For being a music composer, I am actually a fairly accomplished singer.
I studied voice as I studied composition for all four years of my undergrad. I have been in several choruses throughout my career including the University of Montana Women’s and University Choruses, the University of Birmingham Women’s chorus, the Butte Community Chorus and the Billings Symphony Chorale. I performed art song for my senior composition recital at the U of M, two solos with the Early Vocal Music Ensemble baroque orchestra at the University of Birmingham, and was in the U of B’s opera chorus.
I’m telling you this so that you know how far my passion took off after this devastating moment in my life.
So why share that I failed my first choir audition? I think it is vital to know that sometimes your education is in the hands of people that don’t have the compassion to see your potential and/or they don’t have your best interest at heart. A “no” from a person in power can be devastating. But one setback from one educator doesn’t have to be the final opinion of your pursuits.
The world is full of fantastic educators and a handful of not-so-fantastic ones. At some point in your career you are likely to come across those educators that are more interested in their own personal pursuits than they are in helping you grow as a musician.
It happens a lot more than you think – and when it does, it’s ok to keep your journey moving forward by never looking back.
I was 19 when I transferred to music from engineering at Montana Tech. I was poised to become an engineer and everything on paper looked fantastic for me. I had a 4.0 GPA, I was a dedicated student, but on the inside I was falling apart and I knew I had to make a change.
I was ill-equipped for the transfer to collegiate music. I took band and choir in high school, but I went to a Class C School in rural Montana (around 120 kids or less in your high school) and we were always stuck at a 7th grade band/9th grade choir level. Class C is challenging for the arts – its amazing to play alongside so many age-groups, but you can hit the ceiling pretty fast as far as growth is concerned.
But like most stubborn Taurus types, I was determined to learn. Even if it meant I had to start at square 1 while my colleagues were paces ahead of me.
I prepared whatever they had asked us to sing for the audition. I sat in the hallway, waited to be called in and nervously shied away from all of the other confident kids.
The audition started and I sang the piece – which honestly went fine. Then they handed me a page to sight-read.
“Without help?” I stammered.
I had never sight-sung before. I had no ear training and never even had the option in high school to learn. I had no idea what to do.
I gave it my best shot and I sang.
I could see it in their eyes…. a “thank you for coming” and I was out the door.
In that moment I knew I was toast. I went to the bathroom and sobbed. When the tears were dry, I walked out of the building and called my mom only to fight off another wave of tears in the parking lot.
A few days later I checked the audition sheets. It was perhaps the most humiliating 5 seconds of my life. I frantically searched the sheet but no, my name wasn’t on the list.
Here’s the fun part – at the U of M every musician has to be in an ensemble each semester for credit and I had to write humiliating emails to my voice teacher and composition advisor explaining that I failed the audition and needed help. “They didn’t let me (a music student) in University choir… what now?”
My voice teacher was super helpful and very understanding. He immediately recommended women’s choir with a woman named Alicia. I auditioned for her and she was so ecstatic! “Wow, what an amazing instrument you have! You have incredible range. I am really excited to get to work with you.” I told her that I struggled with sight-reading. “Don’t worry about it” she said, “I know you will improve.” Needless to say, I got in.
The thing that guts me is that I went to both auditions to join an ensemble so that I could learn. I was a student that was more than willing to put in the extra hours (and believe me, I did). To this day it still amazes me that I was rejected so fiercely by one educator and welcomed so gracefully by another.
If I could go back to that moment where I bombed the audition – I would burst through the door and say to the director that your job is to have faith in me as a student and work with me to get better. In my eyes, his ego failed him as an educator that day. He didn’t assess my situation and even worse, he didn’t care. I am thankful for those that did have faith in me, especially my own voice teacher. I never would have had the joy of singing in so many groups without it.