You’ve probably heard some variation on the phrase “you must learn from your failures”. Yes, it is a cliche - but it also happens to be true. It was definitely the case for me when I suffered one of the most embarrassing failures of my musical career.
In early 1991 I was finishing up my bachelors degree in music performance and was looking into options for graduate school. On my short list was one of the best music schools in the country - Berklee College of Music. I knew that admission to Berklee was highly competitive but at the time I was at the top of my game and I felt I had agood shot of making it. So I set up an audition and spent a lot of time in intensive preparation.
On audition day I felt ready. Sure I was a little nervous as this was an important event and an audition is always a very peculiar type of musical situation. But when I finally began playing I was feeling pretty confident and that was reflected in my performance. The first piece came off very well and at the end I knew I nailed it.
Then before I launched into my second piece something happened that changed everything.
The school representative started asking me questions. At first they were some easy questions about my background, why I had chosen Berklee, and what my career intentions were. But then he asked “If you are accepted, how do you plan to finance your program of study?”
I found myself suddenly stumbling for a clear answer. I didn’t have much money at that point - I was just finishing my undergraduate degree - and I was so focused on my musical studies that I had never givien it much thought. Since I had received full funding from my current school through a combination of direct scholarship and work study I had unconsciously assumed I could get the same thing from Berklee.
The Berklee rep quickly disabused me of that notion. He flatly informed me that Berklee did not offer any scholarships and all program costs were solely the responsibility of the student. He went on to quote the current tuition fees and mentioned something about applying for a loan.
My mind instantly went into panic mode as I began to realize what he was telling me. There was no way I was going to be able to afford to go to this school. And no matter how well I played or how good my application looked they were not going to provide any financial assistance whatsoever.
I thought to myself “I’ve made a big mistake. There’s no way I can go to this school!”
Once the talking was over it was time for me to perform my second audition piece. It was horrible. Suddenly it seemed everything was going wrong - intonation was off, phrasing was gone, my tone was scratchy and thin. No matter how hard I tried it was like I had regressed to the level of an absolute beginner. A complete embarrassment.
Needless to say I was not accepted for admission. I was devastated, not just because of the rejection but because of my crash and burn experience.
But looking back on it in hindsight I’ve learned a few things. The primary lesson is this: When we are taking action towards our goal, our state of mind is just as important, if not more so, than the things we physically do.
You see for both of the pieces I performed I was the same person. The same experience, knowledge and skills. But the outcomes were polar opposites of each other. What changed? The thoughts running through my head. For the first piece I was confident and focused. For the second I was anxious and worried.
That was is it. Everything else was virtually identical. Only my thinking made the difference between success and failure.
From that time on I have endeavored to pay attention to my thoughts and feelings in a much more deliberate way. The key to achieving success, the “secret” that so many people don’t fully comprehend, lays in how we cultivate the mind.
FYI there is a happy ending to this story. After failing to be admitted to Berklee I was eventually offered a fellowship to the graduate music program at Northwestern University. I ended up having receiving a tremendous education there and now I wouldn’t trade that experience for anything.
Another lesson learned: If you fail don’t give up. There may be something even better just around the corner.