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.