Facing The Music: How A Teenager Reminded Me To Keep The Faith

If you can survive disappointment, nothing can beat you.

-Louis C.K.

Although the room was only occupied by some students, a few parents and the judge, it surely felt a whole lot larger to her than the traditional white concrete block classroom that is so prevalent in the Wisconsin school system. All that was missing was a stage and spotlight. In just a few short minutes, she would fill the room with the sounds of her voice, but not before the judge, sitting at the back of the room at a rectangular table filled with sheet music and grading forms, finishes her notes and assigns a score to the previous performer.

No one speaks. You can hear a pin drop as the entire room watches the officiant perform her duties.

Standing at the front with the piano directly off to the left, the accompanist gives her visibly nervous fifteen-year-old student a gentle smile and a thumbs-up from behind the keyboard while they patiently wait.

“Relax,” she silently mouths in an attempt to get her to enjoy the moment. “You’ll do great. Just breathe.”

The student complies, although it’s clear to everyone that nerves are getting the best of her. If the school wasn’t so chilly, she would’ve broken into a cold sweat five minutes before she walked into the room. After a few minutes, the judge stops writing and slides her notes into a manila envelope. She hands it to a young lady who is waiting to take the previous session’s results to the scoring room. As the runner departs, the judge exhales slowly, looks up and smiles at the waiting performer at the front of the room. She gives her a slight nod.

All set. You may start.

The student takes a deep breath and looks at the pianist who nods back in return. She immediately begins to play the four-bar introduction to her piece, queuing the student to begin at the fifth.

“Nerves be damned,” the student thinks to herself. “Just gotta do my best.


In addition to the usual concerts and other public appearances that every high school choral, band, and orchestra student participates in throughout the academic year, Solo and Ensemble ranks among the top events. That’s because it gives fledgling performers the opportunity to shine, solo style, in the audible craft-work of the voice and instrument.

Much like her father before her at that age, my daughter aspires to be of exceptional talent when it comes to her musical ability, although we differ in the methodology. I was a self-absorbed hot shot drummer wannabe who thought he was all that and a bag of chips. She has more serious intentions of developing her God-given gift of vocal musicality.

That calling has set my wife and me on a different path than the one we’ve traveled over the last four years. Having been boosters of our son’s wrestling team throughout his high school career since 2012, we now find ourselves switching from being athletic parents to that of theater and music. That suits us fine as change is good, plus it provides a perspective that’s different in the best possible way. Translated, that means volunteering for wrestling meets and tournaments takes a back seat to the time we’ll dedicate to our daughter’s theater productions and concert events for the next four years. It began a few weeks ago, where we spent a Saturday in service of the music department at her high school for a divisional Solo And Ensemble competition.

My wife and I split duties for the day covering the same room that was being utilized for performances. While her job was to be inside the room herding students in the correct order and schlepping sheet music back forth to the judge, mine was to be outside the door, checking in performers and making sure no one walked in while a performance was in progress.

If there’s one thing that has changed since the days I participated in Solo and Ensemble competition, it is absolutely the level of talent. I don’t recall the voices of teen-aged kids back then sounding so developed and adult-like. Much of the singing I heard that day was incredibly progressive compared to the standards we had back in the late seventies and early eighties. Not everyone has the same kind of voice, though. That’s to be expected considering the day featured performers in various age ranges from fourteen to eighteen years singing vastly different styles of music. Some were advanced in ability and progression, whereas others lacked in strength and tone. More than a few clearly had some big-stage production experience aside those who had none.

She was off-key and struggled with the dynamics of the piece in several places.

About mid-way through the day, I crossed paths with a young girl that wasn’t any more than fifteen years old who had difficulty with her performance. She was off-key and struggled with the dynamics of the piece in several places. I wasn’t in the room, but I could only imagine the moderate level of discomfort each spectator felt while she sang. At the conclusion, the judge offered the customary feedback that is par for the course at these events. Although I couldn’t hear word-for-word what was being said, it was pretty obvious the judge was trying to balance her positive comments with constructive criticism in the only way she knew how – without upsetting her. As most of the judges were choral teachers, she surely had practice at delivering the good and the bad.

When the door opened, the student emerged, with tears streaming down her face. Judging by the redness of her eyes and the puffiness of her cheeks, she’d started to cry shortly before she left the room, perhaps even while the judge was giving her final encouragements. Her friends followed her in hot pursuit in determination to not leave her alone. She got as far as the entrance to the adjoining room down the hall before she stopped, slumped her back against a locker and allowed herself a slow slide to the floor, feet first.

Once she was sitting, the tears flowed uncontrollably. A few friends offered words of encouragement and support, but she continued to weep. And although this wasn’t my own daughter sitting on the floor, it was far too easy to envision that it could be.

I walked over to where she was seated on the cold linoleum and dropped to a knee beside her.

“Hey….you did your best. It takes a lot for someone to put themselves out there for all the world to see and to face criticism. It may not have turned out the way you wanted or you came up short, but it’s still an incredible accomplishment. Some people choose to live their entire lives in anonymity without ever taking a chance. That’s not you. You put yourself outside of your comfort zone. Be proud, because that’s a conscious choice to grow. “

She smiled at me in return and laughed at herself for a second, then uttered an embarrassed but teary “thank you.” I could’ve said more, but I didn’t want to look like the creepy old guy that inserts himself into places or conversations where he doesn’t belong. I’d already breached that image as it was.

I retreated to my post at the door while watching the young lady and her entourage stand up and walk down the hallway. As they rounded the corner and disappeared from my view, I chuckled slightly as I reflected upon the irony of my own advice….be proud, because that’s a conscious choice to grow.

Now there’s the pot calling the kettle black.

A few years back, I put myself out there when I first started to blog and publish on a regular basis. What began as an experiment has turned to more serious aspirations as I’ve managed to expand my portfolio of sites over the last few years to which I contribute. Some other places have also expressed interest in posting my written ramblings, plus I’ve recently agreed to publish monthly on another site. And even with that moderate level of personal success, I confess that each time I hit the publish or submit button, I can’t help but think what I’ve produced is sub-standard material. That’s the downside of putting yourself out there in any form. You’ll always be fearful that it won’t be good enough.

Still, I’m willing to take on a certain level of potential personal disappointment because I know it’ll help me grow intellectually and professionally, even if I get lambasted by readers. That faith is vindicated when I discover that my words or actions helped somebody, or made a difference at a particular juncture in someone’s life.

If there is one thing I’ve learned about human nature, it’s that we’re often our own worst enemy. Our harshest critics are the ones that stare us down in the mirror every day and tell us we can do more than what we have previously achieved, regardless if it’s of intrinsic or extrinsic value. That’s the drive that makes us better human beings. We hate failure. It’s a fact that we get beat from time to time, but we sure as hell don’t have to like it.

I didn’t see the young lady I’d encountered in the hallway for the rest of the day, but I knew she had at least one more performance that afternoon. I genuinely hoped she’d taken my words to heart and knocked it out of the park, but that would be giving myself too much credit. She may have thought I was just some weirdo parent who was being way too nosy, for all I know. Or perhaps, for a moment, I was able to impart some wisdom upon someone who needed it at a critical time…even a fifteen-year-old student who may have thought she was all that and a bag of chips.

And maybe….just maybe…, I learned something about myself at the same time.


Andy Books
Andy Books
I have spent most of my life in a leadership capacity. That all began right from the time I was the lead in my elementary school play to my current position as a Sales Manager. My truest love and best work comes from teaching and training aspiring leaders how to be skilled and effective leaders, which is a large part of my current occupation. Thirty-five years of collective experience as a Corporate Trainer, College Instructor, Operations Manager, Classroom Facilitator, and Foodservice Manager have played major parts in forming my philosophies that surround company success through employee engagement. Teaching someone to effectively lead gives me the greatest joy, and I write a lot about it. My most important titles though? Father. Dad. Husband. They give me the best material to write and blog about, and you can find them on Linkedin and The Goodmen Project.

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  1. This was a very heartwarming story. Not everyone would have tried to encourage and l iift the spirits of that young girl as you did. I completely agree with you that we can be our own roughest critic . I am not sure if being that way is good, bad, or both.

  2. Beautiful piece, Andy. Love the last line especially: “And maybe….just maybe…, I learned something about myself at the same time.” I think when we take a knee for someone else, it’s really our internal SAGE taking a knee for us. The message we give to someone else to hear is just as important for us.

  3. I love this story, Andy. It takes so much courage to put yourself in a position where you may fail. How much stronger we are when we do, though! The encouraging words you shared that day were a gift, and most likely, more valuable than you’ll ever know. Thanks for sharing your story!

  4. Solo and Ensemble – in this part of the planet, a rite of passage for kids in school, a chance for parents to partake of the labor of their kids. It’s not always an easy thing to sit and watch, as our kids only get that one shot to do their stuff. Even with the best of preparation and working as hard as one can, it’s a human endeavor and thus subject to fumbles, flutters and missteps. As you so rightly point out, it’s about the effort, and about the attitude of vulnerability in putting yourself out there, and then being open to listening to the feedback. These kids get to know that awesome feeling of accomplishment, of having done things that they weren’t sure that they could tackle and regardless of the outcome, they know that they have some amount of intestinal fortitude to step out of a comfort zone to do something bigger than themselves.

    Wonderful tale that you woven for his here, and I can so relate. As someone who has sat at basketball games, soccer matches, watched a kid run cross country and play golf, we’ve also sat through enough of these, solo and ensemble, band concerts and performances, and know that none of the time, effort or focus was wasted or didn’t have some enduring effect, for all of us. Thanks for sharing, Andy, this is really good stuff.

    • We share a common bond, don’t we Tom? Watching our kids succeed and fail, and knowing that in defeat is where the greatest lesson is learned. Painful to feel, and even more excruciating to witness when it’s your child. Yup…welcome to parenting. 🙂 Thanks for the comment, my friend.

  5. Beautiful story and message, Andy. I could relate completely to the young woman to whom you spoke such kind, supportive words. Stepping out onto any stage takes tremendous courage. Showing up in our lives takes courage and commitment. Sometimes knowing there’s something bigger than our “performance” at stake frees us to “leave it all on the field, the track, the course, or the stage”-even if we fall down many times on the way to the finish line. Our lives become demonstrations/examples of what’s possible, what matters, of daring greatly. Thank you for sharing your writing gifts with all of us!

    • Cause if I’m going to die, I’m going to die trying…..damn the torpedoes. 🙂 Thank you for reading and thoughtful comments, Laura.

  6. Andy, I especially enjoyed that little window into your transition from wrestling parent to music parent, since I divided my mom days between basketball bleachers and small music venues for young hardcore rockers. And what a wonderful moment—and bit of reading—when you dropped to one knee to console a teen singer just after a crushing moment of brave/vulnerable sharing and immediate critique. You’ll never know the difference you may have made. And how perfect that the moment then becomes beautiful sharing of your own that resonates further in unknowable ways. Just my cup of tea. Thank you!

    • “You’ll never know the difference you may have made.” True, but I know I lightened the moment just a bit. At least she didn’t think “damned wacko parent. ” 🙂 Thanks for reading, and for the comment Teresa!

  7. Wonderful story, Andy. Thank you for sharing it. It resonates on many levels. I agree with Sarah; your advice to her was exactly right. No matter our age, we can all use encouragement like the kind you shared.
    Indeed we are our own worst critics. It takes courage to put ourselves out there, but we do it: one step, one word at a time. I can’t tell you how many times I’ve wondered whether or not I should continue writing. Then, I hear my mom’s voice in my head and my heart, and I keep going.
    Excellent piece of work here, Andy.

    • Exactly, Laura. Even better – when someone stops me and asks, “why have you not written lately?” Makes my day…know what I mean? 🙂 Thanks for the comment and for reading!

  8. I love this, Andy, for so many reasons. Your advice to her was exactly right, and I wish I had heard those words when I was her age. I rarely took center stage as a vocalist in junior high and high school, instead choosing the safety of choir and duets for competitions. It wasn’t until I was nearly 40 that I started singing professionally as the lead singer in a couple of bands, and that’s because the opportunity landed in my lap. I could have said no. I could have given up after a critical comment of an early performance, but I found performing to be fun and challenging.

    You are exactly right that it takes a huge amount of courage to put yourself out there, whether you’re performing, writing, or creating another form of art, and not everyone is willing to take those steps. I’m so glad you decided to continue your experiment in writing, I love your work.

    • I knew this would touch a nerve with so many of my musically inclined friends, especially with those who perform publicly, as you do with Rocket To Uranus. It was the same with me in jazz band, vocal performances, and even writing. making a conscious choice to grow usually involves fear of failure. Overcoming it, and accepting the shortcomings involved within make us better. Thanks for the comment, Sarah. Always good to hear from you. 😉

  9. Andy, this is lovely…I was anticipating the moment of faith.. but it was there all along as I knew I would not be disappointed. I love to share these moments of discovery. Thank you!
    Best line “ That faith is vindicated when I discover that my words or actions helped somebody, or made a difference at a particular juncture in someone’s life.”

    • And most often, you’ll never know you’ve done it. Guess in a way, that’s paying it forward. Thanks for the comment, Paula!

    • Exactly. We may never know.. but if you ever get the chance to know. That is just the best gift ever!