From about eighth grade on, I planned to teach music. It was what I Really Wanted To Do. I thought about it daily and even attempted to come up with innovative ways to impart the love of and technical ability for music. No one close to me was surprised when I started my college career as a Music Education major. I thought my first semester would be difficult but rewarding. It was an unmitigated disaster.
Part of the problem (okay, a lot of it) was that while I had musical ability and could play a few instruments fairly proficiently, I was not a virtuoso with any of them. I did not have anywhere near the level of skill any of my classmates did. I didn’t let this stop me because I planned to teach music, not get paid for performing. “Those who can’t do” and all that.
The music program at Austin Peay required students to select an instrument as their main course of study. I chose piano because I played since elementary school. Also, I didn’t want to be in marching band anymore. When you chose piano, you also chose one on one instruction. I felt it was important to set my instructor’s expectations from the outset.
“I just want you to know that I realize I will probably never be as good as your other students,” I explained, “But I don’t intend to perform for a living. I want to teach music.”
I thought I was pretty clear but she either misheard or completely ignored me. We clashed often. It wasn’t the type of collaborative conflict that gives birth to amazing work. It was more a failure of understanding and a belief that I wasted her time. It seemed every conversation centered on my inability to make a future living performing piano.
I disappointed her in the first couple of weeks. I never had music theory in high school, so college level theory was . . . well, let’s just say it was challenging and leave it at that. I worked so hard to catch up on theory that I didn’t make the progress she wanted.
“You’ll never make a living performing at this rate,” she said.
“I know, but I don’t intend to. I want to teach music.”
In the middle of the semester I accidentally slammed my hand in a car door.
“A performer takes better care of their livelihood.”
“But I want to teach music, not perform per se.”
It really came to ahead toward the end of the semester as I worked through a Mozart piece. I thought it was going quite well. I even gave in, closed my eyes a couple of times, and let the music carry me. She kept shaking her head however.
“No, no, no,” she said when she stopped me, “That’s all wrong.”
“What?” I asked, “That’s the best I’ve sounded all semester!”
“Perhaps, though it’s-”
“Not at the level of your other performance majors,” I finished for her. Then I continued, “Which you seem to forget I already know. I want to teach, not perform.”
“It’s not what Mozart intended,” she said, ignoring me.
“That is not how Mozart intended this piece to be played.”
“And you know this because you and Amadeus are so tight?” I knew it was too far, but it was a semester’s worth of frustration boiling over. Her response was . . . terse.
“You need to play the notes exactly as they are printed on the page.”
I didn’t want to give up on teaching music so I approached a different instructor about taking me on. She asked why I wanted to leave my current one.
“I think we have conflicting personalities.”
“Oh,” she said. Then, without ever hearing me play a single note she informed me, “Well, I think part of the problem is that you’re not technically proficient enough to be one of our performance majors.”
“I don’t want to be a performance major, I want to . . .”
I trailed off as I looked at her. She wore an expectant expression as if I would suddenly realize what I already admitted knowing. I wasn’t as good a performer as the other students and never would be. In that moment I realized why I couldn’t succeed in that program. We had a fundamentally different view of the world. Their world was all technical proficiency, mine was music. For me, it wasn’t enough to simply get all the notes right, I had to feel it. They stopped feeling it long before I showed up. I walked out of that office knowing I would no longer be a music education major and that I would never formally teach music.
Someone once asked me how I felt about the whole debacle.
“It was depressing and liberating,” I answered, “At least I got a good story out of it.”
A different person, many years later, and in a far removed context asked me, “How do you notice all this stuff you turn in to stories?”
“First of all, I don’t turn them in to stories, I just tell them,” I explained. I knew that was a little flippant, but I also had trouble figuring out how to explain what I wanted to say. Then I thought of that day, that office, that conversation. “It’s a lot like music,” I continued.
“Just go with me on this.” I waited for a nod of assent then went on, “Life is this great symphony with various rhythms, melodies, and counter melodies all weaving in and out of one another. Most of us get that and occasionally enjoy the music. The problem is, most of us also work too hard at getting all the notes perfectly right, at anticipating the turn of the page and the next line. We get so caught up playing it perfectly that we forget to feel it. Yeah, everything might seem right, but it’s just auto-tuned nonsense. If you stop playing the music and start feeling it, your voice might crack, but it’s genuine. Sometimes, I just sit back and feel the rhythms of life’s symphony and hear the flaws, the imperfections that make it real and I notice them enough to commit them to memory because they are the most compelling moments.”
Yes, I really do go off like that. And yes, I believe it’s true. If you don’t, take just a moment and stop. Stop trying to get every single note right. Stop worrying about pitch and key. Stop pursuing how others expect you to perform. Start feeling.
The world we become a much more interesting place.