Starting Over

My son flubbed another school band audition, even though he played well in the practice room just before. Nerves. Before bedtime, I told him the story of why I quit playing the piano:

The last time I performed on the piano was a lovely spring day in April 1988. Fifty or so music professors, music majors, and assorted music lovers gathered in the small, old chapel at Westmont College in Santa Barbara, California, where I was a freshman majoring in English Literature and Communication Studies.

Having played piano since the age of five, I continued lessons in college to keep music in my life. I’d enjoyed a companionable relationship with my home piano teacher who watched me grow up under her tutelage. I didn’t jive with this music professor, however; I was Grieg and Chopin (romantics) and she was Bach (mathematics); I was pop and she was do re mi.

Since I played well enough for a non-major, she put me in the spring recital playing, you guessed it, a Bach piece. I worked through my initial disdain, eventually moved the music into my heart, and the afternoon of the recital I played it perfectly.

In the practice rooms. Not in recital.

The nerves of playing for a room of professionals and professionals-to-be broke me down. I lost my place and then my mind. My roommate, an organ major, ran my sheet music to me; she sat on the bench and held her finger to my place in the piece. I never regained my composure.

That was the end of that.

At the time I operated as a fully-entrenched perfectionist and I wouldn’t do something I couldn’t do perfectly. Clearly, my failure indicated that I should not be a musician (despite my years of devotion and joy), so I let it go. I poured myself into classes and friends and moved on. Occasionally I dabbled with a song or two, just for fun. Until enough time  passed and knowledge eroded that it wasn’t fun. I tried giving my younger son lessons until he decided he’d rather play on his own.

I let go of something I loved because I caved under pressure. It makes me sad.

Long ago my mom told me that she wouldn’t be surprised to someday find a grand piano in my home but no furniture, that art meant more to me than practicality. Accurate. We’ve hauled my upright piano up and down the state of California—from San Diego to Ventura and back, then to NorCal. All the while it has sat against a wall, collecting dust, beautiful…and sadly, unconsciously, a symbol of my failure.

My son plays it more than I do. He can’t read piano music; he plays by ear. For his sake, I’m glad we still have it. Last night, I shared my experience to encourage him to keep going. Not that his pursuit of music was ever in doubt, but I wanted him to know that I regret having given it up. That a botched audition or performance doesn’t define you. That he can be stronger in spirit than I was, and music will take him farther than it took me.

With the house all to myself today, maybe this recovering perfectionist will toodle around on the piano… And how interesting that I found this piece to bring me back to my love!

 

Cover photo credit: Image by PublicDomainArchive from Pixabay

Free to Fail

My younger son is a musician. He’s played trumpet for six years and picked up the tuba a year ago. As a high school sophomore, he registered for two music classes: Jazz and Symphonic Bands. Music is his happy place, the band room his safety zone.

His private instructor also works at the school; he asked to chat. Apparently, my kiddo did not do well on his jazz audition. But his instructor wanted me to know all the ways I could encourage him:

He did better on the harder of two pieces.
He persevered when he lost his place.
When he finished, the whole room broke out in applause rather than their normal toe tapping, understanding the struggle and the grit.
He did not have the worst audition in the group.
This was the hardest piece of music he will encounter all year,
and now auditions are over until next year.

No accident that I’ve been reading about creative risks and failure and how to go on when you feel discouraged.

Thing is, he knew the audition had been a mess, but he didn’t let it flatten him; he let it go. I reminded him that everyone will blow it from time to time, everyone fails, but that creates an opportunity for growth. And that artists may fail even more so because artists have to take risks, the nature of the creative game. I told him that anything worth doing is worth doing poorly so that you can get better. That everyone is a beginner, and even with experience, we face many, many, many beginnings (like, every new piece of music).

Yes, he agreed. Wise kid. How does he know all this when I’m still learning?

Madeleine L’Engle writes in A Circle of Quiet about receiving a rejection letter on her fortieth birthday. She put the cover on her typewriter in a dramatic gesture to mark the end of her writing career; she walked circles around her writing room, sobbing, until she realized that already in her head she was writing a story about failure. She uncovered her typewriter and got back to work.

Failure requires a response of swift, gracious action. Instead of asking the pityingly poor question, “Why me?” we ask, “What next?” For my son, next meant more music, Symphonic Band, followed by geometry. He kept his head up and kept moving. For Madeleine, it was making the decision to keep pecking away at her typewriter. We do the next right thing, however small and seemingly insignificant.

The creative road can be scary, but we keep walking, step by step. We speak kindly to ourselves, not berating ourselves for failure but commending ourselves for the courage to risk. We may feel sore, like sore muscles after a hard workout, but we persist, assuring ourselves that as we keep at it those creative muscles will also grow stronger.

The next morning as I dropped my son off at the band room, I asked how he was feeling; I knew that morning’s class involved sight reading, not his strength. He said he felt fine, and he was. Having gotten through one difficult scene in the band room, he knew he could do it again. And this time, it was even easier. Next time will be easier still. He’s getting stronger.

 

Image by Bruno Glätsch from Pixabay

Day 30

What gives when your life goes wonky? (Personal follow-up: when is my life ever not wonky?)

A week after we returned from Costa Rica I heard about this great language-learning app, Duolingo. Determined to capitalize on two months of hearing and attempting to speak Spanish, I immediately installed the app on my phone and got to work. Just five minutes a day, easy-peasy! I could fit that in between appointments, while waiting for the kids, while transitioning from one task to another… And even though I loved it, I don’t think I made it a month. Exploded work-load, kid activities, volunteer requirements…despite my desire to live slow and simple, it didn’t take long for the cultural pull and expectations to become too much. I’ll get back to Duolingo, but I haven’t yet.

Exercise went next. I even scheduled Teen-pick up at the gym (conveniently, he can walk from school to the gym) so I could work out while he did and then we’d go home together. Nope, I stayed at work longer and Pick Up was just that: pick up.

Sleep, of course – how can I manage consistent healthy sleep with all this chatter bouncing around my brain?

Day 30 of the 30 Day Power Purge came and went with no fanfare. It could have been significant had it accurately represented 30 days of decluttering, but sadly, it didn’t. Week 1, Zone 1: The Kitchen – all good! Since I necessarily spend a certain amount of time each day in the kitchen preparing food for the fam, it took little extra effort to clean out a few drawers and what not. Each baby step made visible progress. It felt good! And then it didn’t as we moved on to other projects and even more cluttered closets. Forget five minutes, these projects would need at least a good hour if not more, time I didn’t have to give to stuff that could continue to sit.

The thought buzzed around my eyes: one more failed attempt? Beat it, bug! Hannah has great suggestions; I read every email, mostly “on break” from the over-work I brought home each day. I will get back to it, determined to live a simpler, less stuff-oriented existence; I will not consider this a “failure” but a “pause.” Hah, maybe I need a 30 Month Puny Purge instead!

And then last week. With all good intentions someone delivered a solid wallop to my gut. A project I’ve been so excited about, had taken on as my “cause,” well, let’s just say others haven’t been appreciative of my significant investment of time and effort.

After a good, long wallow, I began to realize that this might provide the adjustment of time and priorities I’ve needed. Certainly not the way I’d ever imagined it would happen, but I had prayed that God would make clear a different way.

Since then I’ve exercised five out of six days. I’ve started reading a new book. And I scheduled a chiropractic appointment that I’d been putting off for calmer times.

Last spring my chiropractor, in our first appointment, diagnosed an issue I’ve been dealing with for 20+ years, previously missed by every doctor I’ve seen including another chiro and two neurologists. But 20+ years of working issues into my body will take some time to work out again. Just being in the office, I breathed differently. The music, especially, caught my ears: not something I’d typically listen to, but in this environment, so right and so relaxing. Zen bliss.

Lying face down, electrodes tacked to my back delivering deep-delicious stimulation to my overwrought muscles, I had no option but to simply be. And then the music…a piano instrumental, familiar but new. I listened, questioned, and Oh My Good God, realized the song was the hymn we sang at our wedding: How Great Thou Art.

O Lord my God! When I in awesome wonder
Consider all the works Thy hand hath made.
I see the stars, I hear the rolling thunder,
Thy power throughout the universe displayed. 

Then sings my soul, my Savior God, to Thee;
How great Thou art, how great Thou art!

Yes, God is great. He created the glorious beauty we appreciated in Costa Rica and likewise He made the beautiful small California town to which we came home. He made me, He loves me, He saves me (sometimes He even saves me from myself!). No surprise to God the situation I’m in, not that He wants me to hurt but He does want me to seek shelter in His awesome arms. His power will be reflected in my weakness as I allow Him to rearrange the details of my life.

That night we took the kids to see The Book of Life. Set on The Day of the Dead, gods La Muerte and Xibalba place bets on three children: will Manolo or Joaquin eventually win Maria’s love? Beautifully rendered, the story tackles life’s great themes: life and death, war and peace, love and fear, heroism, artistry, and ultimately, writing your own life’s story. I think I may have audibly gasped as, in a critical scene, the voice-over declared that Manolo had finally faced and overcome his worst fear: not fighting the 1,000 bulls of his legendary bullfighting family, but his fear of becoming himself.

Sometimes being yourself is the scariest, hardest thing you can do. Others may not like you or appreciate the gifts you bring to the table. Hiding, pretending, can seem the better options. Being yourself can leave you vulnerable, raw, exposed – and real. How great is our God who stands with us for better and for worse; who loves us when others misunderstand us or, worse, reject us; who gave up glory and took on pain in order to be with us.

Life will keep on being wonky. I will continue to juggle requirements and desires. People will love me and hurt me. And God will be great, holding me tight as together we write the story of my life becoming me.