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Facing The Music

How A Teenager Reminded Me To Keep The Faith

If you can survive disappointment, nothing can beat you.”

                                                                -Louis C.K.

Although the room was only occupied by some students, a few parents and the judge, it surely felt a whole lot larger to her than the traditional white concrete block classroom that is so prevalent in the Wisconsin school system. All that was missing was a stage and spotlight.

In just a few short minutes, she would fill the room with the sounds of her voice, but not before the judge, sitting at the back of the room at a rectangular table filled with sheet music and grading forms, finishes her notes and assigns a score to the previous performer.

No one speaks. You can hear a pin drop as the entire room watches the officiant perform her duties.

Standing at the front with the piano directly off to the left, the accompanist gives her visibly nervous fifteen-year old student a gentle smile and a thumbs-up from behind the keyboard while they patiently wait.

“Relax,” she silently mouths in an attempt to get her to enjoy the moment. “You’ll do great. Just breathe.”

The student complies, although it’s clear to everyone that nerves are getting the best of her. If the school wasn’t so chilly, she would’ve broken into a cold sweat five minutes before she walked into the room.

After a few minutes, the judge stops writing and slides her notes into a manila envelope. She hands it to a young lady who is waiting to take the previous session’s results to the scoring room. As the runner departs, the judge exhales slowly, looks up and smiles at the waiting performer at the front of the room. She gives her a slight nod.

All set. You may start.

The student takes a deep breathe and looks at the pianist who nods back in return. She immediately begins to play the four-bar introduction to her piece, queuing the student to begin at the fifth.

“Nerves be damned,” the student thinks to herself. “Just gotta do my best.

                                                                     * * *

In addition to the usual concerts and other public appearances that every high school choral, band, and orchestra student participates in throughout the academic year, Solo and Ensemble ranks among the top events. That’s because it gives fledgling performers the opportunity to shine, solo style, in the audible craft-work of the voice and instrument.

Much like her father before her at that age, my daughter aspires to be of exceptional talent when it comes to her musical ability, although we differ in the methodology. I was a self-absorbed hot shot drummer wannabe who thought he was all that and a bag of chips. She has more serious intentions of developing her God-given gift of vocal musicality.

That calling has set my wife and I on a different path than the one we’ve traveled over the last four years. Having been boosters of our son’s wresting team throughout his high school career since 2012, we now find ourselves switching from being athletic parents to that of theater and music. That suits us fine as change is good, plus it provides a perspective that’s different in the best possible way.

Translated, that means volunteering for wrestling meets and tournaments takes a back seat to the time we’ll dedicate to our daughter’s theater productions and concert events for the next four years. It began not long ago, where we spent a Saturday in service of the music department at her high school for a divisional Solo And Ensemble competition.

My wife and I split duties for the day covering the same room that was being utilized for performances. While her job was to be inside the room herding students in the correct order and schlepping sheet music back forth to the judge, mine was to be outside the door, checking in performers and making sure no one walked in while a performance was in progress.

If there’s one thing that has changed since the days I participated in Solo and Ensemble competition, it is absolutely the level of talent. I don’t recall the voices of teen-aged kids back then sounding so developed and adult-like. Much of the singing I heard that day was incredibly progressive compared to the standards we had back in the late seventies and early eighties.

Not everyone has the same kind of voice, though. That’s to be expected considering the day featured performers in various age ranges from fourteen to eighteen years singing vastly different styles of music. Some were advanced in ability and progression, whereas others lacked in strength and tone. More than a few clearly had some big-stage production experience aside those who had none.

About mid-way through the day, I crossed paths with a young girl that wasn’t any more than fifteen years old who had difficulty with her performance. She was off key and struggled with the dynamics of the piece in several places. I wasn’t in the room, but I could only imagine the moderate level of discomfort each spectator felt while she sang.

At the conclusion, the judge offered the customary feedback that is par for the course at these events. Although I couldn’t hear word-for-word what was being said, it was pretty obvious the judge was trying to balance her positive comments with constructive criticism in the the only way she knew how – without upsetting her. As most of the judges were choral teachers, she surely had practice at delivering the good and the bad.

When the door opened, the student emerged with tears streaming down her face. Judging by the redness of her eyes and the puffiness of her cheeks, she’d started to cry shortly before she left the room, perhaps even while the judge was giving her final encouragements.

Her friends followed her in hot pursuit in determination to not leave her alone. She got as far as the entrance to the adjoining room down the hall before she stopped, slumped her back against a locker and allowed herself a slow slide to the floor, feet first.

Once she was sitting, the tears flowed uncontrollably. A few friends offered words of encouragement and support, but she continued to weep.

And although this wasn’t my own daughter sitting on the floor, it was far too easy to envision that it could be.

I walked over to where she was seated on the cold linoleum and dropped to a knee beside her.

Hey….you did your best. It takes a lot for someone to put themselves out there for all the world to see and to face criticism. It may not have turned out the way you wanted or you came up short, but it’s still an incredible accomplishment. Some people choose to live their entire lives in anonymity without ever taking a chance. That’s not you. You put yourself outside of your comfort zone. Be proud, because that’s a conscious choice to grow. “

She smiled at me in return and laughed at herself for a second, then uttered an embarrassed but teary “thank you.” I could’ve said more, but I didn’t want to look like the creepy old guy that inserts himself into places or conversations where he doesn’t belong. I’d already breached that image as it was.

I retreated to my post at the door while watching the young lady and her entourage stand up and walk down the hallway. As they rounded the corner and disappeared from my view, I chuckled slightly as I reflected upon the irony of my own advice….be proud, because that’s a conscious choice to grow.

Now there’s the pot calling the kettle black.

A few years back, I put myself out there when I first started to blog and publish on a regular basis. What began as an experiment has turned to more serious aspirations as I’ve managed to expand my portfolio of sites over the last few years to which I contribute. Some other places have also expressed interest in posting my written ramblings.

And even with that moderate level of personal success, I confess that each time I hit the publish or submit button, I can’t help but think what I’ve produced is sub-standard material. That’s the downside of putting yourself out there in any form. You’ll always be fearful that it wont be good enough.

Still, I’m willing to take on a certain level of potential personal disappointment because I know it’ll help me grow intellectually and professionally, even if I get lambasted by readers. That faith is vindicated when I discover that my words or actions helped somebody, or made a difference at a particular juncture in someone’s life.

If there is one thing I’ve learned about human nature, it’s that we’re often our own worst enemy. Our harshest critics are the ones that stare us down in the mirror every day and tell us we can do more than what we have previously achieved, regardless if it’s of intrinsic or extrinsic value.

That’s the drive that makes us better human beings. We hate failure. It’s a fact that we get beat from time to time, but we sure as hell don’t have to like it.

I didn’t see the young lady I’d encountered in the hallway for the rest of the day, but I knew she had at least one more performance that afternoon. I genuinely hoped she’d taken my words to heart and knocked it out of the park, but that would be giving myself too much credit. She may have thought I was just some weirdo parent who was being way too nosy, for all I know.  I can surely understand why she would think that way.

Or perhaps, for a moment, I was able to impart some wisdom upon someone who needed it at a critical time…even a fifteen year old student who may have thought she was all that and a bag of chips.

And maybe….just maybe…I learned something about myself at the same time.

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