The Artistry In Hidden Talents

Mary Ellen Rusnov - Woodbury, Connecticut
As heard on All Things Considered, February 6, 2006
Mary Ellen Rusnov
Photo by Nubar Alexanian

You may not know it, but the person in the adjoining cubicle could be a singer, a dancer or a painter. A civil engineer by trade but a pianist at heart, Mel Rusnov believes in cultivating hidden talents.

Age Group: 30 - 50
Themes: creativity
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I believe in cultivating hidden talents, buried and unrelated to what we do for a living.

In ordinary life, I’m a civil engineer. I make a satisfying, comfortable living working quietly in my cubicle. But in my other life, I am a pianist, bringing to life with my own hands the genius of Bach, Mozart and Chopin.

While earning my engineering degree, I worked as a waitress in the dining hall of a retirement community. One day during a break, I discovered a piano in a meeting room. I sat down to play a few Bach Two-Part Inventions. Those crisp, driving rhythms and harmonics flew out into the hallways. Residents, numb from ceaseless easy-listening radio, tentatively peeked in, then sat to listen.

Disbelieving, they saw plain, old, invisible Mel, the lunch waitress.

“She plays the piano!” “Where did you study?” “How long have you played?” “Can you play Rachmaninoff?”

They no longer wanted me to quickly and quietly disappear from their dining tables. “Mel, wait a minute. Who do you think was better, Gould or Horowitz?” I answered “Gould,” and a raging debate ensued.

For over 20 years, absorbed in my engineering career, I let my musical life die, but I was always reminded of it when I’d encounter the secret creative life of others.

At a holiday concert, I heard a tenor voice so glorious it brought tears to my eyes. It was the sweetest, most touching performance of “Silent Night” I had ever heard. This masterful voice belonged to a colleague, Steve, with whom I had worked for years, side by side in adjoining cubicles.

I had narrowly defined him, and so many others, by their occupations. Since I had let myself get consumed by my job, too tired and spent for anything else, I assumed all other hard-working people had, too. But Steve’s artistry reminded me of my own hidden talent.

I began to practice again, and started taking lessons from an inspiring teacher who pressures me every week to keep at it, play better, get to that next higher level.

One time, feeling bold, I played a Mozart Sonata in an airport lobby, between connecting flights. People slowed down or even stopped to listen; readers looked up from their chairs. I saw smiles and heard a smattering of applause.

I thought: No one smiled and clapped after my presentation on the site engineering for a new strip mall.

I believe we are more than the inhabitants of our cubicles, more than engineers or even parents, husbands and wives. I believe we are transformed and connected by the power and beauty of our creativity.

Mel Rusnov is a civil engineer in Woodbury, Connecticut. Her love of music came from her father who played in a Croatian folk group, and took her to orchestra concerts in their hometown of Cleveland. In addition to playing the piano, Rusnov enjoys tutoring local high school students in math.

Independently produced for NPR by Jay Allison and Dan Gediman with John Gregory and Viki Merrick.