I’m high above the city
I’m standing on the ledge
The view from here is pretty
And I step off the edge
I’ve previously discussed how being brought up under Chinese tradition generally results in an obstinate tendency to refuse to admit failure and how it leads to an extremely scripted life. And whilst the fear of failure is universal, there’s something about the Chinese mentality being caught up in notions of bringing honour to your family and not losing face that compounds the stakes exponentially. After all, who didn’t grow up listening to stories told by your parents, aunts, uncles and grandparents about so and so who did XYZ which resulted in such and such? Thus goes the dinner conversation in a Chinese household.
I was recently reading a New York Times profile on Li Na and the key thing which struck me were her words:
They all agreed that I should play tennis, she said,
but nobody bothered to ask me. And such words also echoed unvoiced in the minds of many more Chinese kids, like myself, who lacked Li Na’s fiery courage to rebel, and didn’t have the guts to quit.
Though to give credit where credit is due, I was fortunate enough to be raised by very open minded parents in Australia, where the lives of children are somewhat less stringently planned out. As such, once HSC results were out and offers starting coming in from universities, I did in fact deliberate extensively over which path to take. Of course, everyone also gave their opinions freely and the existence of the starving musician stereotype was enough to confuddle the eighteeen year old me into taking the safe route, as opposed to finding out there are more professions in music than just the “starving artist” working for their own glory. Arts management. Film scoring. Sound design. Video game scoring (and by the way, if you were ever guilt tripped about playing computer games, just FYI the video gaming industry just keeps growing and gamification and game designers are on the rise). A&R. Production. Arrangement. Orchestration. You get the idea.
At any rate, this time, nine years ago, I was finishing my last week of high school and getting ready for the HSC. I remember the agonizing over the decision of where to go for university and course preferences, all the while relinquishing my dream of studying music at Juilliard in favour of studying something that would let me get a real job. Though to be honest, when I sit here and look back, the real moment of defeat was in Year 11 when I “grew up” and dropped all forms of extracurricular music activities in order to “concentrate” on my non-musical HSC subjects. When I let that go and stopped fighting to keep it in my life, that was the day my Juilliard dreams died. For four years I went around living life like a zombie without ever knowing it. Then I took the Tisch Graduate Musical Theatre Writing Workshop class at NYU and suddenly it was like life made sense again. Ever since then, I have been slowly grasping at things to try and revive that dream I let go of so many years ago.
And so a couple of weeks ago, I gathered up my courage and booked an audition for a couple of evening courses at Juilliard, specifically the composition courses. Just the act of booking the audition alone freaked me out completely, since the conversation went something like this:
- Me: Hi, I’m calling because I wanted to book a placement audition for the composition classes?
- Juilliard person: Sure. Now, did you want to apply for the Composition class or the Introduction to Composition class?
- Me: Um…I don’t know, I’m not too sure…
- Juilliard person: Well, just so you know, the students who normally get accepted for the Composition class are generally professional musicians or working composers who just need a bit of coaching to refine their skills…
- Me: …
- Juilliard person: …but of course you’re welcome to try. I recommend you interview for Introduction to Composition as a back up and probably Music Theory as well, as that’s usually where the students who don’t make Composition or the Introduction classes end up.
- Me: …
- Juilliard person: And you’re all set! Bring the sheet music for a few things that you’ve written along to show the interviewers, they’ll want to see what you can do. See you next Tuesday!
- Me: *hangs up the phone and starts having a silent panic attack inside my head*
This triggered a sudden scramble through my hard drives and email to find any and all sheet music that I had produced, ever, along with profuse thankfulness that I had decided to scan and digitize pretty much everything of sentimental importance to me before we moved to NYC. Finding nothing but compositions which I had written at least five years ago, I had to come up with something new (thank goodness for the practice I’ve put in over the last two months on the Coursera.org Songwriting which I will write about later). Armed with a selection of four different pieces, I walked into the hallowed halls of Juilliard yesterday, feeling very much like I was headed to slaughter.
The first interview for Introduction to Composition, which was very social, conducted in a group setting and did a lot of overview on the course structure and only some short discussion on background which ran so late that I never got the chance to show the interview the stuff I brought, so I left a folder of my work for later perusal and walked out simultaneously kicking myself because I might have missed my chance and also panicking because I thought I was late for my Composition interview.
The second interview was a double interview for Composition, which is taught by two instructors, and so I had to do interviews with both. As soon as I walked in both times (it was a back to back one-on-one interview), we got right down to business with a very direct “OK, let’s see what you’ve brought in” accompanied by intense scrutiny, page turning and some very direct questions, such as:
- “I see you’ve mainly written for piano and voice; how would you feel if we made you go in a completely different direction?”.
- “So you’re a classically trained pianist – what is the most technically demanding work you’ve ever performed?”; and
- “This piece that you wrote, can you play this?” – this struck pure panic into my heart since there was a grand piano sitting in the room next to us at the time, and as I had been expecting to be judged on the quality of the composition and not a performance, I hadn’t practiced at all, and I haven’t seriously played in ten years to boot. And so I responded with a very un-smooth stuttered “Um, not right now, but uh, yes I did play this for the original recording. Which I have. At home.”
People say stage fright is terrifying. I pretty much grew up on stage, and the nerves you get before performing, just don’t compare to the nerves you get when you’re sitting squirming in your seat as you watch someone critically examine your work. Also, at least after you perform, you get applause; even if you completely botch the performance with memory lapses and all, you usually still get pity applause which allows you to maintain some dignity.
There is no applause forthcoming when someone is passing judgement on your work.
There is just the feeling that no matter how hard you worked on something, it isn’t good enough. All day leading up to the audition, walking into the room, sitting there being questioned about my work, the fears I’ve had for most of my life all crystallized into this fluttery knot in my stomach:
- Being good isn’t good enough.
- Talent isn’t genius and no amount of energy can make it so, and one day I’ll come to realize that not everyone who loves music is a composer.
I walked out of those interviews with two things:
- Validation. Two Juilliard composition faculty members looked at my work – which included two pieces I wrote in high school nearly nine years ago and a piece I wrote five years ago – and said “I like what I see” and “It’s clear you have talent”. I can’t even express how much it means to me that I received this validation. I still know that talent isn’t genius, but having enough talent to get in the door matters. And hopefully this is a teeny tiny indicator that if I work hard, I might possibly be able to cross that threshold.
- Agony. Said validation described above made my emotions skyrocket wildly with hope, but my inner cynic and ever overly conservative pessimistic auditor voices immediately stomped all over that hope because the worst thing in the world would be to get my hopes up about studying composition at Juilliard like I dreamed of and then to have them brutally crushed with a rejection. It would be even worse than the time when I had been looking forward to studying for a whole semester at Tisch for an entire year and it all fell apart because of rotten timing, because this time the rejection would be because of my lack of ability, and not just bad luck.
- Alright, three things actually – musical theory knowledge is not like riding a bike. I had my interview for Music Theory right after the composition interviews. Not seriously having thought about it for ten years means you are incredibly slow and you’ve forgotten a lot. I came out of that interview duly chastised, thoroughly embarrassed and entirely resolved to re-learn everything.
At any rate, they promised they wouldn’t keep us in suspense for long and that we would find out if we made it the next day. So, as you can imagine, the last twenty-four hours have been a little bit of an emotional roller coaster for me.
I am so psyched – I don’t think last year I could have envisioned myself studying composition at Juilliard for two semesters!!! This is the biggest step forward that I’ve taken towards really finding out if I have what it takes to be good. Even if it’s going to mean nothing but work and study for the next year – since apparently most students who tend to take the Composition class have taken an orchestration or instrumentation class prior and I’m going to have a lot of catch up to do since I haven’t.
And whilst those inner voices are still grumbling away, I can’t help humming along to a new song.
And now I’m falling, baby,
through the sky, through the sky
I’m falling, baby, through the sky
It’s my calling,
baby, don’t you cry, don’t you cry
I’m falling down through the sky
Toward the street that I’m from
Oh Broadway here I come
Broadway here I come