A Boy’s First Encounter with Failure

My mother put me in piano lessons at the age of four. I learned about ‘creepy, crawly critters’ associated with each note of the scale; a visual aid in the teaching of musical theory for children. I learned how to play Hot Cross Buns, Twinkle Twinkle Little Star, and Jingle Bells in time for the holiday season. We sang songs at the beginning and ending of every class and dabbled in other instrumentation like percussion sticks and bells. It was a rich and fulfilling childhood experience that was the origin of my performing career today.

Every year, as part of our musical curriculum, a recital was held in a large church that could seat up to 300 or more people. It was a formal affair; or so it seemed. Parents dressed up and the kids performing often sported fancy bow-ties or fine dresses with shiny shoes. A giant grand piano that seemed to swallow each child into the seat sat in the corner of a large stage that facilitated the group numbers throughout the two—sometimes three—hour afternoon.


It was almost as though I was a real musician.


I enjoyed the recitals despite the pressure they placed on me. They were an opportunity to perform at a young age in front of a rather large congregation of people. But they did put pressure on me. As I grew older and advanced in my lessons, memorization was first encouraged and then, seemingly, later required; a way to perhaps prepare students for their inevitable later studies with the Royal Conservatory of Music—a natural next step in one’s musical journey.

I was still quite young; no older than 10 but perhaps quite younger. I had worked hard on my recital showcase; a piece I was not only proud of but enjoyed playing. And I had painstakingly worked with my mother in near-nightly practice sessions to memorize every note and written dynamic on the page. I had moved on from pictures of ‘creepy crawlers’ to actual staves of written music. It was almost as though I was a real musician.

On the day of the recital, my three siblings and I (all of whom were in classes of their own) were dressed to the nines; suits and dresses that matched, no less. My siblings didn’t have to memorize their pieces. They were still at an early enough stage in their training. I, on the other hand, was ready. I had practised my piece hundreds of times and knew it inside and out, there was no question.

After an hour or so, my time at the grand had arrived. My sweaty palms had been perspiring with each passing performer and were now drenched no matter how many times I tried to dry them on my suit pants.

My teacher—who had been my teacher since I was four—announced my name to the audience. I looked to my parents, both of whom were dressed in their Sunday best, and they gave me reassuring nods. I walked to the piano and climbed onto the seat. My feet could not yet touch the pedals. Instead, they eagerly dangled above them, anxiously awaiting the day they could add complexity and nuance to my music.


Something happened.

The entire room was silent; waiting. I peered over the side of the piano at my teacher who sat by the podium, smiling at me. I looked back at my hands on the keys; an endless line of white and black. My eyes gazed up at the stand that would ordinarily hold a performer’s music. Mine, of course, was in my head.

I took a deep breath and played.

Something happened.

It wasn’t the right sequence of notes. Or were they the right notes at all?

Suddenly, my mind was blank. What are the notes?

I tried again.

Nope.

My breathing heightened and my palms were now dripping on the piano. I looked to my parents in the crowd, no doubt a panicked expression on my face. They nodded at me, reassuring. I turned back to the keys and froze. I did not know what to play. I had completely forgotten my piece.

A few coughs and sniffs from the audience pulled me out of my mind and back to reality. I was in front of 300 people, all of whom were waiting for me to do something and I was doing nothing. So I did the only thing I could do. I stepped down from the piano, my eyes watering and my bottom lip quivering. I shrugged at my parents and then ran to them, no longer able to hold back my tears. My sprint from the piano was met with applause—what for, I didn’t know—and my teacher took the podium to offer words of comfort as she tried to seamlessly move the program along.

As I sobbed, my father brought me out into the lobby and tried to calm me down. The sound of someone absolutely killing their piece to raucous applause spilled out from the closed doors of the auditorium.

This was a small turning point in my development as a child; no doubt a slight moment of emotional trauma as it still feels quite raw and real to this day. It was a turning point that could have gone one way or the other. My father chose the other.


It is not how much failure we’ve experienced that determines our character but rather how we choose to encounter that failure when it inevitably arrives.

With the recital still in progress (only in its second hour), my father drove me home. My tears subsided and I had calmed down. Once at the house, my father instructed me to fetch my music. I knew where it was, tucked into the bench of the piano. I grabbed it without questioning and returned to the car.

I’m not sure how it happened or who spoke to my teacher, but somehow, in the final hour of the recital, I was re-added to the program. My teacher announced my name again and I walked up to the piano with my music. I climbed onto the bench. The music on the stand, I began to play.

In less than a minute, it was done. I had played the piece perfectly, note for note, not a single mistake and I felt euphoric—I felt alive. The crowd cheered as I took a bow and returned to my parents, beaming, my book of music in hand.

The fear of forgetting my music stayed with me for years. I refused to play anywhere without it. I lost marks on Royal Conservatory exams because I chose, deliberately, not to memorize. And for a long time, I assumed it would be my crutch. I would always rely on the security of sheet music.

And then I grew. My confidence grew, my skill-sets grew, my ability to remember things grew. But more importantly, my relationship with failure grew and strengthened.

It is not how much failure we’ve experienced that determines our character but rather how we choose to encounter that failure when it inevitably arrives.


Get back on the bench.

My parents could have chalked my blunder up to a bad experience. It happened, move on, there are three other kids to worry about. If they had done that, who knows if I could still be playing piano today—or even performing. The trauma—and fear of failure—could have been so great that I easily could have completely rejected a life in the arts.

Instead, they taught me a valuable lesson.

Get back on the bench.

Get back on the bench and earn that applause; fight for that recognition. Fight back against the urge to quit and keep going.

The same thing happened when I failed my first driver’s test, or when my Grade 9 teacher sat my parents and I down to say that I was seriously failing math. In every encounter with failure, I have learned to keep going—perhaps not always in the same direction—but moving forward all the same.

We don’t actually fail.

As an actor, my experience at the recital helped me develop the backbone needed for a career riddled with rejection and botched auditions. Indeed, I once soured an audition for a high-paying hosting job by—you guessed it—forgetting every single one of my lines. I kept going.

Recently, I destroyed (and not in the good way) an audition with a prominent musical theatre company. It was uncomfortable and obvious to everyone in the room. But I didn’t spring from the room crying. I laughed about it on the way home. It was, to be fair, so bad it was funny.

Ironically, I returned to that same room two days later for a different company, aced that audition and booked the part. I kept going.

And so should you. Keep going. Don’t avoid failure. It’s going to find you regardless. Instead, change your encounter—your relationship—with it. For a kid who refused to play without music for years, I now play regular nights of improvised piano for improv troupes in the city, trusting that I will remember my chords; trusting that I will remember my motifs. And if I do blank, trusting that I will keep going no matter what.

If we keep going; if we readjust, go back to the drawing board and return to the playing field, we don’t actually fail. We build ourselves up and continue to grow into the inevitable successes we will one day become.

So, whatever you do, just make sure you don’t stop.

One way or another, keep going.

4 thoughts on “A Boy’s First Encounter with Failure

  1. I love this! This is a touching tribute to your parents and the amazing job they did raising you. I remember sitting on my front porch in the summer time with the windows open and hearing you and your sibs practicing on the piano…oh, what a vivid memory. ❤️
    You have obviously overcome a lot in your young life and still have such adventures ahead of you. So many opportunities in your path and more failures along the way.
    It’s so lovely to read your stories, Nicholas and I’m glad your sister is such a fan and promoter! I wish only the best!

    Like

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