I love music. I wanted to be a professional musician, but there was one small problem.
I couldn’t read music. And I’d never had a clarinet lesson. I was third-chair third clarinet in the high school band which I joined junior year. Everyone else joined in fourth grade, but I worked three-times as hard to catch up. I knew if I continued to work hard, I’d be fine.
I was made for music. In addition to clarinet, I could play fifteen or so chords on the guitar. I wrote music in my head–songs far too advanced to compose without knowing how to read and transcribe music. I sang them into the tape recorder for the day I learned to write them for real.
And so began my evil plan…Operation “Become a Musician.”
I had two choices for college.
The first was an overpriced Ivy League college I visited and didn’t really like. It was exactly the place someone like me was expected to go.
The second was another overpriced university, but this one I loved. It just happened to have a music school attached. A pretty good one, I was told–the Eastman School of Music.
The Ivy League college rejected me, and the University of Rochester (home of Eastman) didn’t. God had spoken. It was fate. I would be a musician.
Had I told anyone—a single soul—about my plan to get into the Eastman School of Music through Rochester’s back door, they’d have hit me over the head with my borrowed student-quality clarinet and locked me in a practice room with a sign that said, “Do not open–ever!” Pandora’s music box.
Eastman, you see, is one of the Big Three conservatories in the nation–the Yale and Harvard of music schools. One doesn’t simply…go.
One applies, one auditions, one studies the notes of Mozart from birth. Parents play Bach in the womb to students of Eastman. Instead of rattles, they get batons and orchestral-quality instruments. Before they’re toilet trained they’re training with Yo Yo Ma. They read and write music before they read English and practice twenty-six hours a day, giving virtuoso recitals by age three.
These days, you can see them on YouTube.
In college, these kids-now-teens hummed constantly waving their hands through the air conducting imaginary orchestras. They skipped meals to practice, which didn’t mater, since music is sufficient nourishment for the soul.
They were serious. And skilled.
And then there was me.
I could neither read music nor write the compositions that swirled in my head. My imaginary orchestra always seemed to be on break, and I spent my time cheating my way through scores of scores by listening to radio and records, memorizing the tunes.
I am going to go to Eastman.
I found the loophole.
Rochester students can take classes at the Eastman School. Just sign up. Done. Completely and totally legit! The diploma says “University of Rochester” but I’d be at Eastman. No one would know the difference.
I signed up for beginner’s courses–Piano 90. Music Theory 101–until I had four or five to start off my musical career. Then, I studied all the theory books I could find, memorizing everything so I’d be ready.
I went to my placement audition with a smile.
Even though I could take classes by signing up, I still had to play in front of a jury to see which ensembles, groups, and classes I’d be in and which chair I would earn.
Coming from last-chair third clarinet and two years of high school band, this was an opportunity to move up the musical food chain.
I selected the perfect piece–a piece I loved that some would consider challenging—Mozart’s Clarinet Concerto.
I couldn’t actually read the score, so I picked the perfect man to help–Sir Georg Solti of the Chicago Symphony Orchestra. I played his recording over and over, picking up the needle, replaying measures, following the score with my finger–closed caption for the musically impaired.
I practiced and played. Then, at summer’s end, I packed up my borrowed student-quality clarinet and marched off to Upstate New York.
Now it was time to play for real–a four-person panel of real musicians, listening to me.
I began my Mozart in the presence of these great men.
Twenty years later, I am still remorseful. I include them in my daily prayers. I ask the Lord to make their lives better in some way. I’d like to track them down each Lent and Yom Kippur and beg for forgiveness, because after hearing me, they were never quite the same. I tore the music out of their souls and trampled on it like Marilyn Manson at a Boston Pops concert.
They sat. They looked straight ahead, eyes wide, not sure if this was a musician’s prank or a kid playing for real. Finally, God decided they’d had enough and broke my borrowed clarinet in half. Some cork had come loose and allowed the bottom section to flee for its life.
I raced to put it back together.
“No, no no…that’s enough for today,” said one judge. He was filling out an application for a fast food restaurant since he’d gone partially deaf during the audition. Even properly-played Beethoven couldn’t reverse the damage.
Another judge paused, opened his mouth to speak, closed it again, then said, “So, you like Sir George Solti.”
“Yes, he’s amazing,” I was too ignorant to know he’d lobbed an epic insult cloaked in the disguise of sophistication.
I was assigned to the lowest classes available and given my own personal graduate student, Michelle, for lessons. Poor Michelle earned her work study money that year.
But life was good. I was going to be… a musician.
I needed to act like one.
I surrounded myself with Eastman. I laughed at Beethoven jokes; I breathed the air inside the Eastman Theater, a Gilded-Age auditorium where some of the world’s best musicians have played. I went to concerts. I camped in practice rooms when no one else was close enough to hear me play.
Even though it took me a forty-five minute ride on the blue bus, I took a work-study job at the Sibley Music Library, where I began cataloguing music scores for less money than I would’ve made in a prison laundry. Like everyone else, I was highly indignant when people misalphabetized Russian scores or put Von Weber under “W.”
It took me exactly two weeks to be removed from the music program, which I never did realize was the best in the nation until long after I was gone. It was probably better that way. Sometimes, I’ve realized, we don’t reach for the stars if we’re told it’s impossible to escape the earth.
If I’d known Eastman was like Yale, I never would’ve tried to be a musician. I’m better for having tried.
Years later the same thing would happen to me again, where I’d find myself in an impressive situation I didn’t know were impressive, but this time I’d come on top, once again, by saying yes to my passions and working hard, but more importantly by letting my feet leave the earth once again without looking down until I was well out of the Earth’s orbit.
Life has a curious way of letting fear keep us down. It’s when we don’t know limitations exist that we are not held bound by them.
That’s how to change the world.
Right before I was removed from the music program, I called my former band director to tell him I was struggling and I feared I wasn’t going to succeed. He didn’t sound impressed at all that I’d snuck into Eastman. He sounded horrified.
I confessed I’d gotten a 40% on my first assignment, and a 20% on the second, and that Dr. Harrison said, “You didn’t earn that 20—but I can see that you tried very hard, so I gave it to you.”
I explained how Dr. Harrison, to whom I’m still grateful, helped me find a space where I belonged, somewhere I could succeed. He did it with kindness and the love of someone who knows when a student’s gone wrong and knows just how to guide her back on a path where she can change the world–that’s what a master teacher does.
In the end, I agreed with Dr. Harrison. Brahms was giving me the cold shoulder.
Music became torture. It reminded me of mountain climbing, the part where the summit seems around the corner but is really an illusion, a million miles in the distance.
“Be careful what you wish for. You just might get it.” That’s the truth.
Music is my friend again–it’s beauty composes the rhythm of life. I write and play things that will never land on Soundcloud, I’ve sung at a roast or two, site-read Latin at Christmas Mass, and defeated teens in rap battles with zero preparation, in two languages.
I’m grateful for Dr. Harrison, music’s gatekeeper. He taught me good teaching is letting people fail with respect, showing them those failures don’t define them in the least–they are friendly guides to finding our true mission.
Now, I’m in the position of doing that for others. I don’t take that lightly.
I’ve decided it’s time to go back to Eastman to apologize. I’ll sit for a concert or two, check to see if Von Weber’s in the right place, and find an undergrad talking about Mozart. I’ll give him some cash to get out of the practice room and live life a little so he can compose from the heart.
I’ll walk around the Eastman Theatre whispering all the things I’ve accomplished since I couldn’t be a musician, and I’ll promise to continue reaching for the stars.
I’ll say thank you, that the world–and my heart–are all the better for it, and I’m grateful to Eastman, Dr. Harrison, Sir Georg, and the world, for sending me to a place I wouldn’t simply reach for the stars, I could catch a few and see the galaxy for real.