The “break a leg” phrase is often used to wish someone the best of luck. It is a superstitious dialogue between fellow musicians before a performance. The thought is that wishing good luck to the performer will bring bad luck instead.
Sometimes moments of failure are completely in your control. Other times, not so much. I want to share another moment of failure that taught me more about my personal character than any other moment in my life. It helped shape my mental toughness today.
That particular moment in time, I felt as though I had somehow messed up and was a failure. In that moment I thought that I had lost my chance as a musical performer and that my career path would forever be affected. I have shared parts of this story numerous times with my friends, family, students, and colleagues. I have tried to use this situation as a moment to grab the bull by the horns, so to speak, and go for those things that you truly want.
The Story Goes:
When I was a senior in High School I was interested in auditioning for a drumcorps located in Northern Ohio. At the time they had one of the best percussion programs in the country and I thought I had what it took to be a part of the organization. I didn’t realize the work ethic that was required as a high school student. I was not good enough at that time. Somehow by simply showing up to all the audition camps, I made it to the final cuts before being sent home.
The next season I felt really good about my chances of becoming a member. I had taken the necessary steps in learning the audition materials (something I didn’t do the year before) and had a good rapport with the staff and current members. It was looking like my time was going to arrive. After a few audition weekends, I received the same news, cut again. I had been beaten out by an older, more experienced, and more talented student.
The Third Time is the Charm
I went back determined to own my audition. The process was more difficult as a regime change had taken place. That meant all new materials, all new students, and an all new staff. I felt like it was a different organization. Nevertheless, I knew I wanted to be a part of the drumcorps and I was determined to not hear the ill-fated words of, “I’m sorry, but we cannot offer you a contract this year.”
After several weekends of auditions again, I finally made it in to the organization. I was beyond thrilled. I was ready to prove my worth and that I had actually been good enough the last few years of auditions when I was turned away.
So far there is nothing special about this story. There are endless stories in the drumcorps activity that follow this same structure. It might take some students one try, others two or three, and some never make it at all. But this story of success that was achieved through perseverence is about to take an unexpected turn.
Every summer, drumcorps students go through a spring training regime. This happens towards the end of May in preparation for a tour around the country. At this point you are living on the road for the remainder of the summer. While there, students can expect rigorous 4-hour blocks of physical exertion, three times a day. For the first three weeks, life as you know it is wake up, immediately go for a 2-mile run, eat, play your instrument, and repeat until lights out.
I had been in spring training, getting my daily dose of butt kickin’s for a week and was starting to hit a groove. Then on the eighth day my life changed. It was a beautiful day, not too hot, not too cold, no clouds in the sky. The corps often used a little country road to track and get a change of scenery. So after lunch, it was my sections turn to go track.
Next door to the school we rehearsed at was a farm home. In that home lived a 19-year old boy that had a new-found obsession for his crotchrocket motorcycle. His favorite thing to do was ride wheelies as the drumcorps was rehearsing. I believe it was to get attention and to take out some teenage angst since we were imposing on his turf every summer for as long as he could remember.
As we were tracking down the road, I remember playing an exercise that involved chop building. We were doing a triplet roll exercise on bass drums. Imagine how that must have sounded! We had built the biggest wall of sound.
At some point I remember hearing this motorcycle come screaming down the road with it’s engine revving. Since I was marching a bass drum, I couldn’t see what was coming. It was one of the scariest moments I remember ever hearing. I thought to myself, “gosh that sounds loud and very close, perhaps I should jump out of the way, but which way do I…”
I found myself trying to stand up, my legs were numb and wobbly, my face was burning, and I felt extremely weak. I was thinking how thankful I was that one of my nearby friends had pushed me out of the way to avoid the oncoming motorcycle. That would’ve sucked had I actually been hit!
The next thing I remember, I heard from my teacher, “Dude, are you alright?!” He wasn’t looking at my face, he was looking at my right knee. That lead me to look down and see that my kneecap was cut open and you could see part of the bone. I realized at this point that nobody pushed me out of the way of the motorcycle noise I heard. I had somehow been hit by the motorcycle.
There is much more to the story after those moments that I remember but for the sake of the blog I’m going to fast-forward a bit. I went to three separate doctors to find out three different situations. I ended up having a fractured patella. It was a small fracture in my kneecap that would allow me to resume running activities in 4 weeks. The director of our ensemble decided that my season had come to an end. It would be too risky to put me out there. I was devastated. I could not understand how someone else’s choices were affecting me and the dreams that I had.
A New Direction
I was lucky enough to be a part of a group that wanted to find another opportunity for me. Since I was a music major in school, some trust was placed in me to learn an instrument that I had not auditioned for in the front ensemble. I agreed to stay in the ensemble and take on the new role rather than going home and sulking about my injuries. For two weeks I was stuck inside with my leg propped up. Being an injured person in the activity, I felt useless and like I was getting in the way.
I decided I had something to prove to the entire drumcorps. I started physical training as soon as my doctors allowed. I had to learn how to bend my knee again and how to regain strength in my leg in order to stand for long periods of time. I would do stretching and basic leg lift exercises multiple times a day to regain the strength I needed to participate in the ensemble. My optimistic hope was that someone would notice and give me my spot back, even if it were a long shot. I wanted to prove that my doctor was right on my timetable for recovery, and that with hard work, I could even be ready ahead of the timeline. My only goal was to make everyone understand that I was in this drumcorps through hard work and determination, not because someone felt bad for me due to a freak accident.
My First Performance
About three weeks after the injury, I performed in my first show with the drumcorps. I believe I played for about two minutes of our production and stood there for the rest of the time with a smile on my face. In the time leading up to that performance, I learned a lot about myself and never giving up. I was forced in to a failing position. I had an easy out to stop working hard, to go sit on the couch and think about what could have been. I chose the hardest road possible for recovery (sleeping in cramped spaces, forcing myself to walk without crutches, sitting on a bus unable to straighten my leg properly). I wanted to prove that nothing was going to stop me. I had come so far in three years of auditions that I wanted to prove my worth however possible.
That first performance in the middle of Nowhere, Ohio was not a show to remember for anyone but myself. It was life changing for me. The uniform snuggly fit over the cast on my right leg and I had to somehow walk half a mile to get to the venue. For me, that day changed the course of not who I was but who I would become. I was determined to not fail. Not fail my friends, not fail my colleagues and instructors, but most important, to not fail myself and what I believed.
What I learned
Not all failures in life are direct reflections of your own decisions. They can be brought on by some other entity or acts of God. It doesn’t mean it’s the end, but perhaps it’s the beginning and it's too young for you to see it yet. This “failure” I experienced wasn’t a true failure. It was a giant success that I couldn’t yet see. I was trying to prove my worth and not feel like a sympathy addition to the ensemble. I would like to think I surpassed those expectations and kicked butt that summer.
Never give up if you enjoy what you do. Sometimes things aren’t going to work out the way you had hoped. In fact, they probably won’t. That is how life works. I know that I learned from those moments 16 years ago and they allowed me the opportunity to grow and succeed in all facets of life. I made a decision to fight for what I wanted. The chip I carried on my shoulder to prove that I was not a failure mentally or physically pushed me in ways that are indescribable. I cannot say I’m happy that I had to go through that learning experience but I am thankful for what I learned about the trials of life, my support system, and how to overcome failure. Today whenever someone says, “Break a Leg,” I think of the aches and pains, personal struggles, and lasting success I experienced.
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 compelled to share one of yours, email me or post a note of your own using the hashtag #failurebrag.