How a couple failed auditions worked out well

When I was in high school, one year I made the Region choir. I had no intention of competing at the next level, Area, because I didn’t think I stood a chance of going all the way to State, and because the music was really hard: Stravinsky’s Symphony of Psalms.

My choir director persuaded me to try anyway, with just a few days before auditions. That wasn’t enough time for me to learn the music with all its strange intervals. But I tried out. I sang the whole thing. As awful as it was, I kept going. It was about as terrible as it could be, just good enough to not be funny. I wanted to walk out, and maybe I should have out of compassion for the judges, but I stuck it out.

I was proud of that audition, not as a musical achievement, but because I powered through something humiliating.

I did better in band than in choir. I made Area in band and tried out for State but didn’t make it. I worked hard for that one and did a fair job, but simply wasn’t good enough.

That turned out well. It was my senior year, and I was debating whether to major in math or music. I’d told myself that if I made State, I’d major in music. I didn’t make State, so I majored in math and took a few music classes for fun. We can never know how alternative paths would have worked out, but it’s hard to imagine that I would have succeeded as a musician. I didn’t have the talent or the temperament for it.

When I was in college I wondered whether I should have done something like acoustical engineering as a sort of compromise between math and music.  I could imagine that working out. Years later I got a chance to do some work in acoustics and enjoyed it, but I’m glad I made a career of math. Applied math has given me the chance to work in a lot of different areas—to play in everyone else’s back yard, as John Tukey put it—and I believe it suits me better than music or acoustics would have.

2 thoughts on “How a couple failed auditions worked out well

  1. This aligns nicely with Mike Rowe’s message of not following your passion, but bring it with you. Following your passion can make you blind to other opportunities in front of you and you could end up doing something you’re really not that good at. If you had your heart set on music and followed that passion, you may have been a minorly successful local musician playing pubs or small halls, but you likely wouldn’t have been that successful. Sometimes it’s hard to see we’re not cut out for the things we have passion about.

    So long as you bring your passion with you, though, you end up being passionate about the things you are good at, which ends up creating a pretty good feedback loop.

  2. I also thought seriously* about making music my career, and ended up in a flavor of applied math instead. As a wise advisor told me at the time, it’s not hard to pursue music intensely as an amateur while making a living at math (or engineering or physics or…); it’s really hard to pursue anything intensely as an amateur while making a living at music.

    By the time I finished my undergrad degree, I noticed that I was enjoying music a lot more than the music majors I was performing with were. Sad, but true.

    *But naively. I wasn’t that good.

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