunnel. You know that challenges make you stronger, they make you learn about yourself. And I think it is a gift for anybody who is a teacher, because it’s one thing to teach information, to teach digits, to teach… You play the right notes, you play the right rhythm. You read the style of Baroque or classical. This is all peanuts. This is all peanuts.

Wael F:
What you teach about life is really what makes or breaks a person and we need more and more of that.

Gary S:
I want to jump in at this point, if I can and do a couple of things. One, the story that you referred to that kicked off some of the media coverage that you’ve been giving is in the local newspaper, the Kenosha News. And I’m just going to take this opportunity to say to listeners, who’ve heard us talk to at least four people from Australia like Warwick that Wael and I both live in Kenosha, Wisconsin. So I was thrilled when I read his story in the local newspaper one Saturday morning.

Gary S:
I got ahold of Warwick immediate and said, “This gentlemen will be fantastic for our podcast.” But one of the things, Wael that you said in that story, goes along with what you were just talking about. And also gets to the other source of strength that you found. And you said this in that story, “When my parents realized my hand disabilities and later learned when I was seven that I have very severe disability with my eyes and vision, they always prayed and told me that they trusted that God had a very good reason why He made me like this and I am in His hands.

Gary S:
My family and my faith taught me that God will never allow evil to hurt me, and that everything will be for my good and for His glory.” That’s part of your perspective, your faith informs your perspective that these things that are crucibles are meant not for evil, but for good in your life.

Wael F:
Absolutely, and I am so glad that you brought this up. Psalm 23, for example that I tried to build my life on. I think over and over again, because we are doubtful and we also forget quickly. And we are very sensitive to negative experiences, and we are very sensitive to these challenges and sufferings. But remembering, as I was saying earlier, remembering that there is a pattern, remembering that you will always be delivered.

Wael F:
And remembering that gold is tested with fire and you are more refined at the end is something I look forward to. And if I may read you a small verse from probably my favorite hymn, if that’s okay. I think it will-

Warwick F:
Yes please.

Wael F:
… encapsulate what I’m trying more accurately. Says, “Make me a captive, Lord and then I shall be free; force me to render up my sword, and I shall conqueror be. I sink in life’s alarms when by myself I stand. Imprison me within Thine arms and strong shall be my hand.”

Warwick F:
What hymn was that?

Wael F:
It’s an old from the Presbyterian cannon. I’m happy to share with you the entire link later.

Warwick F:
No, that’s awesome. It’s funny, I think also of Joseph’s story that obviously you can probably identify with him. He went to Egypt and suffered persecution there and there’s this great line, I think it’s in Genesis 50, which I know you’re very familiar with is, he talks about, “They meant it for evil and God meant it for good.” And for the listeners who may not be familiar with the story, Joseph was a little bit arrogant, but full of himself when he was young and his brothers got a bit jealous, threw him in a pit and eventually sold him into slavery.

Warwick F:
And he was falsely accused in Egypt of doing things he didn’t, but eventually he found favor with the Pharaoh and life turned around. But he could have been angry and bitter when he met his brothers for what they did, which was sometimes we don’t fully appreciate what the Bible says. It’s a horrific thing to be sold into slavery at all, but by your family? It’s just unthinkable. But yet he wasn’t bitter and angry. That’s amazing to me.

Warwick F:
So as I look at some of the things you’ve been through, I sense both with you and your family, I’m guessing there wasn’t a whole lot of bitterness. You haven’t gone into detail, but I know I’m sure life for Coptic Christians in Egypt and even today, you read about over the last several years, bombings, and persecution, and sadly human beings’ intolerance towards each other. It’s hard to fathom or understand, but it’s somewhat universal, but yet I don’t sense a whole lot of bitterness.

Warwick F:
I may be wrong, as I often say, there’s a difference between condoning and forgiving. You can condemn and not condone and hope that justice will prevail at the same time and not let bitterness destroy you. If that makes sense.

Wael F:
Absolutely. And I very much would like to clarify as I did in the Kenosha article that since 2014, this picture is radically changing. The current president who’s been very, very good to Christians, probably the first in the history of this country that went through so much. Christians now are being, not only respected and protected, and they’re asked their input in the constitution. And your religion is no longer required to be listed in your ID or in things like that.

Wael F:
However, the theme I decided to give this project, which I’m happy to call it probably the most important concert I am about to give both artistically, humanly and personally. Because these recent events that happened in my life, it actually did not have to do much with Egypt, but it has to do much with my experience being here in the States. It brings a familiarity in because you are treated based on what you represent, or whom you are, or where are you from rather than your work.

Wael F:
Which of course, the United States always represented for me and my family, this shelter, this sanctuary. And what is written under Statue of Liberty is something, to be honest, I thought I would never experience here in this again, great country that I am proud to call my adopted country. But it was surprising in a way, it was shocking, I could say. It was unexpected, but at the same time being in it for three, four, five years now, I am reminded of a familiar tune, if you will.

Wael F:
I am hopeful as I was guided through many, many complicated path in my earlier life that this also will prevail and things will end up positively and will end up both for me and for what I represent in the right way.

Warwick F:
Obviously to whatever level you’re comfortable with, just help us understand a little bit about some of these more recent challenges.

Wael F:
Sure. As you know and I would like to share this with our listeners, the concert that I am giving next week on April 8th, we’re playing three Rachmaninoff Concerti in one evening numbers, one, two, and three. And number three alone, I mentioned a little bit of my background, but number three alone is undisputedly nicknamed as the Mount Everest of the piano literature. So to play this one on its own is already nerve-wracking enough, but to play also the other two musical mountains, the first and the second piano concerto right before that is really an experience that first of all is unprecedented and an experience for me that I’ll never forget.

Wael F:
But I wanted to tie this into a theme of not only what I was going through personally, but also what the country seems to be going through lately. The three musical mountains to overcoming three social injustices; persecution, oppression, and discrimination. I am comfortable sharing few backgrounds, few details. In terms of-

Gary S:
Can I jump in because I don’t want to interrupt you when you get into that, but I want listeners to understand, you probably got really sad when Wael said April 8th and you’re like, this isn’t airing until after that, I can’t hear it. Yes, you can. Look at the show notes. This will be on a live stream link that you can listen to up until June 15th. So you will have the chance to hear his performance.

Gary S:
So please don’t be saddened by the fact that as we’re recording this, he is yet to perform, he will perform, it will be online, you can see it then. I just wanted to make sure that people knew that so they didn’t miss it.

Wael F:
Thank you so much for clarifying that. I appreciate that.

Gary S:
In fact, through the miracle of post-production editing, we’re going to give you a very slight snippet of Wael’s virtuosity right now. Here’s a short clip of his performance of Rachmaninoff’s Concerto with the new Philharmonic orchestra from Illinois College of DuPage

Wael F:
I grew up expected in Egypt that I would be persecuted for being a Christian. I would have opportunities taken away from me, even though you earned them. You expected that you will be bullied, that you’ll even be failed and to have somebody else who was not a Coptic Christian that should be in the lead rather than whatever. Your work is trying to be obstructed, blocking your foreign tours just because, why should you get them because you deserve them? Something like that.

Wael F:
All of this was expected. However, this is not really expected here, and definitely not because of what you represent in terms of standing up for what you believe is correct, for standing up against those who abuse their powers. And standing up against those who bully you and those who discriminate you, and openly treat you differently just because you are from a different part of the world or because of what you believe in, or because you’re your work, or because your work speaks for itself.

Wael F:
And because you are not only successful in what you do, but that in a way could shine bad light on what they do or in terms of… I don’t want to draw a comparison, but discrimination or oppression really has no logic. So you don’t really need anything to logically trigger these actions, these decisions. I persevered, I am still being patient and still going through the right channels. My wife’s support’s is immense, my family support is immense.

Wael F:
There are difficult moments, a lot of hurt both physically, mentally, emotionally, but you know these scars are also going to be good for the future and you get over them one way or another with time, with therapy, with whatever it is. It is a battle I am happy to have, especially where it comes to defining who you are and what you represent or what you want your work to be about.

Wael F:
With that, I decided that will be fitting, and again, providential that this is the one concert that was not canceled due to the virus, due the pandemic. The Rachmaninoff mountain concert, and this seemed to be quite fitting to give it that theme.

Warwick F:
Just so listeners understand a little bit, and again, I know you probably don’t want them to get into every detail, but is it discrimination based on that you’re Egyptian, from the Middle East? People make certain assumptions about everybody from the Middle East believes a certain way. Is that kind of, you look different, they assume you believe different, is it that kind of territory or?

Wael F:
It’s all of that. Exactly.

Warwick F:
Everybody from the Middle East must be evil or that kind of mentality.

Wael F:
Yeah. And recent events, especially that happened in our own backyard in Kenosha in July also really was an alarming wake up call in a way that we need to be careful and we need to be how… Not that we need to be careful how labeling people could make us really pay dearly down the road. And sometimes we are too polite even to defend ourselves, or to correct somebody’s misassumptions, or just asking questions back, or really, for a lack of a better word, defending oneself that could be viewed or skewed as being aggressive or as being irrational, or as being whatever.

Wael F:
But if clarification or seeking truth becomes secondary to anything, we will pay dearly. And they’re not just talking about those who are in certain minorities. If history taught us anything, just a little bit of drifting from the right paths will cost us dearly. So I am glad that again, this has been put in my life. I don’t understand those reasons right now, but as my faith has taught me, as past experiences has taught me, I’m sure it’s for the good. I’m sure it will also help me be a stronger, I will understand myself better.

Wael F:
I think the crucibles in my childhood brought me where I am today. The crucibles I’m facing right now will kind of determine where to go from here.

Warwick F:
It sounds like you approaching it with courage and conviction. It’s hard to understand why intolerance, hatred because of differences. It’s hard to understand where that come from. From a faith perspective, I guess there’s a lot of darkness in the soul of humanity, but it’s always hard to understand, I have to say. But it’s been a reality, certainly in our current times and before. So thank you for sharing that.

Warwick F:
Talk a bit about this concert. I love how you’re combining both your love for music, as well as to stand up for justice against discrimination, oppression, and persecution. One of the other things I wanted to come back to is, when somebody says to you, Wael, “Oh, that’s impossible. You can’t do it. Don’t even try, give up.” That’s almost like now that you’ve said that, then I have to try it. Right?

Warwick F:
It’s like, somewhere, I think I read that Rachmaninoff was, I don’t know what 6’3, 6’6, a massive size, and massive wingspan, and probably huge hands. And so it’s fine for him to write concertos that he can play, but what about the rest of humanity? I guess he didn’t really care about that. “I’m good. I can play my own music,” but you would take on something that music teachers said, “Give it up, Wael, you’ll never do it.” But yet it’s almost like this challenge that’s…

Warwick F:
Talk about, why when somebody says it’s impossible for you, Wael, why that becomes like this lightning rod, this challenge, this rallying cry? Here we go, let’s go for it. How does that happen for you?

Wael F:
Sure I haven’t been asked this before, so it will take me a little bit to get there. I’m happy to answer it, it’s a great question. I think I need to answer this question to verbalize it for myself. But to touch quickly about what you just said about what goes on and what we can not really understand why things happen, and darkness in humanity, et cetera, but the theme of your show.

Wael F:
And I like the thing that this is the theme of my life too, that I know that good will prevail, no matter what, good will prevail. If history has taught us anything over, and over, and over, and over again, good will prevail. And those who do think that they have a green light to abuse, discriminate, just don’t overestimate your dark powers. And for those who go through similar times as I am and as many others, don’t underestimate your strengths and your power and the power of God, because if you have God on your side, that’s it.

Wael F:
And I know it may feel as an over-simplification, but this is not at all. And whether we choose, acknowledge it or discuss it, but it seems to be the theme of humanity. That’s why all of the movies almost is about either good or evil and which one we’ll thrive at the end. I just wanted to throw that in there. But now back to your question. Of course, when I was young or recently when I decided to take on these projects, to take on these massive programming, it is not at all that I want to try to prove anything.

Wael F:
Because if there is anything to be proven, it’s just for oneself. Because at the end of the day, when you put your head down to sleep, it’s your conscience, artistic or personal or human or moral, that’s what counts. That’s what will keep you awake at night or that’s what we’ll give you peace of mind. When I am told, for example, when I was young, “You cannot really do this. You cannot play Rachmaninoff’s third, you can never be a pianist.” I don’t read the future. None of us can.

Wael F:
And of course, these are experts that I respect and admire, but at the same time, I guess what processes into my head, which I believe is your question is, all right. Don’t seal my fate yet. Let’s take a look at this. Give me an opportunity, give me a chance. And no matter how long it will take, if this doesn’t really work, it will be folly of me to lie to myself, because this is the worst kind of lie, when you lie to yourself.

Wael F:
So let me have a run with this. Let me try, let me close the door on myself for a year, or two, or three, or four. Let me give up what I like to give up happily to practice and to sit down and memorize all of these works and all of these notes and let’s see. And if I cannot do that, I will tell you. If I cannot do that to share it with public, with hundreds and thousands of people, at least I have had a wonderful journey of discovery that I really cannot do that.

Wael F:
Knowing your limitation is a blessing, is often more important than knowing what you’re able to do. But so far, I think I haven’t had that wall… I haven’t ran into a wall, I guess that I could not take down. And if that teaches me anything, when you have faith, when you have courage, when you know what you’re doing. When it’s not just naive, empty statements, and when you work hard, and this is the one thing I really learned from Rachmaninoff or from Beethoven or from Chopin.

Wael F:
Because those people, those people worked extremely hard under incredible circumstances. If you look up Beethoven, Beethoven could have stopped 25 years earlier than when he died, when his hearing was already going out. He still wrote, this is my duty to my art. This is my duty to my fellow man, to keep working, to keep writing. The poor man was suffering. He was deaf. At the end of his life, God knows what kind of all sorts of stomach cancer he was dealing with.

Wael F:
His stomach was basically cut open for three months because of all the infections, all of the lead poisoning, all of the horrible things that he was going through. He was still working to the last breath. And if those people could do that, who am I to give up so quickly?

Warwick F:
You’re offering… I want to touch on this briefly here in a moment because you teach at Carthage College. In addition to teaching music, there’s a lot of life lessons you can offer students, and current musicians, future pianists, and talented folks. But just that sense of not giving up, I’m reminded of somebody, very different circumstances we had on the podcast, a woman, Lisa Blair, who is an Australian woman who sailed around Antarctica in a sailboat.

Warwick F:
This is like the worst oceans in the world. Massive storms, as she would say, she’s like 5’2, not particularly physically adept in terms, she’s not like six foot, some massively strong. She thinks of herself as not very special, but she has a very special attitude. That’s really her superpower, it’s not her physical stature. And she defines failure the way you do, which is failure is not trying.

Warwick F:
So long as I’m giving it my all, I’m giving it my level best, then that’s not failure. And that’s something that young people, just what you said, really need to understand. So often, you know what they say, “It’s better to have tried and failed and never to have tried.” Maybe you’ll fail, but you’ll certainly fail if you don’t try.

Wael F:
Absolutely.

Warwick F:
I’m sure you’ve probably given that message a million times to young people. And sometimes you’ll fail, but sometimes you won’t. And it’s like, what if I fail? The response is, but what if you don’t?

Wael F:
Right.

Warwick F:
And even if you do, so what?

Wael F:
Right.

Warwick F:
Right?

Wael F:
Exactly. It doesn’t define you. And if you are going into life expecting that it will be a Disney movie, perfect, then it’s better really to wake up. Even in Disney, there are some hard times. And my best word of advice that really comes to mind when Edison says, “I didn’t fail 2,000 times to make a light bulb work, I found 2,000 ways not to make a light bulb work.” Because knowing what not to do is extremely helpful.

Warwick F:
And that’s a very, I love that you bring that up. People often think, somebody in Hollywood or a pianist, they were an overnight success. There’s no such thing, in most cases. Edison’s a great example. In a lot of the creative arts, and you would know much better than I would about composers, but typically as you’ve described with Beethoven or Mozart, there’s hours and hours, and years and years of intense work that leads to what we might think is some of the greatest masterpieces of music ever written.

Warwick F:
Greatness typically doesn’t happen easily. You got to have some talent, but it requires a massive amount of hard work.

Wael F:
Exactly. And the other quote that I really love is from Beethoven, who said, “I am only 10% talent and 90% hard work.” And like you said, being successful at anything, it just comes with sweat and blood. And another great lesson I learned from my dad, reaching the top of your mountain is comparatively easy, by staying on the top of your mountain. So it’s not, once you accomplished something you are done and you leave, and that’s it.

Wael F:
And I think this is part of the challenge, or maybe this is also why I like to keep looking for a new challenge is because feeling that, okay, I already did that, I have nothing else to do. Then you’re kind of emotionally dead, or you’re kind of intellectually dead. Life is still full of so many great things, but this is also the same thing in chess. I was just watching a Bobby Fischer interview and the host is asking him, “What’s now for you? You’re already the champion of the world?”

Wael F:
And he says, “I have to find something to do. I cannot just sit for three years till my game.” And the same with Pushkin, or Dostoyevsky, or Tchaikovsky, or Rachmaninoff, or Beethoven, or Bobby Fischer.

Warwick F:
Just talk about, as we begin to close here with Carthage College. Talk-

Gary S:
Yeah, I was going to say, I normally say at this point, “The captain’s turned on the fasten seatbelt signs and it’s about time to land the plane.” The best I have here is that we’re approaching the Coda of the performance of our conversation. Before we do-

Warwick F:
I was going to say, we’re probably coming towards the last movement or something of the piece, or.

Gary S:
Yes. Before we do that and Warwick, asked this question though, Wael, I want to give you the opportunity to let listeners know where they can find you online and find out more about you. So where can they go to find out more about you?

Wael F:
Thank you, Gary. My website waelfarouk.com, W-A-E-L, F as in Frank, A-R-O-U-K.com where I have my past performances, recent performances, calendar of upcoming events. My YouTube channel, again, just writing my name, my website at Carthage College or Roosevelt University.

Gary S:
Fabulous. Thank you.

Warwick F:
Just talk as we close here at Carthage College, you obviously love playing music and just helping people understand the joy of some of these incredible pieces. Whether it’s Rachmaninoff, Chopin, Beethoven, all of the other ones you play, but yet you also teach. Talk about how teaching students at Carthage College gives you joy. What about that? You could just play music, but there’s something about that that clearly you love teaching students about music. What is it about that that you love?

Wael F:
That’s a great question. There are so many nuances here. Teaching is also learning at the same time, because it’s two-way street. Finding, there are certain things that I do naturally and I do instinctively when I play, and certain things perhaps that I didn’t find very much challenging. Certain things I did find challenging, but when you meet with a student who comes from various backgrounds, some come from… They just been taught by fabulous teachers. They have no problems, technically, psychologically, musically.

Wael F:
And some others have deficiencies in one or all of those three areas. And then having to think, first of all, analyze just like a physician when you go and dealing with different patients, with different symptoms analyze, they’re trying to understand they’re trying to find the antidote. And sometimes the first one works great, sometimes the 10th one only works great.

Wael F:
But going through these classes, discovering new ways, new verbalizations of new ways or of demonstration, how to get the information, how to understand how the hand and the body and the brain work, it’s a very complicated job, much more so than some people think. Especially if you do it on a professional level, not just in a recreational for hobby or therapeutically. But going through that and at the same time, because we deal with a great wealth of history.

Wael F:
At least what I like to do when I teach music, when I teach piano that I don’t just work with a student on this Chopin concerto or this Chopin… We get to know who Chopin was, we get to know about the French Revolution. We get to know about the Polish Revolution. We get to know about the Russian invasion of Poland, and 1840, and the 80-year war, the 30-year war, et cetera, cetera. What did Franz Liszt stand for politically? What did Rachmaninoff stand for politically?

Wael F:
Those people were timekeepers and were mirrors like all artists of what was happening culturally in terms of history, in terms of their own view of the world. And you probably cannot find a better time capsule than that because they are very accurate. So we delve into all of that, and of course, that really shapes the life of a young person in a wonderful way.

Wael F:
And also knowing that no matter what challenges you have; mentally, emotionally, physically, we all have our scars on the inside or the out. But again, that does not mean that you can not do something if you don’t apply all your faculties to it. But seeing at the end that critical faculties develop and seeing that they become their own teachers in a way. Because it’s one thing to tell somebody, “Okay, here, this solves the problem. Here is what you should do. Here is how you prepare for a piece, how you prepare for a competition, for an audition, for a concert.”

Wael F:
But to work with them over the two or three or the four years you have, sometimes longer till they become their own teachers. Because no matter what a great teacher you study with, at the end of the path, you are on your own. But if you know how to take care of yourself personally, musically, artistically, and always grow, always find new information to always learn, to always develop. I think this is very, very, very rewarding. It’s hard work, takes a lot of time, especially it takes a lot of time away from your practicing.

Wael F:
But it is our responsibility in a way, because I was given so much by all my teachers, freely and lovingly, and I wouldn’t trade this for the world. And I spend time with my teacher more than I spend with my parents. And I’m just proud and honored to be given an opportunity to present something like that to somebody else.

Gary S:
That sounds a lot like a Maestro hitting his final note right there. That’s what that sounds like to me, listeners. Before we go, I want to leave you listeners with something that before we hit record on this episode Warwick and Wael were talking about, and they were joking. They were laughing that their initials are the same, Warwick Fairfax and Wael Farouk. And we have guests as you’ve heard me say before, we have guests fill out these forms to help us prepare for the podcast and we ask a number of questions.

Gary S:
And one of the questions that we ask is, what’s one bit of advice you would give listeners to help them overcome crucibles? And this is what Wael wrote. But what struck me about it as I was reading it is that this quote, I could take this quote and I could put, “It was said by the initials WF,” and you wouldn’t know whether it was Warwick Fairfax or it was Wael Farouk who says it.

Gary S:
And here’s the quote, “Our lives in many ways are defined by how we act in the face of suffering and calamity. We are bound to go through rough waters, but this is for the good. What helped me go through all of my challenges is my faith and love for God, my family, and my work.” That, listeners defines both of the men that you’ve heard talking on this conversation today on Beyond the Crucible.

Gary S:
And until we’re together the next time, listeners, if you want to know more about Crucible Leadership and about Beyond the Crucible, we’ve got some exciting things you can discover at our website, crucibleleadership.com. There’s lots of new content, lots of new information coming. Go check us out, check those things out. You’ll be excited, I think by what you’ll see. And again, until the next time we are together, remember what we’ve discussed here, the truth of what we discussed here.

Gary S:
Your crucibles are painful. What Wael discussed was painful to him, has been, continues to be painful to him, but it’s so far from not the end of his story and it’s so far not the end of your story. Because if we learn the lessons from our crucibles, if we apply the lessons from our crucibles, it’s not the last chapter of our story. It can be the beginning of a new chapter that can lead to the best chapter of our lives, because the end result where we get to that destination is where Warwick’s ended up, is where Wael’s ended up, and that is at a life of significance.

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