Failing at Music–Succeeding at Life: Part Two


Eastman Theatre

I wanted to be a professional musician, but I did not have the chops. So I began my evil plan.

I had two choices for college. One was an Ivy League college that I didn’t exactly like and, as it turned out, didn’t exactly like me.  The second was the University of Rochester in upstate New York. It was filled with friendly people who let me stay with them for a weekend and drink–much better marketing.  And this school just so happened to have a music school attached to it—the Eastman School of Music.  It was a postern of fate.

Had I told anyone—a single soul—about my plan to attend the Eastman School of Music they’d have committed me on the spot.  Eastman was one of the Big Three. It required some element of musical preparation or training. But I was going to take it completely off guard.

In order to go to the Eastman School of Music, one had to apply, audition, and be accepted, which presumably meant it was necessary to be a master of at least some particular instrument. Those who went to Eastman not only started their training two years prior to conception, they practiced every day for twenty-six hours, forgoing even basic nutrition for music, which they considered sufficient nourishment for the soul.  They talked about Beethoven incessantly and threw birthday parties for Mozart instead of for themselves.  Their idea of a fraternity party was to get together at night and contemplate Brahms some more over a bowl of chips that had grown stale because everyone was too busy discussing Brahms  to actually eat them.

I, on the other hand, could neither read nor hand-write music—and as a result, I spent a great deal of my time cheating my way through like an illiterate person reading road signs.  Every once in a while, you get one very, very wrong.  “Sorry, chief—that said ‘one-way.’”

This wasn’t going to be easy—disguising myself as a musician and getting into what I still did not realize was the premiere classical conservatory in the nation. I would need a loophole, and that’s just what I found.  Rochester students could take music courses at Eastman.  What if I just registered for all the good music courses?  Eastman students were there, and the classes commingled.  I could take almost the same classes with the Future Musicians of America, join bands with them, discuss Brahms with them, scoff at the poor slobs majoring in pre-med, economics, and history, and be musically, intellectually, and socially superior to the entire universe.  And I wouldn’t even have to be properly trained—it was a win-win situation by any stretch of the imagination.

Thus, I registered for classes at the Eastman School of Music through the regular university. Totally legal. I studied all the theory I could muster and passed the exam through rote memorization, because that’s what academic people without “proper musical training” do.  Then—on the day of truth—I showed up for my audition.

I was playing what some would consider a challenging piece—Mozart’s Clarinet Concerto.  I couldn’t actually read the score, so I bought a record—the Chicago Symphony Orchestra conducted by Sir George Solti—and read alongside the record—sort of a closed caption for the musically impaired.   I practiced for the entire summer before on my borrowed clarinet, because I was neither good enough nor well-funded enough to own one, and went off to college.

Audition day. Imagine the panel of musical geniuses waiting to hear the next lead of the Boston Philharmonic. Imagine that they have just endured a thousand auditions—the next Yanni, the next Yo Yo Ma, next Chris Botti…and then…there…was me.

Twenty years later, I am truly remorseful for the sorrow I inflicted on these men and I include them in my daily prayers.  I ask the Lord for forgiveness and to make their lives better in some subtle way.  If I were Jewish, I’d track them all down on Yom Kippur and beg them to accept my apology outright, because after hearing me, they were never quite the same.  I’m convinced that I took a little piece of music from each and every one of their souls and trampled on it like Marilyn Manson at a Boston Pops concert.

At the end of what they must have thought was a Candid Camera prank or a CIA torture training mission (miraculously cut short because God Himself sped down into that hallowed hall, and broke my clarinet in half), all the men could do was look straight ahead, pause, and say, “So, you like Sir George Solti.”

I steeped myself in everything Eastman. I laughed at the Beethoven jokes; I walked laps around the Gilded-Age auditorium. I went to concerts.  I breathed in the stale air of the practice rooms.  Even though it took me a 45 minute ride on the blue bus, I took a work-study job at the Sibley Music Library, where I began cataloguing music scores for less money than I would have made in a prison laundry, getting highly indignant—alongside the other Brahms lovers—when people misalphabetized the Russian version of Shostakovich  and put Von Weber under “w.”

After that, it took me exactly two weeks to flunk entirely out of the music program, which I still did not realize was the best program in the nation.  I called my former band director who had inspired me to tell him I was struggling at Eastman and I feared I most probably would not succeed.

“YOU DID WHAT?” He didn’t sound impressed.  And so I came clean. I divulged the whole story—of my sneaking onto the “Eastman” rosters under cover of darkness, of my torturing the great musicians on the panel taking musical years off their lives. How I got a 40 on my first assignment, major scales, and a 20 on minor scales, and that was only because the infinitely good Dr. Harrison said, “You didn’t earn that 20—but I can see that you tried really hard.”

In the end, the stress got me sick.  I was sick for a solid month. I shuffled back and forth to health services.  I commiserated with my yet-to-be-premed friends, with whom I now spoke since Brahms was giving me the cold shoulder, and I plugged through the rest of first semester before finally admitting I was not musician material.

The discipline of “proper training” made music seem more like another aspect of calculus than the soul and essence of life.  It became a self-torture I couldn’t stop—a train wreck—the part of a mountain climb where it seems that the summit is right around the corner, but when you pass the next tree, you see the ridgeline open up and reveal it to be so far in the distance that you’re not sure you want to press on.  When you ultimately decide to continue and you arrive at the next point where you thought the summit would be, it turns out to be an illusion once again.  I was left with the sinking feeling of defeat and disappointment, where the thing I thought I loved—the passion in my soul, turned out to be one giant red herring.

I didn’t even get into the lowest of piano courses—the one everyone takes.  My audition turned out to be surprisingly similar to my clarinet audition.  The professor said, “Very good,” when I played the Mozart, and then, “Read this,” handing me some Chopin that looked like Chinese Braille.  Game over.

I was forced to finish that semester in clarinet.  I continued to travel over to Eastman to study with my personal graduate student, Michelle, who was undoubtedly in trouble for something and had to redeem herself by teaching me.  I sincerely hope she is not working in a sub-par elementary music program soon to be cut.  She was an angel.  She made me feel good.

I played one semester in the River Campus Symphonic Wind Ensemble, being too ignorant to know that it was an entire year commitment until my conductor found me and said, “WHERE HAVE YOU BEEN?”  By that time I supposed the loss of one more third clarinet was probably a blessing to everyone.

I sang Gospel during the rest of my tenure at school—one of two white people in that group.  Gospel I could handle—no music reading, a history of musical improvisation, and fun group of people with a conductor, Dr. Alvin Parris, who demonstrated that music was a gift from heaven channeled through people regardless of “proper training.”  In this group, I learned some technical skills, and had the experience of being the only person of another race in a large overpowering majority—I experienced the smallest sampling of the struggles with which my choir members lived constantly, the subtle infusion of racism that permeated their very existence, from which I could escape but they could not.  That was a gift I carry with me to this day.

I left music behind with a better understanding of the timeless cliché, “Be careful what you wish for. You just might get it.”

Today, music has returned to my life. I see the beauty, joy, and patterns in nature.  I pick up my guitar and write, sing, and play on my terms.  I write satire, folk, and other pieces of no particular consequence that will never be produced for the betterment of humanity.  I have sung a roast or two, and I freestyle with my students when directly challenged. I always win.

And I am grateful for my failure. I am happy with my music.  Once again, it brings me great joy.



151 thoughts on “Failing at Music–Succeeding at Life: Part Two

  1. I finished a conservatory degree in music performance, and much like you I left with the feeling “be careful what you wish for, you might just get it.” Those 8 hours of practice a day (in addition to ensembles and classes) made me forget why I started playing in the first place. I stopped playing regularly after I graduated with my B.M. and started a graduate program. I hope to someday get back to the point where performing returns to my life. Interesting that such different approaches can have the same results.

      • PhD in Musicology – so I stayed in the field, but thought the lifestyle would be more manageable (ha!). Little did I know I would just replace practicing for hours with hours of research. Now I miss performing. 🙂

      • I am a researcher also…history. Now that I’ve transitioned into education, I’m not required to research, though I am in love with it–I don’t mind giving myself a bit of a break and instead transferring the skills to a bunch of kids who never knew they were going to love research–because, I tell them, when well written and properly backed up, ANYTHING counts as valid research. I’d love to read some of your stuff:)

        Love your blog–that story about the grandpa and the candy you featured–very touching.

  2. Hilarious story… good writing. I can relate since I too considered going to a musical school with no formal training. I’m glad I didn’t and am also now happy playing my guitar and writing songs for myself and my brother’s band. Fingers are still crossed I become a accomplished songwriter someday, I’ll be happy either way though 🙂

    • Good luck–I was saying in another comment that the game has changed. It’s totally possible to use the internet/social media, in combination with hard work and dedication to get your stuff out there. Used to be at the mercy of a few million dollar A&R guys from big labels, and maybe a few indies on the side, but it cost too much to produce demos and publicity materials, so many good people were out from the get go. Now, it costs only your laptop, your instrument, and your dedication.

      • that’s very true… we’re living in a golden age of a lot of things right now and one of those is music. Thanks to the ease of creating and sharing it, new music springs up all the time. Thankfully I’ve got some very good resources and connections so I don’t have to just rely on my own lap top and mic.:)

  3. My first guitar was handmade. Peach-crates and rubber bands. When my parents bought my first guitar, it wasn’t tuned, I had no lessons, and no idea how to tune it.

    After a few years of playing one-string melodies, I was given a book of songs that included how to tune the strings relative to one-another. From that point on, I was self-taught, played poorly and loved it.

    A while back I suffered a couple of strokes and was told I had a few months to live. Couldn’t read, memorize anything, and had little use of my left hand.

    Only the good die young, and I’m still kicking, regained the use of my hand, but had to relearn how to play. Mid-January of this year, I took up blogging as a way of tracking my progress relearning to play, and making the video demonstrations and tab I wrote for each lick/solo or song, available to anyone trying to pick up guitar.

    This is the love of my life, and I’m back to playing poorly. It’s a start.

    Thanks for your post, and congrats on being freshly pressed.

    • You are amazing, and I can’t wait to read your blog right now. The brain is an incredible thing–I can’t get enough of the miracle of how it recreates pathways for us. Your music is helping it do just that. May you improve day by day and always be blessed!

      • Well thank you for your kinds words, but I don’t write much on my blog. 99% of it is just the demo of the licks/solos and songs with the tab to help people learn a bit of technique.

        In place of “amazing” if you’ll substitute “stubborn,” we’ll be in agreement. B ^ )

      • I noticed…lots of good stuff. I can’t read tab well, but my husband’s going to love it… I can read “listen to the record” or basic cords. Stubborn is a key element to success:)

    • Hi Richard,
      I’m a bit of a survivor myself. I’ve survived minor brain surgery and been through a long recovery process. A friend in their 20s recently had a stroke. He is a musician and starting again from scratch. Keep fighting the good fight.
      Best wishes,

    • I think that it is NOT virtually delusional. I have a high school friend, a guitarist named Jonathan Coulton. While he (admittedly) is a great guitarist and very clever with the written song, he has a huge following due to internet marketing. He tours all over, and has fans in every corner of the nation from Greenwich Village to San Francisco.

      Paul McCartney couldn’t read music. I think that independent artists have a much better chance if they are good and dedicated and skillful with social media. It’s a critical equation–it is possible to make it in the industry. When I graduated school, I interviewed w a big music company. I chickened out in the end due to NYC and the very low starvation salary–wish I took that job. However, the bottom line is that the industry has transformed, and instead of A&R guys going to clubs to scout you, YOU promote YOU. It can be done–Read “Crush It” by Gary Vaynerchuk. It’s not about music, but it’s about the dedication to make anything work. And it’s short:)

  4. Great post! Im a former Rochestarian, musician and know Dr. Parris (pastor Parris to me) & his family well. I can so relate to your story. I always wanted to be a Dope guitar & keys player, but still struggle with it. I can sing my butt of, but just cant seem to have a knack for live instruments.

    In Jr. High, I once faked my Way through an audition with a good friend of mine because i wanted to play an instrument so badly. It didnt matter which one either, just any one. It was horrible & embarrassing. I felt worse for the instructor. So, I understand the frustration well.

    You know, The best revelations are the ones we learn to accept. Not too many people admit their failures, Not realizing that it will only make you stronger.

    Keep your head up.

  5. My brother entered the conservatory without years of formal training. He did eventually learn but not concert artist level. Still, I’m very proud of him. Music is his passion. On Sundays, he plays for the church. He may not be able to make a lot of money from his playing but I’m glad he’s enjoying.

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  8. Thanks for visiting my blog. I love and really related to this post. I recently posed with my violin outside the Byron Bay Lighthouse for my husband to take some photos and there is a great photo of me showing off at Lizotte’s (our local rock music venue) on my blog. It looks like I was a featured artist when my music school had actually hired out the venue and I performed as part of an ensemble of beginners.
    I know some very talented musicians who really struggle with the public performance side of things while I can get out there and pose but am still a beginner.
    Best wishes,

    • The public part–not such a problem for me. The being terrible part–pretty bad for everyone else. But, you know, I just don’t have the training, and I play for fun. I have no problem with that whatsoever. I’m not going to be great, but I’ll still be able to play a bit and write a song if it clunks about my mind. That’s what all this technology helps me with:)

    • The public part–not such a problem for me. The being terrible part–pretty bad for everyone else. But, you know, I just don’t have the training, and I play for fun. I have no problem with that whatsoever. I’m not going to be great, but I’ll still be able to play a bit and write a song if it clunks about my mind. That’s what all this technology helps me with:)

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