When they told me I’d failed, it was like I was hearing their voices from 100 miles away.
Growing up, you learn a lot of things. You learn how to read and how to write. You learn how to add and multiply and subtract and divide. You hopefully learn how to be a humble, kind, respectful human being.
You do not learn how to react when someone tells you that your deepest dreams are off the table. You do not learn how to handle watching your entire future reconfigure itself right in front of your eyes, the product of just a few moments of time. You do not learn how to fail.
On December 15, 2011, somewhere around 5pm in the afternoon, I suffered the most crushing failure of my life. And it has shaped every minute I’ve spent on this planet since. It is the dividing line in my personal history: The simplest way for me to categorize my life is to think about what happened before those 30 minutes, and what happened after them.
Let’s rewind a bit: Music has been in my DNA since I was very young. I started playing piano when I was six. I had a favorite band and a favorite song by the time I was seven. When I was a teenager, I would consider a non-school moment wasted if it wasn’t spent with some form of music playing in the background. From seventh grade on, I spent most of my spare moments thinking about music, or playing it, or seeking it out on the internet. I was obsessed with the idea of soundtracking my life.
At some point, I realized that the best way to soundtrack my life was to sing.
It started small at first: a few hours in choir every week when I was in sixth grade. Then it grew, first to musical theater productions, then to voice lessons, then to more choirs. By ninth grade, I was spending 12-15 hours a week singing. By senior year, it was closer to 20 hours. What had begun as an elective class when I was 12 years old morphed into the thing that defined the very core of my identity. For more than half a decade, I built my entire life around being a singer: around choir and rehearsals and lessons and practice.
No wonder that, when it came time to think about what came after high school, all I could think about was being a professional singer.
There were other things in my life, too – at least in the early years. I was a runner, following in the footsteps of my older brother, who’d smashed school records and gotten within spitting distance of state championship titles. I was also a kid who loved school – books and words especially. Once, in fourth grade, my class had a “reading goal” for the month that involved reading 100 books across our 60-some student body in the space of the month of April. I got us a quarter of the way there all by myself.
But as music became a bigger part of who I was, those other things fell away. I pulled back my effort on running. I stopped applying myself in school. Where once I’d been the kid who read all the books, I was now the student not finishing the summer reading assignment and then bullshitting my way through the papers we had to write about said books. I didn’t care. As far as I was concerned, I was bound for something greater. Why should I worry about the other pieces of school when the way I felt onstage dwarfed every other accomplishment I’d ever had in my young life? Why should I work hard when I knew so firmly that the thing that was going to carry me forward in life was the one thing that felt natural?
I was a fool, obviously, but I wouldn’t learn that for years to come. From 2004 to 2011, I blindly followed the thing that I thought in my heart of hearts was my true north: my dream. It was a dream that involved standing on a stage in front of hundreds or thousands of adoring audience members, singing my heart out. I never got to the bottom of exactly what I would be singing to them – whether it was rock ‘n’ roll, or choral music, or musical theater, or opera. I just knew that performing was the only thing I could imagine being the basis of my life. As I neared high school graduation and embarked upon auditions for a college life as a music major, I fooled myself into thinking that the sheer magnitude of my hope would be enough to give my dreams the ability to take flight.
That complete, unerring belief got challenged when college auditions didn’t go the way I expected. Of the four music schools I auditioned for, three rejected me outright; one put me on the waitlist. But then there was the day in April 2009 when an email arrived from Western Michigan University telling me I was off the waitlist and firmly accepted. I somehow thought that setback would be the one big hurdle: that getting into music school was the challenge – rather than actually finding success there, or figuring out a way to make a career out of singing arias and art songs, or coming to terms with a nomadic lifestyle that came with being a touring musician.
Like I said, I was a fool. I just didn’t know it yet.
My first year in college was beguiling: a challenge, to be sure, but an adventure that always felt like the right adventure. From choirs to voice lessons to music classes, I felt like I learned a lot and made a ton of progress as a singer. I felt like I belonged.
My second year of college was the rude awakening. It was realizing that every step forward I’d taken during freshman year was about 100 steps shy of where I’d need to be to make this major worthwhile. At the end of the year, I walked into the exam they call the “performance hearing” and failed. The performance hearing is a barrier exam in the Western Michigan University voice department, meant to determine if students on the vocal performance major track will be allowed to continue with that path or referred to other degree programs. By failing me, the people who’d accepted me into this school two years prior were sending the message that they were no longer sure whether I belonged.
Neither was I. When I went home for summer break that year, I thought briefly about never going back. I didn’t talk about those thoughts with anyone: not my girlfriend, or my parents, or my friends at school. I felt like waving the white flag meant accepting my own failure. And at 20 years old, I wasn’t ready to give up on my dreams just yet. But I did start to come down from the cloud I’d made for myself in high school – the one where I convinced myself that I could focus completely on music because it was going to be my life path. In the back of my mind, I think I knew I needed to give myself an out; an escape hatch; a backup plan.
So I took a piece of advice my girlfriend had given me and I started writing. First it was just a blog about music. Then it was a staff writer position at the school newspaper. By the middle of fall semester, as I was supposed to be in full prep mode for my second attempt at the performance hearing (the generous bastards, they give you two tries!), I was finding myself far more engaged with writing than I was with singing. Even as a member of the finest choral ensemble at the university, I was starting to feel removed from the artistic passion that had driven me for the better part of a decade.
Losing that connection and drive was bizarre. It felt alien to…sort of dread going to choir rehearsals every day, or to leave concerts feeling melancholy and tired rather than with that surge of adrenaline and electricity I’d always experienced after performances when I was younger. In high school, I literally could not sleep after choir concerts, so significant was the adrenaline rush I got from that experience. It made me sad not to feel that way anymore. But it also gave me the perspective I needed to take the step I never thought I’d have the strength to take: Sitting down and actually formulating a Plan B. As in, “If I fail this performance hearing again, what the hell am I going to do with my life?”
I thought all these things – my disenchantment with music school, and maybe with music in general; my backup plan; the fact that I’d found my way back to other interests – would make it easier if I did happen to fail my performance hearing for a second time. In many ways, I’m sure they did. There were versions of myself in college – younger versions, months or years removed from that fateful December day in 2011 – where I couldn’t imagine accepting my own failure. I thought it would be the end of the world. I thought that I’d die, or beg, or maybe throw a tantrum and push a piano off the stage out of pure anguished rage.
The truth was so much more complicated. Because December 15th eventually did wind around, and I did walk onto a stage, and I sang for 20 minutes, and then I walked off that stage. And then four people deliberated for 10 minutes on what my future would be, and then they called me back into the room to tell me that what they’d decided was, “unfortunately, not the thing I wanted to hear.” And boy, let me tell you: Hearing someone shatter your dreams and tell you that your best isn’t good enough is one of the most surreal things that can ever happen to you. Here I was, in the midst of the most devastating failure of my life – a moment I’d only really allowed myself to imagine in nightmares. But then I also remember this bizarre calm washing over me; feeling suddenly like I was somewhere else, hearing the voices of my professors from a great distance, from 100 miles away. I think, subconsciously, I was flipping a switch: from the moment where these people and their decision mattered instrumentally to who I was; to the moment right after that decision, where those same people suddenly ceased having any bearing on my life whatsoever.
I also remember feeling this electric hum in my heart and my soul as I walked out of my hearing. I felt weirdly weightless. By all accounts, what had just happened should have broken me. I’d invested so much of my life into this one dream, and here I was, surveying the moment where the entire thing got dashed upon the rocks. I was definitely feeling a mix of emotions, and a lot of them weren’t great. There was sadness there, and regret, and frustration – mostly over the amount of time I’d spent pursuing a college major that had essentially ended in a checkmate. I definitely had a moment where I wished I’d taken a path in college that didn’t lead to the front seat of my Honda Civic on that cold December night, crying my eyes out as I called my mom on the phone to tell her that my dream of being a professional singer had reached its apparent endpoint. That was probably the single hardest moment of all, actually, because she was the only person in the world who’d believed in my dream as much as I did. But she reassured me that, maybe someday, I’d look back on this failure as a blessing in disguise.
And indeed, the weirdest emotion I was feeling that night – as it slowly settled in that I was going to need to embark upon some new journey now – was relief. All these things came rushing into my head, possibilities that I had consciously or subconsciously ruled out for myself as someone who was headed toward the life of either “broke musician” or “touring musician.” Some of them were simple and quaint, like “I can start collecting records,” because I might be in one place long enough to enjoy them. Some of them were a lot grander, like “I can marry the girl I love and we can build a life together.” The one I’d never even allowed myself to consider up until that moment was “Maybe someday we’ll move back home.”
Six years later, to the exact day, my wife got a job offer in our childhood hometown. It was a funny little twist of fate that proved to me I was on the path I was meant to be on.
Looking back now, 10 years to the day since that fateful failure, I have the perspective to know that not getting what I thought I wanted was a gift. Failing that significantly at that age was a gift. Learning how to fail taught me how to be tougher, how to recognize the difference between dreams and life, how to bid farewell to ego and entitlement, and how to be grateful for all the good things in my world. Losing my dream opened up a whole new horizon of opportunities and offered me free reign to explore them.
In the first Harry Potter book, Dumbledore tells Harry that “It does not do to dwell on dreams and forget to live.” I was 21 years old and I’d been dwelling on the same dream since I was 14. For years, it had felt like an asset, something to push me and drive me and define my life purpose. At some point, it became an anchor: something that held me down, something that broke my heart again and again and again, until I found myself crying in a parked car in a cold parking garage, telling my mom that I’d been failed by four professors who never cared to ask about all the choices that had gotten me to that moment. That last heartbreak was the toughest to get over, but it also meant that my anchor was gone. I could take Dumbledore’s advice, and live.
It’s not all positive, though – not even in retrospect, with the benefit of time and perspective at my fingertips. There are still wounds from what happened, scars that I don’t think will ever fully heal. Every time I hear a choir sing, it breaks my heart. I have not sung as part of a choral ensemble since that school year. If you knew me in high school, that’s probably a wild thing to read, because being a “choir kid” defined who I was for so long. Singing in choirs was the purest joy I had in my life for years and years and years. It was a refuge from everything else, a place where all my other worries fell away and I could just be. Choral music is spiritual and transformative and magical and perfect, in a world where not enough things are worthy of any of those adjectives. I firmly believe that there is nothing else on the planet that can make you feel like your soul is lifting up toward heaven in the way that hearing or singing with a great choir can. But I can’t feel that joy anymore. I lost my dream 10 years ago tonight, but the worst thing that day took away from me was the ability to lose myself in choral music without the baggage I have now.
But who knows? Maybe one day I’ll wake up to find that those wounds have healed. I’ll put on a recording of one of my old choirs and it won’t put a bittersweet ache into my heart. I’ll join a community choir and be able to feel the joy and release that I always felt in that world when I was young. I hope that day comes, because I miss being a part of something that was bigger than myself, in that unique way.
Still, if I could turn back time now, I’m not sure I’d do any of it differently. The journey I took – through music, to my major, to Western, to the friends I made there, to the girl I married, and to the failure that shaped so much of what has happened since – is the narrative that made me who I am. In comic books, they call it an origin story. How can you wish to reverse something that, in the end, helped give you a great life? 10 years ago, I briefly thought that failing that performance hearing would be the end of my life. Today, I think maybe it was only the beginning.