I have a lot of friends who probably don’t know that I used to be a music major. Years in business consulting, analysis and now, writing, and time, have masked this. I haven’t studied music in over two decades, and I haven’t involved music in my life in a substantial way since I was 26.
I used to play piano. I say “used to” because, even though I own a piano – two, as a matter of fact – I have forgotten much of how to sight-read. I can still do it a little, but it’s a halting, torturous exercise that really shouldn’t be inflicted on sensitive ears. So, I don’t really play in the house unless everyone is gone, and that never happens.
I remember telling my mother that I would trade my bed in for a baby grand. I would be happy to sleep underneath it on the floor. When I was eight, I had First Communion and got $200 from friends and relatives. With it, I bought my first piano, an old black upright with serious tuning issues. But I loved it. I took lessons, and maintained them until things got weird in high school. (That’s a completely different story.)
I was an eager music student in college (barring the 8:10 am class on Music Theory, which I enjoyed, but can’t say I was “enthusiastic” about) for the first year. I felt a little like I should pinch myself each day. I was studying music, the very thing I had obsessed over for years. I memorized musicians and musical pieces, from Rock to Jazz to Classical. I knew who the producers of albums were. I picked apart guitar licks and vocal harmonies, discussed the subtleties of rhythm choices and bass accompaniments. I loved it. I lived in it. There was no music I couldn’t appreciate or didn’t want to play.
My second year of college was an important one. Depending on how it went, I would find out if I could officially transfer to Mason Gross School of the Arts, Rutgers’ fine arts school. I had another music theory course, a couple of core courses, an elective, and if I was to be a music major, I had to begin lessons.
(FYI, this story never gets easier to tell.)
The lessons were once- or twice-weekly, I don’t remember, and they were taught by a grad student. Before the classes began, I had to be evaluated. I prepared a few pieces that I thought I was doing well with, and showed up, nervous and shaky. The evaluator was clinical and detached as she asked me to sit down and play something, which I did. I don’t remember the piece I played.
(Even now as I type this, I’m having a sort of out-of-body experience. Shortness of breath, pounding heart.)
When I finished, I looked up at her to gauge her reaction.
“How long have you been playing?” she asked.
“Ten years,” I replied. “Since I was eight and a half.”
She shook her head in disapproval and pursed her lips. “We’re going to have to start ALL over.”
The words punched me in the stomach.
“What? Why?” I didn’t understand what she said. I didn’t know what she meant.
“The way you hold your hands. Your form is awful. Ten years? Your last teacher should be shot.”
My last teacher was also my first teacher, Mrs. Hsu. She may have been the only adult that I’d ever grown close to outside of my own family. She was the kindest, most patient person I have ever known, perhaps to this day. I felt betrayal. I felt sadness. I felt sick.
I collected my books and stumbled my way out of the music room, uttering something under my breath about waiting to hear from them. Start all over? Completely wrong? It wasn’t possible. Could I be ten years behind all the other music students? Surely, my 19-year-old self thought, there was no way to catch up.
Memories of my father telling me that my first keyboard was just an “expensive toy” overtook me. My own doubts about my playing were amplified. “The kid across the hall from me is better than me, and he isn’t even a music major,” I thought. My performing arts dorm had recently given me the equivalent of a vote of no confidence by freeing up my space to make room for freshmen. Negative thoughts began to pile up so deeply I’d have needed a shovel to get past them all.
I wandered around campus that day like an unmoored ship. I wondered what to do. Hours before my path had been clear, if economically risky. Now, what would I do? I had a lot of other interests, but only one passion. And now that was dashed.
I mentally tried on other majors. French, I thought. I always liked French. But were French translators really in high demand? I could be an English major. But then, I’d probably have to teach, and I didn’t like teaching. Communications? That seemed to be what people did when they didn’t know what to major in.
I remember exactly where I was when I decided to quit school altogether. I had just passed a campus building that had a piano in the basement. It was a warm fall day, and it occurred to me that college was expensive, and it didn’t seem fair to my parents to make them pay for an education I didn’t really want, or have any plans for. And so I went back to my apartment and called them up and told them I was dropping out.
No one stopped me. No one, as I recall, even tried to talk me out of it. I don’t know why that was, except that I’m sure I put up a confident front, so that I wouldn’t be challenged. I didn’t want to talk about it. I couldn’t. It was too painful.
I don’t know why this story comes to me today. A few connecting facts took a ride on some neurons and dredged this up. I’ve felt a little ill and weak all day because of it, and it’s hard for me to believe that a story from 25 years ago still has the power to reduce me to a bucket of Jell-o. But it does.
I never really played much after that. I worked at a music store. I worked as a DJ on a Jazz station. But I never really played. A boyfriend gave me a piano years ago. When I would play it, a part of me that only really comes alive when I’m playing was resurrected. But unless you plan to keep that feeling around, it’s kind of painful to have it show up briefly and then go. So I stopped.
While the lesson here might be to say kind things to people, and to be tactful with feedback, I really want to drive this point home to every person who reads it: don’t let someone’s words separate you from your plans. Everyone is kind of a jerk at times. You could be a jerk in five minutes, or you might not be a jerk for a while. Either way, you’re just a person, and the people you talk to are people, too. Everyone you know is full of bullshit sometimes. So don’t give any of them the power to wrest control of your life away from you.
I should have stayed. I should have showed her what I could do. I should have worked for it. But I was too young, my skin too thin, my expectations too high, and my ego too fragile. I wonder if perhaps I didn’t think I really deserved it anyway, and that it was only a matter of time before people saw that I was a fraud, an interloper in the land of people who were really supposed to fulfill their dreams.
My advice to you is, if you know you have to do a thing, do it, especially if it’s your dream. Be inspired. Be passionate. Create great art. Or create shitty art. And don’t give a damn what anyone says, because on any given day, they don’t know what they’re talking about. Just go and do.