End Of Course Results!
I got home from my military course (for music, on saxophone) yesterday, and as promised here’s how it went. First off, i should state that I’ve never done anything musically-related that was as tough as this. Also, I’ve never worked so hard for anything in my life. Ever. No, that isn’t an exaggeration. It takes a whole lot of commitment to practice for 10 hours a day when your mouth is so sore that it is blistering on the inside where your teeth press into your lower lip, for an entire month including your weekends.
On the first day of course, I had a breakdown. I felt like I was completely out of my league. Here I was doing the most difficult music course the military could throw at me. I’m not a music student, and probably 75% of the people on this course were. There were only 5 of us doing the highest difficulty course, and I was the only non-music student of them. Although there are people from career paths other than music who obtain this qualification level, usually they take a few years to practice and get ready for it, and even then there is no guarantee that they will come out of it successful. I think people assumed I was older than I was just because I was doing that course.
Fast forward to this week. Tuesday was my final exam. We usually have only two people judging us, but at this level we play for a panel of three, two of which are high-ranking officers, and the other person is our instructor. This is the first time I’ve played in front of important people like that as a soloist, and was really nervous. Actually, I was so nervous I could hardly eat breakfast, and spend the whole morning trying to calm myself down. I knew if I got nervous everything else would fall apart.
I got into my exam, and felt very judged standing in the middle of a big empty room while the three judges looked me over from the long table they were sitting at. They told me to flip over the piece of paper on the music stand in front of me and play it for them. I did, though I usually play a lot better than I did that day. Instead of worrying about whether I had failed already, I pushed it out of my mind. They then asked me to do scales from memory, and I played them with only a few errors. Lastly, I got to my prepared pieces. The two songs I had been working on were in front of me. One was a 10-page-long classical piece that music majors often do for their graduation recital at the end of their degree. The other was a shorter jazz piece that every music person knows, called “Donna Lee” by Charlie Parker. I started with the classical piece, and put my all into it. I was playing for about 14 minutes until I reached the end. Then I played my jazz piece, and again I played it as confidently as I could.
The judges asked me to leave the room while they discussed my exam. I went out into the hallway and waited, feeling ecstatic. No, it wasn’t perfect and I knew that. But I felt so excited to have been able to stand in front of three fantastic musicians and play for twenty minutes. I’ve never done anything like that, and it was incredibly liberating. I couldn’t help but grin at how proud I felt for doing something like that. I never thought I would have the opportunity to do something like that. After about 10 minutes of discussion, they called me back in.
Good news and bad news, they said. The good news was that they liked my sight reading and scales. The bad news was that I had failed my pieces. I was gutted. I had put everything I had into that performance, and I had still failed? How was that possible? They proceeded to give me feedback that I didn’t want to hear. Still, I made eye contact as they were talking to me and didn’t let it show how crushed I was. I refused to let them see me break. I knew I would have the chance to retest tomorrow if I wanted to try just my pieces again. “So will we be hearing you again tomorrow?” the highest ranking officer asked me. And without hesitation, I stood up and looked him directly in the eyes as I said, “yes Sir, you will.” I wouldn’t let one failure discourage me. And anyways, i had nothing to lose at the re-test. The worst that could happen would be that I fail again, which couldn’t be any harder to take than today.
That afternoon, I was sitting in my practice room thinking about my exam. And by “thinking about my exam” I mean bawling my sorry little eyes out and becoming a highly efficient snot factory. I wanted to talk to my teacher about my exam, but she was sitting in on other people’s exams all day long. All of a sudden, I heard a knock at my door. I turned around, and there was a guy from my course who played bagpipes and was also doing the same course as I was, and had passed that morning. I didn’t really know him, and since he’s two ranks higher than me he didn’t do a lot of the things the rest of the course did. He came in and chatted with me about failure. One thing he said stuck out to me, though. He said, “you’re so young and you don’t need this course for promotion. Is it an ego thing or something?”
Errr….yeah I guess so. I prefer to think of it as challenging myself to be the best I can be, but really it is just me trying to be the best. Well, that’s embarrassing. In any case, he told me to try again tomorrow. I had a whole day to try to fix things, and next time I would know exactly what was going to happen in my exam. I would walk in, and play just those two pieces. No waiting around, worrying about other parts of the test, which was a big advantage.
I also talked to my teacher that night. She said she still believed I could pass this course. She knew I could play it better, and wasn’t about to give up on me. She had faith in me when I had lost all faith in myself. We talked about practical changes I could make to do better tomorrow. This included playing both pieces a lot slower. It would be better to play them slower than they should be played and right than fast and making mistakes. She said the only thing that matters tomorrow is that I go our there and play as best I can. She said, don’t play the way you think they want to hear it. Don’t do it for them. Do it for you.
The following day, I was waiting outside the room to go in for my re-test when the highest ranked officer walked up to me, rubbed my back (?) and said “hey, you can play this shit.” Yes, those were his exact words. I was confused because just the day before he had torn me to shreds and I honestly thought he didn’t want me to pass. Well, I went in there, and I played. I played better than I ever have. And not only that, I performed in a way I never have. I played for myself, for all the work and many many hours I had put into this. I played for the anger I felt at them for failing me yesterday, and I played for the sadness I felt at doubting myself. And when I was done, a wave of emotion flowed through me as I knew that that was enough. I looked up at the officer who had given me that pep talk before I walked in, and he smiled and winked at me.
I left the room so they could discuss my mark. I paced outside the room knowing that if that wasn’t enough, I truly did do my best. When my teacher came to the door to call me in, she had a huge smile on her face. I sat down in front of them, in the same spot they had torn me up yesterday, and got the news.
I felt the tears jump to my eyes immediately, and had to apologize for getting emotional. I haven’t felt such a strong sense of pride since the day I passed Basic Training. They shook my hand and congratulated me on a job well done. They said the day before it had felt forced, but today was a lot different. They failed me yesterday because they knew I could do it better, and wanted to give me the chance to show myself that.
My teacher was so proud of me. She helped me so much along the way, and never gave up on me. A few of the instructors shared their experiences with this course with me as well. One, who is an incredible trombone player, had failed his pieces and passed the next day just like me. He knew how hard it is to be told you aren’t good enough, and how you can turn that into motivation the next time.
This course was about way more than music to me. It was about overcoming failure. It was about believing in yourself, no matter how many people try to tear you down and tell you you aren’t good enough. It was about doing something that scares you, just to see how it goes. And most of all, it is about knowing that no matter what happens, if you gave your all and put everything you had into it, that’s enough. Failure doesn’t make you weak. And it is better to try and fail than to never try at all. I know it’s a cliche, but you really do have to believe in yourself. And if you are going to put your all into something, don’t do it to prove people wrong or to be better than other people, just do it for yourself.