I Flunked Out of My Dream

You can’t continue as a piano major. The piano and organ teachers informed me of this fate after my “jury” at the end of my second semester of graduate school.

I’d never heard these words before. Not at school, my refuge for super-achievement. Nor with music, where my spirit went to recover from life’s wounds.

Impossible. Incredible. Inconceivable. I had played piano for 15 years. I had a passion for music, and piano in particular. Didn’t they realize how sick I had been early that semester, how impossible it had been for me to catch up?

It. Couldn’t. Be.

But it was. I was cut adrift from a lifelong dream, the sure anchor that had carried me through long years of study. I was angry at my present teachers for telling me “no.” At my past teachers, for supporting a false dream. At myself, for failing.

It had started as the stuff of dreams. At the young age of seven, I had begged for piano lessons. I didn’t get started for two more years because buying a piano was not in the budget. Unlike most children, I practiced religiously. My 69-year-old grandmother learned by my side. I practiced eagerly and progressed rapidly, a bit of a prodigy. Bach and Debussy were my favorite composers, but I loved them all.

By the time I reached eighth grade, I had been playing at church for several years, and I also played well enough to accompany our school musical programs. In high school, I routinely accompanied school choral groups on tour and in competitions, and I even was paid to play for a junior high gig.

I lost any feeling of control I had towards my future.

I was a piano major in college — where I continued to play for the choral groups — and when I graduated with top grades, I looked forward to continuing at the same level in graduate school. Especially since I passed every test they flung at me — from how well I could tell the difference between notes to sight reading to testing out of the need for further vocal lessons — with flying colors.

Music defined who I was. When my teachers took that away from me, they robbed me of my sense of self.

I also lost any feeling of control I had towards my future. It was the first time my best wasn’t good enough. No one had ever said “no” to me in music. I had never discovered the awful truth that there were some things I couldn’t accomplish, no matter how hard I tried.

Leaving perfectionism behind was an essential life lesson, but I had coped with things I couldn’t control, like abuse, by focusing on areas I could control and in which I could excel. At that time, I was forced to give up my essential survival tool, but I had nothing left to replace it.

I ended up changing to a different study altogether — early childhood education. I continued with the music school’s tour group for the next year, but once I got married, this ended as well.

I made some drastic decisions on the rebound but, as the years passed, I came to realize that those teachers didn’t expect or want me to leave the music school. They suggested I switch to music theory, and sometimes I wonder what direction my life would have taken if I had gone that route. The truth was, I was highly musical, and a far better vocalist than I gave myself credit for. They saw strengths I didn’t recognize in myself. But all I could see was the career of being a pianist being snatched from my grasp.

A harder truth to swallow was that their judgment was right. As an incest survivor, at that point in my life I was largely out of touch with my emotions. I couldn’t identify the emotions of a piece of music when I didn’t even know my own heart. Eventually I recovered that part of myself, but it was too late to excel at piano.

On the plus side, I discovered a whole new dimension to myself as a teacher. I added understanding and methods to my natural interest and found that I never met a child I couldn’t relate to. The ability to study, articulate, and teach has also been influential in my work as a writer.

And music refused to stay away. After years of little to no practice, my skills had become laughable. But I eventually found myself as the pianist at a tiny country church. I also still play in the same nursing home I did when I was 11. Even though I hit a lot of wrong notes now, I play with feeling and with energy, which often draws a crowd.

I was right — I was meant to be a pianist. Just not in the way I was pursuing it. Now I play for joy.

Though it was devastating at the time, I firmly believe being rejected from majoring in piano had a positive effect on my life. Through this experience, I’ve learned I had not flunked at life as I'd first believed. It simply took a different turn, which turned out for the best. Who would have dreamed it would turn out this way?

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Photo Credit Finn Gross Maurer

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