I recently went to a clinic that was provided by a local drum set artist and he shared some insight that I thought found very interesting. The topic resonated with me in a way that other clinics have not. What the man briefly shared was his moments of failure in the music business. Those moments where he was forced to make a decision: either grow in to a better musician or live with failure and choose a different career path.
The reason this resonated with me is that we always hear of the success stories people have in all facets of their life. I know I continually share mine with every resume, website updated, and job interview I encounter. It’s natural for us to live in the highest moments that we have created for ourselves. Yet the moments we actually grow from are almost exclusively from the lowest moments of our career.
I thought it would be fun to start a blog series, "What Life Hands You," where I share stories of failure that have helped me grow into the person and educator I am today. In a society where humblebrags are often what we hear from each other, I will be sharing failure brags (#failurebrag for those who would like to share their stories). These failures are indeed worth bragging about as we have grown just as much from these moments in our lives, if not more, than the successes.
So the story goes:
I want to share with you a moment of failure in my life that taught me more than I ever thought it would. That moment in time I felt as though I was a complete failure and would never make it as the percussion performer or educator I wanted to become. I learned more about myself than I had at any moment of my career. I often share this scenario with my students in their moments of failure and thought it was worth sharing with everyone.
My senior year of college I was preparing to graduate with a degree in music education and wanted to test the waters by pursuing a master’s in performance. There were many schools I was interested in but one particular school within my home state interested me the most. This school had a long pedigree of success and I felt that for me to be considered “successful” I needed to put myself out there and see if I could compete with some of the best in the country.
My time in undergrad was spent being near the top, if not the top, of my respective studio. I worked hard to be at that level because I wanted to be the best. But because of the smaller studio my school had, it wasn’t that difficult to get to the top. This perspective misconstrued reality for me. It allowed me to relax and stop learning as rapidly. I didn’t feel or experience failure at the rate I should have as I was not being challenged by the institution or I wasn’t challenging myself in a way to continue experiencing failure.
These missed opportunities allowed me to think that I was actually better than I was. I developed a sense of confidence that things would work out my way with an effort level I felt was acceptable. I was in for a rude awakening.
Because what I had truly failed to do was put myself in situations where I could fail but still learn from those failures. Rob Knopper writes a great blog post on how he was able to successfully win his first job with the New York Met at just 24 years old.
You can follow the story here: Audition Hacker: Rob Knopper
The fall of my senior year I performed a recital with music that my professor and I felt would be great audition materials in the spring semester. The recital was a wise decision considering I had to student teach in the spring semester and didn’t want to have to spend time wood shedding while maintaining a teaching schedule.
As the fall semester began to wind down, I took the time to reach out to the percussion chair at the university to see if I could submit materials in advance as I was unaware of what equipment I was going to have available to me while student teaching. I had asked specifically if I could submit my four mallet marimba solo and timpani solos through a video process as I was afraid a public school wouldn’t have quality equipment or the right size drums. The department chair emailed me back and said this would be acceptable. I made no attempt to follow up afterwards as I thought no further communication would be necessary.
The Audition Date Arrives (or so I thought):
Fast forward to mid February, I felt very good about my audition materials. I had my audition repertoire at a level of comfortability that I had not had before. I was feeling great and well prepared. My audition date was set for a Saturday in February.
When I arrived to the school to check in, the first moment of fear passed over me. I was told that I had actually missed my audition date. I had misread the calendar and was scheduled for Friday rather than Saturday. At this point I’m embarrassed that I let this happen and that I had missed my opportunity. I was assured that these mistakes happen and I would still be able to audition. In order for me to audition, I had to wait and see if anyone else failed to show up for their time. So rather than spend the two hours taking time to warm up and feel good about playing, I had to wait outside the audition room, see who would show, and listen to all the other great musicians walk in that room.
Finally after three hours of waiting, my turn had arrived. I went at the very end of the day. The professors agreed to squeeze me in. Imagine how they must have felt after sitting there for two days and then listening to this kid who didn’t take the time to check his schedule.
I started with my repertoire list on mallets, tambourine, etc. I was ecstatic at this point as I was nailing things I had practiced and doing even better than anticipated. I was then asked to perform my four mallet solo. I said, “I sent you the video for review of my four mallet solo and timpani solo for today’s audition.” The department chair had forgotten this email conversation and looked at me with puzzled bewilderment. Then the words I’ll never forget an educator tell me, “You’re wasting my (insert expletive here) time!” He then proceeded to tell me “these great young performers came here before you well prepared and killed their auditions. Then you’re going to come in on the wrong day and not have all my materials ready to go?”
These were the hardest words I had ever heard. Nobody had ever told me before that I couldn’t do something, that I wasn’t trying, that I was a failure, or that I was wasting their time. Especially when I thought I had taken the time to prepare correctly.
“Well, let’s hear your snare drum then I guess,” were the words uttered to me next. I had a choice to make at this point. Do I even bother performing? Do I pack it in and cut my losses? Do I move forward and do the best I can and learn from this experience? I chose to perform. Obviously I was no longer going to play my best as I was flustered and nervous. I left the audition knowing I had failed and was devastated that I had put myself in this situation.
On my way out the door the department chair must have realized his error or just felt sympathy for me in the situation. He asked me if I would come back and audition again in a few weeks. I was surprised and excited to hear this! I said yes and asked what all materials they wanted to hear and I’d be sure to make it happen. I was told everything I expected a long with a two mallet solo, something I didn’t expect or have in my list of preparations either!
A shot at redemption:
I had two weeks to get all my materials to a level I thought was at my peak ability, learn a new two mallet solo that was graduate level caliber, and student teach at a school that was an hour and a half a way from my apartment. I figured, it was only two weeks, I can do anything in two weeks.
I knew my chances of making it in to that studio were slim at best after my first experience. I no longer cared if I actually made it in. I only wanted to go prove to myself that I could walk back in front of those gentlemen and show them that I was capable and that I was someone who could represent their studio well. So, I got up in the morning at 5am to leave for work and would get home at 7pm. After supper I hit the practice room and stayed for a minimum of three hours every night.
When the day came that I finally stepped back in front of those professors, I played all the necessary materials as well as I could have. This was how I was supposed to have prepared the first time around. I just didn’t accept it as an option until it was too late. I tried to take the easy way out and see what I could get by with. I was happy with how I played that day but wished I had prepared myself better ahead of time.
I didn’t end up making it in to the graduate program at that particular school but I left knowing that the second time around I had given my best effort. I was thankful that I was given the second chance to prove my ability and enjoyed the process of learning what I could truly do if I put my mind to it.
When failure turns in to success:
That first audition day in 2006, I failed. I could have walked away from a dream as I wasn’t good enough or smart enough and I let someone’s honest words get the best of me. Every moment since, I have chosen to not fail. I’ve chosen to remember that feeling of failure and how I had presented myself. I’ve chosen to give my best at everything I do and that I wanted people to not associate my name with success or failure but with hard work and dedication. There is no way we can always experience success but the odds are greatly in your favor if you put the work and dedication in to your craft.
My point is to never give up if you are enjoying what you are doing. At some point things aren’t going to work out the way you had hoped. That is how life works. It is at those moments we are allowed the opportunity to learn, grow, and succeed.
Do you have a story to tell?
I plan to share other stories of how I have been able to transform some of my personal failures in to positive learning experiences. This I hope will serve as inspiration to those who might need it in some of their most trying work experiences.
If you liked my story and feel impelled to share one of yours, email me or post a note of your own using the hashtag #failurebrag.