80: What Doesn’t Kill You

80: What Doesn’t Kill You

From Chicken Soup for the Soul: Campus Chronicles

What Doesn’t Kill You

Men fail much oftener from want of perseverance than from want of talent.

~William Cobbett

“Don’t be a drama queen.”

I fought to control my face and hold back the tears. My freshman year with Dr. Peters had gone from bad to worse. I was drowning in homesickness and roommate problems, on top of all the academic pressure; and now, my grandmother had died, hundreds of miles away. I’d never felt more alone.

A week crept by between my grandmother’s death and her funeral in early February, and I desperately needed to be with my family. But all I saw in Dr. Peters’ face was disgust. “You can’t just go running home all the time,” he told me.

Far from “running home all the time,” except for Thanksgiving and Christmas, I’d tried to tough it out, hoping it would soon get easier. Now this.

Unlike friends in other majors, I couldn’t tell myself this was just one bad professor. I was a music major in viola performance, and Dr. Peters was my principal teacher. If I stayed, he’d continue to be my daily reality for another three and a half years.

I’d been a successful player in high school, and Dr. Peters himself had recruited me very aggressively and gotten me scholarship money. But as soon as I arrived on campus, he’d started attacking my self-confidence as if that had been his goal all along.

I understood he might be demanding, or want to toughen me up. In fact, that was one reason I’d chosen his school. But this was something else.

For a long time, I was sure the fault was mine. I’d practice longer and longer — sometimes staying in a practice room until three in the morning. At my lessons, I’d literally shake, and start playing wrong notes. “You’re not working hard enough,” he told me.

I was over my head in a required math course. He didn’t care. I had a major paper due in honors English. He didn’t care.

Sometimes, I was sure I’d played well, but the most I could hope for was silence, or maybe — once in a blue moon — “That wasn’t too bad.” The slightest mistake was all he seemed to hear — or care about.

I tried talking to him about my self-doubts. All he said was, “I’m not surprised. This isn’t for everyone. If you can’t handle it, feel free to go. Don’t waste your time and your parents’ money.”

I couldn’t talk to older performance students in the viola studio — there weren’t any. The few surviving older students were all majoring in music education, and the expectations for their performing capabilities weren’t nearly as stringent. And all anyone ever said was, “He’s just like that.” My mother suggested maybe his being hard on me was really a backhanded compliment, because he expected more of me. But whatever I did, it never seemed to be enough.

My semester auditions had gone well, and I got good seats in the best ensembles, but I became convinced I was just awful. It had gotten so bad, in fact, that I wasn’t sleeping. I’d drop into bed later and later, and then toss and turn — sometimes until dawn started to lighten my room. I rarely got more than three hours of sleep at a stretch. Of course, not sleeping didn’t improve my performance, confidence, or mood. I got sick — a lot.

Every Friday afternoon, the school of music had sort of an “open mike” session. It was an opportunity to get used to performing. I should have been playing at least every month, but I kept putting it off. Except for my required ensembles, I was a performance major who avoided performing.

I’d started calling my mother and sobbing — sometimes in the middle of those sleepless nights. She tried to convince me to see a doctor, but I just got hysterical and told her I couldn’t afford to take time off from practicing.

Then, I got the bright idea of transferring — I even contacted one of the other schools that had accepted me out of high school. But by re-audition time, my confidence had bottomed out so badly I knew I’d bomb it. That’s when other potential careers suggested themselves. I called home one day and informed my parents I was switching to animal husbandry. Another time it was pre-med. I’m sure they thought I’d lost my mind — and maybe I had a little.

The breaking point came with Grammy’s death. She had always believed in me, and it was thanks to her I was able to buy my first viola. I went home the middle of that long week, went to the funeral on Sunday, and didn’t return until the next day, which meant I had to cancel my weekly lesson time.

Dr. Peters’ angry e-mail greeted my return. I tried to apologize and explain, at my rescheduled lesson, that the only way I could have gotten back in time was if one of my parents had driven all night to get me there, but it was beyond his comprehension.

Somehow, I limped through cold, cloudy skies, and slush, to the end of the second semester. Spring turned snow to mud, and dead branches into leafy hiding places for birds’ nests. Still, I was cold inside, and my dreams lay in tatters. The more I played, the more mistakes I made, and the worse I sounded. But it was too late to do anything but finish the semester and hope I didn’t fail out. I had the summer to decide what to do, come fall.

One last hurdle remained — I had to play a solo piece for the string faculty. My grade on that jury performance could mean the difference between passing and failure. I practiced and practiced, but was sick with dread.

The morning of my jury, though, something came alive inside me. I knew when I woke from a restless sleep, and felt the sun on my face, that I was “back.” I went to the music building and warmed up, then walked in to face Dr. Peters and the rest of my jury.

Somehow, once I started playing, the music took over. As I finished, my chest felt lighter. The jurors’ marks ranged from Bs to an A-. Except, of course, for Dr. Peters, who gave me a D on the jury and a B- for the semester. For a performance major, he might as well have failed me.

I’m still not sure why I went back for more in the fall. I’d been accepted into a big summer music festival before my second semester “crash.” and going there reminded me of my dreams. But, while Dr. Peters was a gifted teacher, our relationship stayed rocky my entire four years. Other people, including faculty, praised my playing. He rarely did, and on the eve of my grad school auditions, told me I was wasting my time, and would embarrass myself. Gee, thanks for the send-off!

I don’t know how I did it, but I took the first audition anyway, and was accepted on the spot. After that, it got a little easier. Everywhere I auditioned, I heard the positive comments I’d been missing for so long. I graduated on time, with my performance degree, and now I have an amazing teacher who actually seems to like me.

As I was preparing to graduate, several faculty members told me nobody had expected me to last past the first year. It was only then I found out I was Dr. Peters’ first performance graduate in fifteen years!

The music business is tough and full of rejection. Though I’m still trying to stop Dr. Peters’ verbal abuse from running through my head every time I play in public, I’m finally at the point where I appreciate the truth of the old saying that “what doesn’t kill you makes you stronger.”

~Marcela Dario Fuentes

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