Last night, I went to my daughters’ middle school for Bryn’s 6th grade choir concert. My girls love to sing, so I’ve sat through my share of school choir concerts. Sabrina also takes private voice instruction and has performed solo in recitals that I have never missed.
In my experience, middle school choir concerts are typically a crap shoot. Generally there is lots of semi-off-key singing, a few solos that you can hardly hear because the singers are too nervous to breathe, and the occasional stand-out voice that catches the audience by surprise and generates more than polite applause. So, when I settled into my seat next to Sabrina, I figured I knew what was coming. This wasn’t my first rodeo, after all.
The first two songs the 6th grade choir sang were typical – a folk medley, followed by a musical version of MLK’s “I Have a Dream” speech. The next song was the choir’s hotly anticipated interpretation of Pharrell Williams’ “Happy,” made all the more exciting because Bryn had her first ever solo. As the singing started and my spunky ginger-haired daughter made her way to the microphone at the front and center of the stage, I leaned forward and held my breath. And then it happened. Bryn opened her little mouth and, loudly, clearly began singing her solo part.
And she was terrible.
Not just terrible in the way that most 6th grade singers are terrible, but truly atrocious. From her mouth emanated sounds for which there are no words. Tones that are not associated with musical notes except in the loosest terms. My little girl was completely, hopelessly tone deaf.
In the 30 seconds or so that it took for Bryn to finish her solo, I consciously worked to keep my face neutral and avoid Sabrina’s eyes. I didn’t breathe and sat stiffly waiting for the aural torture to end. When it did, I promptly got up and made my planned exit, shaking my head incredulously as I made my way across the parking lot.
See, the thing is, Bryn is the kind of person who, when she applies herself to a task, is nearly always highly successful. Her smarts, determination, and sheer Irish stubbornness serve her well. She has not yet encountered an academic subject, sport, or hobby that she couldn’t master, and I have always admired her for it. She may not be the best, or the fastest, or the most knowledgeable, but she has always managed to acquit herself admirably. It’s something that I’ve come to love and expect from her.
But singing, that which comes so easily and naturally to her sister, is clearly out of reach for Bryn. She has spent nearly three years now singing in choirs, but without making any recognizable improvement in her voice techniques.
On the drive home, I began to wonder how Bryn would handle this realization when it finally dawned on her. How would she take it? Would she collapse in tears and shame? Would she promptly give up singing, despite her love of it, in order to avoid future embarrassment? Or would she be galvanized and apply herself even more vigorously to singing?
To be truthful, it won’t matter. My beautiful daughter has many, many talents, but after last night, I am positively certain that singing is not one of them. It is clear to me that inasmuch as Sabrina was blessed with perfect pitch, the ability to sight read, and a delicate, clear tone that sails through the air and settles on the heart, Bryn was gifted by nature with none of these things. She can sing songs, yes, but she will never be the songbird her sister is. No amount of training or practice will close the gap between them. And, really, truly, that’s totally okay. In most everything else that they have mutually attempted, Bryn easily surpasses her sister’s achievements. So it is perfectly just for Sabrina to have this one thing at which she is plainly superior.
I’m not sharing this to shame Bryn, or to unfairly compare my daughters. But it caused me to consider the power and potential value of failure. What happens when we want so much to be good at something, to excel in a particular direction or at a particular skill, but we are faced with the reality that we may eventually be okay at it, but we’ll never truly master it? How many of us are able to be bad at something and still enjoy it? How many of us can acknowledge and accept shortcomings in our abilities or natural talents that are other than we might wish? How do we perceive a failure to achieve and how does it affect our future efforts to achieve? Do we embrace the opportunity to develop resiliency or become annoyed, frustrated or dismayed and give up.
In our society, we are told to never, ever give up. We are supplied ample examples of people who refused to accept a limitation and overcame monstrous obstacles to achieve miracles. I am inspired by those stories as much as the next person, and I know myself capable of substantial perseverance. But that doesn’t mean that I haven’t learned through the years that there are some things that I am simply no good at. Rollerblading, grilling steaks, and doing the splits, for example.
I, for one, have definitely been guilty of discarding or giving up on something once I discover that it’s truly not in my wheelhouse. If it doesn’t come relatively easily, I’m likely to drop it. The exception to this is when I derive so much pleasure from the act itself that my success at it is irrelevant. However, if I don’t love it deeply and I have applied myself to the best of my abilities and I still haven’t achieved anywhere close to the success I would have liked, I move on.
And what of the people who fail and fail again and still persist at something until they become leaders above everyone else in their field, such as Bill Gates and Steve Jobs? Is their persistence the reason for their success? I actually think not. I have this little theory that there is some deep intuition that drives us when everything else seems to suggest we won’t succeed, some sense that we are meant to do this thing and do it well. I, for one, do not have the natural aptitude to be a master computer programmer – my brain simply doesn’t work that way. But then again, I can take words and convey meanings that others can’t, so I tend to think that life balances out.
I also know that there are plenty of things that I can do but not do especially well, and that I still enjoy. Just because I’m not good at them doesn’t stop me from quietly enjoying them on my own time. Gardening and cooking are in this category for me. With age, I have decided that this is what hobbies are for – those things we can do and enjoy, but not do well enough to ever do it professionally or to really shine at it. In this vein of thinking, I hope that when Bryn is forced to relinquish her dream of being the next Katy Perry, she does not also set aside her true love of music and singing. I hope that she is able to enjoy singing for her own pleasure, even if no one ever pays to hear her. And I hope, sincerely, that she confines her singing to the shower, car, and her bedroom, sparing the poor ears of those of us who love her deeply but never, ever, ever need to hear her sing publicly again. ❤