On Failure and Failing
Here at Colorado State and at many university music programs across the country this week, we have just wrapped up large ensemble auditions. Every semester, we re-audition our bands and orchestras through a blind audition process and place students in ensembles based solely on their score from the judging panel behind the screen. Inevitably, some students are quite happy with their results and some are not so. This process got me thinking this morning during my daily long tones about all the times I have failed in my life as a both a student and as a professional musician. I felt compelled to share a few thoughts.
I tell my students that before they were even born, I had already failed more times than they had even tried. My first big eye-opening failure happened while I was a sophomore in college. I was selected as one of two finalists for the International Trombone Association Larry Wiehe Solo Competition. The finals were held in Helsinki, Finland at that year's International Trombone Festival, and I felt ready to rock on Arthur Pryor's "Annie Laurie." I remember that two of three judges were Jay Friedman (principal trombone with the Chicago Symphony) and Tony Baker (trombone professor at North Texas), two players who I idolized. I also saw that the other finalist was a junior in high school, and I thought "I've got this in the bag!" After I played, I was sure I had won. When the time came, it turns out I had lost to the high schooler. I was completely dejected and demoralized. The next day I saw Mr. Friedman in the hotel elevator going down five floors--the same direction I was going. It was just the two of us on the elevator and I said, "Mr. Friedman, I got to play for you yesterday in the Wiehe competition, and I wanted to say that it was a real honor meeting you and playing for you." Friedman, with a warm and friendly smile on his face, replied to me, "Well, you sure played a helluva lot of notes." Ouch. The coda of this story is that I never forgot the name of the high schooler who beat me soundly, since it was such a unique name and I was sure he must have been a great player. He was Achilles Liarmakopoulos, currently the trombonist with the Canadian Brass. Obviously, I was way out of my league!
Among my favorite stories I like to tell is when I didn't even make it through all five first-round excerpts for a service band audition during my Master's degree before I was thanked and asked to leave. Then, after weighing the loss of $50 on the cheap hotel for which I had pre-paid in an optimistic bit of booking (the finals were to happen the next day), I decided to make the six-hour drive home. This drive happened to be in my 1998 Subaru Legacy wagon with broken air conditioning on a sultry and humid 90-degree day. Well, six hours with my arm out the window while driving down interstate 90 resulted in a cancerous sunburn and a painful reminder of my recent failure. Then to top things off, I was nailed with a speeding ticket three miles from home. The next day I had a 9-hour closing shift at the grocery store deli where I worked to try to make ends meet. Talk about a demoralizing 36-hour period for an aspiring musician!
The point I make to my students, though, is that these failures--and all the others I have had in my career--would have truly been useless if I had not used them as vehicles of change. At the end of the day, once the sting of a failure mellows, a successful and resilient musician will take some time for careful thought and consideration. Here are a few tips I like to share to overcome a failure and then to use it asdriver for personal growth:
1. Admit that the failure happened because it reflected either poor preparation on your behalf, or because of a hole in your fundamentals on your instrument (possibly those are one in the same)
2. Make a short but honest list of the ways in which your preparation was not adequate for the audition/performance on which you failed
3. Concoct a plan of action to ensure that your preparation does not suffer from the same mishaps next time around
4. Concoct a plan of action to address the problems in your playing that resulted in your failure
5. Vow to not make the same mistakes next time an opportunity arises for an audition or performance.
I would not be the musician and professional I am today without the countless failures--both small and large--that I experienced in my younger years. And, as weird as it may sound, I look forward to my next failure. My next failure will invariably occur the very next time I pick up my trombone, and I love that about being a musician: there will always be something in my playing or in my professional life that can be better. Granted, this is giving a pretty broad definition to the word "failure" as now everything from a chipped note on a scale to losing an audition counts, but no matter the failure, I try to apply the same five rules outlined above. I think it's the only way to keep your sanity and to continue to grow if you seek a life as a musician!