In 4th or 5th grade I took up the flute. I always liked the way flutists looked in pictures. I will admit that I was mistaken about how the flute worked when my father brought home my shiney new thing of wonder.  I thought there was a tiny mouthpiece that came out of the top part which was then inserted in your mouth… and then you blew into that. I didn’t realize that the faces flutist made were actually what they had to do to make the instrument work. Anyway, despite the completely wrong preconceived idea of the flute, I pressed on.

The First Worst Performance of My Life

This is a picture of a Gemeinhardt flute, just like the one I learned on. I traded it in, my 2nd year of college, for a classical guitar (worst trade of my life). When I saw this picture I immediately smelled metal. It’s amazing how our memory system works.

I’m not sure how it is in most grade school or middle school bands but ours was made up of one trumpet, a guitarist, a flutist (ME) and a gazillion clarinetists.
On one hand I wished that I, too, picked the clarinet. On the other hand, it was nice to have something different. Still, my dad probably wished that I would’ve taken up the trombone (which we had in the house, it was his) or the drums (which we also had a snare, it was my brother’s) as it would have saved some money. Nevertheless, our very badly sounding band was formed.

By 6th grade many of the band mates jumped ship. It wasn’t a cool thing to be in band, anyway. Everyone was after school playing sports and there we were in a circle with our instruments. By middle school we practiced during a portion of lunch and into home room so we were cutting away from our social life to keep up with our band. Yet, by 6th grade we gained another flutist and it was the first time I felt any competition with music.

Let me back up… I was never told I was the best, I was never bred to be the best, and I never claimed to be the best but I always thought I was the best musician in my school. I played the organ at church, I was often a lead part in the Christmas programs, I had been in band from the beginning and I had taken piano lessons from our music teacher from 1st grade until 6th or 7th grade. While I did have God-given talent, yes, I had become egotistical with it. I allowed myself to be defined by it.

Anyway, the other flutist, Erica, and I had a duet (can we say “flutet?”) for a performance. She was taking the melody and I was taking the harmony. It was my first experience with a duet and the first time being semi-center stage with the flute. I remember weeks leading up to the performance my mom would ask “Jamie? Have you been practicing?” My answer was likely, “Yes, mom, get off my case.” And so it went on for the days prior to the big day. My mother never pressed too much but I’m sure she could see what was about to happen.

Before going onstage I remember barely warming up. I was being smug and putting my flute together as if it was another day at the office.  I tuned with Erica and that was it. I remember being up on stage, in our gymnasium/auditorium combo (which I’m sure was very conducive to acoustics in band. Maybe that’s why we always sounded mediocre.) with that itchy sweater, itchy panty hose and a plaid skirt (as if I didn’t get enough of plaid during the day, my mom fancied me in plaid ALL THE TIME). The spotlight shined heavy on us and I was nervous, per usual. Well, the teacher started with the piano and Erica started with her part and then I did my thing only the notes were not coming out. I couldn’t get my mouth to work! The sounds just weren’t forming! In the midst of me not sure why my flute wasn’t shooting sound out, I was blanking on my notes. I completely forgot the piece. So I did what any proud, yet horrible, musician would do – I pretended to play. My thinking was that people wouldn’t know if it was Erica or me that sounded so terrible. Sure, my red face may have given it away but it was worth a shot.
I recall looking down at my teacher mid performance and the shame I saw across her face. I was so embarrassed and sad.

There were both good and bad repercussions after this performance. The good things that I learned was that no matter how good your God-given talent is, hard work is still necessary (my brother is living proof to this on swim team. Despite being vertically challenged, he still holds some local records that are some 20+ years old.). I also learned that I was never “better than” anyone in the first place. Obviously. Erica held her own, knew her piece, and someone who made her mouth do the right thing on stage. To become smug and egotistical with my talent only made for an embarrassing performance.  I learned that the world did not end. I learned that people won’t judge you if you mess up (despite my ego being thoroughly crushed that night, not one person said a word to me about it – EVER) and if they do then they likely don’t have the nerve to try what you tried in the first place.

The bad things that happened was that it wasn’t long after the performance that I closed that flute case for the last time. I had taken my bad performance as the ultimate failure. I couldn’t bear the thought of getting up on stage again with that thing to have all eyes on me, waiting to see if I would mess up or redeem myself. My insecurity was a raging fire. The performance anxiety bled into all areas of my life. I already had a case of it with the organ at church but this just solidified the deal. It wasn’t until I was in high school choir that I cared to get on stage again. It wasn’t until an elective college piano class that I ever did a solo performance on an instrument again.

It wasn’t until my parents happily purchased a guitar for me, in college, that I truly enjoyed instruments again. There was (and is) something a little “brainless” about strumming chords and singing. It’s just relaxed and fun and everything enjoyable. It’s the exact opposite of playing a grand piano in a spotlight on stage (which I also bombed that too).

The most important take away is (in the past five years or so I’ve learned) that our competition is not with other people. It’s with ourselves. And even then, it’s not competition, it’s learning. We are always learning and evolving and growing. Just the other night I was drawing something and it was not my best work. In fact, it’s pretty poor. However, I stood back and thought, “well, on the next one I won’t use that color yellow with that color blue. They didn’t work well together. Also, I shouldn’t have done the shading quite that way. It would have looked better this way.” Our learning should never be perfection.

To get a little philosophical: perfectionism, as we have created it in our mind, is a product of what we have allowed other’s opinions and standards create for us. My mother, God love her, used to be a neat freak. Neat FREAK. It’s amazing how organized and clean our home was growing up because I look at my home now and don’t understand how she accomplished it all (granted, she worked part time out of the house but still). So, the perfect house in my mind was created by way of my mother’s standards. Also, I look up to so many musicians and I remember when I recognized Tori Amos. While I’m not a massive fan of hers, she is amazingly talented and I looked to her as a pianist. She composes and performs the most intricate of pieces and I bought her song books to play and, I gotta tell you, it was defeating. She’s amazing. She’s “perfect.” I was measuring my own talents by her perfection.

Because of this bad first performance, I was unable to achieve perfection (as created in my mind) so I decided I wouldn’t keep going. That’s the worst thing to do.  Young Jamie…  She had so much to learn.

It is better to live your own destiny imperfectly than to live an imitation of somebody else’s life with perfection. – Elizabeth Gilbert