Monday, February 11, 2013

Being Average Sucks

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I was sitting at a live book release event the other night in this refurbished old theatre in downtown Franklin, TN. While the author was speaking, it hit me. I finally, after years of trying to put my finger on it, was able to clearly express my biggest fear.

I'm afraid of being average.

If you ask most people about death and what their biggest fear about death is, many of them (at least the ones I've spoken with) will tell you,"I just don't want to be forgotten when I'm gone. I don't want it to be like I never lived." Wow. That's huge. Like you never lived. Back to average. I'm literally terrified of being considered average. Unmemorable. Forgettable. Not just in drumming, but in every part of life.

Average is easy. Just wake up, make a cup of normal run-of-the-mill coffee, take a lukewarm shower, leave with just enough time to get to work/school, arrive right on time (not early or late), clock in, do your 8 hours of mindless work, clock out, go home, watch some TV, hit the sack, and repeat for 40-50 years. That's easy. People do it everyday. There's no challenge there. No risk of failure. No chance for embarrassment. It's the safest way to go through life. And it scares me to death.

Why? Because I don't believe ANYONE is average, myself included. I believe we're all amazing in our own ways, we just have to realize find our own patches of brilliance.  What if you started practicing consistently every day?  Normal people don't do that.  What if you started a fundraiser online and raised $1,000 for a local shelter for the homeless?  Average is scared of that.  What if you decided that you actually COULD do anything in life that you set your mind to?  You're nuts.

Ok.  So you're a bit off your rocker.  I am too.

Short story warning...
The first semester of my sophomore year in college, I did something nuts.  I had just begun to learn how to play the vibraphone the year before...we're talking, "Twinkle, Twinkle, Little Star" with a lot of mistakes.  I had to pick a piece to prepare for jury (that's where the professors make you get up in front of all of your peers and risk making a complete fool of yourself by playing something that you had been working on.  Seems like those profs know a little something...).  Now, if you've just learned an instrument, chances are you want something safe.  Something doable.  Something that you can breeze through and not risk embarrassment...shame...death by hanging (lots of things go through your mind in a practice room late at night).  So that's exactly what I didn't do.  I chose a classical piano piece entitled "Moonlight Sonata".  A breathtakingly beautiful Beethoven composition.  I had always loved it.  And I wanted to play it.  Not for anyone else.  I just wanted to hear it.  Problem was, I couldn't find any transcriptions of the piece for the vibes.  No worries.  I would just transcribe it myself and make adjustments as needed (vibes are a four mallet instrument.  Last time I checked, piano pieces were played with 10 fingers).  I would need to adjust chord voicings, stickings, switch octaves...did I mention that until a year prior I had ZERO experience with a chordal instrument, save a few failed piano lessons when I was about 10.  I was perfectly and completely out of my mind to attempt it.  But I just loved it.  And no one would remember a stock vibe piece...everyone would be playing those.  That was safe.  Average.

I practiced my butt off.  Hours and hours of transcribing (remember, I sucked at that too), practicing, memorizing.  It was daunting.  And I felt alive every minute of every day.  Alive with for the music...feelings of success...feelings of failure.  I lived them all, everyday, in the moment.

Jury day came.  I'll be honest, it was sloppy.  But I could play it all of the way through.  And it was the most beautiful thing I had ever heard.  It was go time.  I started...flying over the notes, hitting wrong ones, hitting lots of right ones, freaking out...I was on cloud 9.  Then it happened.  There's a triplet run in the middle of the piece...all the way up the keyboard and back down.  I made it up.  Down...down...hmmmm...I had stopped playing.  I had the piece memorized, or so I thought.  No music to refer to.  I stood there staring at the instrument.  Praying that a hole would open up and a large worm would swallow me whole.  No such luck.  After 3 hours (probably a few seconds...but this is my story...) I looked up at my professor and said, "I'm sorry, I don't know where I am."  Surely this kind gentleman would simply say, "Bravo...wonderful work.  Mistakes happen.  Have a seat."  But instead I heard, "Is there somewhere that you can start again?"  Crap.  If I threw up maybe he would let me off the hook.  I certainly felt sick enough.  It was then that I made the cardinal mistake.  I started RIGHT BEFORE my mistake.  Common sense says start right after.  Skip that part.  But that would be average, right?  No, that would have been smart.  I said I feared average, I didn't say I was smart about it.

So right before the triplet run...up the keyboard...and...and...nothing.  Son of a.....

Ok.  Surely at this point I look so pitiful that he's going to have mercy on me.  Just shoot me and kick me to the side.  Repeat the whole discussion... "I'm sorry, I don't know where I am" I said.  Silence.  And then...that's when it happened.  One of the other percussionists thought I was done.  He was having the same thoughts,"Surely we should spare this man."  He issued a single, solitary, and extremely loud clap.  He then realized I wasn't done and awkwardly held his hands as if to clap again, then he dropped them.  "Is there somewhere that you can start again?" the professor asked.  "Maybe somewhere after that point?"  he suggested.  He was evil.  Vindictive even.

So I did.  I blundered through the rest of the piece, my ears ringing with the sound of blood rushing to my head and the screams of my inner pride being murdered.  I didn't go back into that building for weeks.  I avoided every other percussionist at all costs.  For weeks.  I had completely, utterly, and miserably failed.  I was not average...I was not great...I was embarrassed.

A few days after it happened I was telling a friend of mine, a film major, about what had happened.  He listened.  And when I was done, he said the strangest thing.  He said,"That's awesome man.  What a great life experience."

Did this guy even hear me explain how I had been brutally ax murdered in broad daylight with friends watching?

I slowly mumbled something and got out of his car.  It took me years to understand what he had meant.  And now I get it.  What he was saying was,"Congratulations, you're not average!  You tried, you failed, you lived, and next time you'll do better."  I faced my biggest fear, the fear of being average.  I looked it in the eye and I chose to defy average.  And I failed miserably.  But I can still ask friends,"hey, do you remember that time I played "Moonlight Sonata" for juries?".  They do.  And you know what they don't remember?  My mistake.  They say,"Yea, I remember you working on that.  I couldn't believe you were trying to play it."  The mistake wasn't what they remembered.  They remembered the attempt.

It still blows my mind to think about it today.

What's my point?  My point is this...please, be anything but average.  You ARE anything but average.  I know, it's cheesy.  But it's true.  You have music in have life yet to be have experiences not yet had...and they will all die inside of you unless you make the choice to not be average.  To go for it.  Whatever "it" may be.

And if it helps, I totally believe in you.  Not that you'll succeed every time.  That's not the point.  I believe that you can do can not be average.  You can be memorable.

Now...get to it.

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Anonymous said...

Good story Stephen, reminds me of my crash course with mallets. I was in the right place and time to direct a percussion ensemble including 6 marimbas and a set of vibes. I knew my theory, but was at the same place you were as a player. I think I did my first composition in a week with no sleep, but ended up trading my snare drum for one of the marimba spots for the season...........National Champs that year!!


Anonymous said...

Great story and life lesson, Stephen. A reminder that the fields of success are sown with the seeds of failure. Can't have one without the other. Thanks for sharing


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