a little lesson on failure. ^^
Paraphrased from the wise words of my piano teacher Ms. Yap, after getting knocked out of a national piano competition in the quarter-finals.
“You weren’t going to win.
I knew it once you got up there and played the first octave of your Barcarolle. Instantly, the energy in the hall dropped, because your tone was just weaker than the one before you. And to be frank, it was weaker than most of the ones I’ve heard; firmness of touch was always your weakness.
Your opening was sensitive and passionate, and your first few sections were good…and then you panicked once you made the first mistake. Same problem as always. Your ending was quite messy.
So once I walked out after your performance, I wanted to talk to you, but I decided not to. I wanted you to feel the defeat yourself, and I think you were mature enough to reflect. I saw your post, and I knew that I didn’t need to text you to comfort you.
I didn’t train you for this competition to win.
Yes, we worked six months on your pieces, and you’ve improved so much! I know you did recordings, so go listen to your diploma ones – I was so happy that you passed, actually. If you went in for the diploma now, I am sure you would get a Distinction.
But diploma exam performances are very different from competition performances. Not just the setting and atmosphere – that’s a whole different story. I’m talking about the standards. They demand so much, it’s crazy. Diploma examiners are more merciful than competition judges.
And I was sure that with all those factors considered, along with your underdeveloped technique, you weren’t going to win.
But think of it this way…
You weren’t going in to win.
When you told me you were entering NPVC*, I told you, ‘go for it’. I wanted you to have the experience of going on stage and performing in a competition setting – I promised you that it would be different from anything you’ve ever tried, right?
Remember, lots of the twenty other people up there with you have been entering competitions since they were young. You…I didn’t dare to send you for any competitions, because your technique was always weak, and I knew that if I tried to push you then you’d lose your passion. Playing exam pieces already pushed it, so how could I push you to play all the notes of any piece perfectly for a competition?
Honestly, I was happy when you got into the quarter-finals. Because yesterday, on the stage, you experienced something new. You probably went back to cry about it, then you would learn and become a much better performer. And if you want, we can work for FRSM^.
Honestly, you didn’t lose anything.
You’re worried about the time you wasted – I promise you none of that time that you put into this was wasted. Learning music is a lifelong process that only stops when you say ‘I give up’.
And ever since you entered this competition I haven’t seen you give up, no matter how tough the techniques demanded from you were. I’ve said it already – you’ve improved tremendously since six months ago, and the disciplines that you picked up will stay in you as long as you don’t say ‘I give up’.
Maybe you’re worried about the money that you wasted – if you put it into perspective, you spent more money on your two diploma certs than the registration, booking costs, whatever, of this competition. Were your diploma certs a waste of money? No, because you see the rewards.
But a certificate is just a piece of paper. In undertaking a journey like a competition, the rewards cannot be so easily seen. Even if you won, the money you get is peanuts compared to the amount you invested. Winners pay for the exposure – you play well, people recognise you, they invite you to play. You weren’t ready for that kind of exposure, so you paid for the experience – you tried harder than you ever did, you overcame much more than you ever did, you became the best possible version of yourself. That’s a reward.
You cannot compare yourself to others, because, you know it, they’re better than you in every way. Your playing is still unrefined. But for you, yourself, you have won. You have beat the limits that you thought you had.
…alright, play me something. Let’s start afresh.”
To Accept Failure.
This goes out to everyone who has ever failed majorly in something. Yes, it hurts. It really, really hurts, and it’s a feeling that we generally try to avoid.
In the moment of that first major failure in anything, you start by convincing yourself that you weren’t that bad. That you failed because the standards were unfair, that others had failed as well, that you could probably do better with your current abilities…no. You failed. No matter how hard you tried, no matter how much effort you put in, take that slap to the face – you failed.
The key word is “you”.
Your Failure Is Yours Alone.
You don’t have to talk to others about how much you didn’t deserve to fail, and you don’t need to waste the empathy of your friends on it. The failure is yours alone.
Now, that is not to say that other people and the environment you worked in had no effect on your abilities. On the contrary, it is these random factors and distractions that contribute to your progress in the most profound ways. So yes, you wouldn’t be wrong if you were to blame others for your mistakes – in fact, it would be fair to do so.
Yet, we see people of vastly different circumstances who never take responsibility for their mistakes, and we know they’re wrong. It’s an issue of pride, and I won’t spend anymore than my previous article on this – pride hinders progress. People who blame others for their failures short-change their own learning.
So in Ms. Yap’s opening sentences, she made it clear: I failed, I should accept my own failure, and I should think about why I failed, keeping the criticism directed at me and no one else.
Perhaps that is why it is so hard to accept failure – no one’s failure is theirs alone, and it is objectively reasonable to blame others for it. Yet, to progress, there is a need to accept responsibility, regardless of all other conditions. The feeling is bitter. To personally accept failure is unfair, is wrong – yet it is necessary.
And so there is great profundity in accepting failure, then taking responsibility for it.
Open Up, Experience Failure.
People write entire books on this – get out there, don’t be afraid to fail. This assumes that we’re good at measuring the stakes, and we won’t invest our life savings in a coin toss. Most of the time though, when we’re not talking big money, opening up to new experiences doesn’t come with high stakes.
I entered the competition with that in mind – thought I might as well try. I had no idea it would be so scary and humbling. Ms, Yap, though, in the talk we had before I submitted my application – she knew. She saw me messing up in front of three humourless judges and an audience that didn’t want to be convinced by anyone other than the one guy they supported. And yet, she happily let me go. I faintly remembered her warning me that the standards would be high – I had no idea they would be that high. For her, it was a six-month journey to watch me build myself up for one of the biggest failures in my life.
In the six months, she kept reminding me that I was “passionate enough”. That I cared about the music enough to beat all other circumstances. One detail I left out was that I entered the competition in my final year of JC (high school), and the real, final exams were a reality. So that was a good excuse for my failure.
Yet, perhaps she knew – once I submitted the application, it meant that the responsibility was all mine. There was no more space for excuses after that.
But in doing so, she was ready to take no credit for whatever was to come, and therefore I decided to write this article a year-and-a-half later: I realised how critical this lesson was for me. Never in my life has someone so deliberately thrown me out to fail before. I kept this lesson through the army days, through every musical project I jumped headfirst into despite the unfavorable conditions – worst case, I’d spend all my effort to fail, and I’d learn from it.
Everything I wrote can basically be summarised in two lines:
Open up and be prepared to fail.
Take responsibility for all failures.
This is a personal pact. It cannot be forced upon anyone, and it needs to be cultivated over time – therefore Ms. Yap never considered sending me for competitions in my first nine years with her. I wouldn’t be ready to fail – I’d quit, and that’s when everything would really be wasted. Eventually I developed enough passion and maturity to fail, and that’s when she threw me in.
By the time this post goes public, Ms. Yap would have read through it, and I would have sent the message of gratitude that she deserves along with it. But over here, I’d just like to thank her again for everything – for seeing music as more than a means of achievement, and for cultivating me as an artist rather than an achiever. Maybe it wasn’t deliberate – perhaps just good values that made it down – but I’m forever grateful to have found such a teacher. 🙂
So thank you, Ms. Yap. In my nine years with you I’d achieved nothing but a few paper certificates, and I still have nothing that I can show off to the public eye…but inside me, you’ve nurtured a musician. Someone who does more than make sounds on instruments – someone who seeks to understand the art, compromise himself for the values that the art demands, spread the unconventional, yet golden words that you passed down.
Thank you for everything. 🙂
* – NPVC: the National Piano and Violin Competition, Singapore’s most legit performance competition
^ – Fellowship of the Royal Schools of Music, the highest-level performance diploma of the ABRSM syllabus. In Singapore, only two or three of these are awarded every exam session.