Failure is Always an Option

Failure should always be an option.

We are obsessed in our society with failure.  Or maybe the opposite is actually true -- we are obsessed with not failing, and go to great lengths to ensure that every endeavor is “successful.”  Students strive for A’s in every subject in school; Olympians push for the elusive first place in every race, where a hundredth of a second makes all the difference; beauty pageant contestants are crestfallen unless they emerge from the contest wearing the crown; even little kids on soccer or baseball teams are indoctrinated into the culture of “success” when everyone on the team gets a trophy, regardless of their accomplishments.    

But what does it actually mean to fail?  The dictionary states that failure is “the condition or fact of not achieving the desired end or ends; the condition of being insufficient.”   But that only describes the end result, not the struggle, and deters us from appreciating the fruits that are borne as we wrestle with challenges every day. 

I would suggest that failure in and of itself is not something to run from, but should rather be seen as a stop along the way to a destination.  Think about it.  When does actual learning occur?  Is it when you do something perfectly the first time?  Or is it when you don’t reach the goal, but pick yourself up and keep going, trying once more, twice more, three times more, until you finally succeed at the task?

My sister is a middle school music teacher, and she tells her students all the time: “Practice makes permanent.”  Not practice makes perfect, but rather practice makes permanent.  You have to repeat something many times over before it becomes part of your muscle memory, until you no longer have to think about how to do something.

My aunt (from whom I took piano lessons) used a technique when I was learning a passage of music and struggled with a difficult part:  pick a certain number of measures in the piece and repeat them consecutively five times perfectly before going on.  The tempo itself didn’t matter; what was important was that there could be no mistakes in the notes or hesitation in the timing as I played it through five times.  As you might imagine, there were many times when I’d get to the fourth time through, and there would be a lapse in concentration for the split second it took to make the dreaded mistake.  Then it was back to square one.  It could be incredibly frustrating at times, but eventually it became a habit that allowed me to calm down and focus (especially as the fifth run-through approached).  It was a good lesson in perseverance, but it also reinforced that the goal was possible -- you just had to concentrate on the task at hand and keep going.  Failure was not a moral judgment in that circumstance, just an opportunity to learn and do better next time.  With each repetition played well, confidence grew that I indeed had it under my fingers so that I knew I could play that passage smoothly once I was playing the whole piece.

She used another technique that encouraged me to focus on playing the correct notes.  Sight-reading has always been my Achille’s heel -- I do much better playing by ear, or when I’ve heard the piece played first to get an idea of what it should sound like.  She learned that fact very quickly with me when I started lessons as a 7-year-old, so she forced me out of my comfort zone.  She would randomly pick a couple of measures that had no real meaning outside the context of the passage in which they were found, and make me repeat those five times without mistakes.  It forced me to really look at the notes on the page, rather than relying on my ear to direct where I thought the melody and harmony were going.

Memorizing a piece of music (which all her students had to do with every piece of music they played; we were never allowed to perform at a recital with music) was accomplished by using a combination of these two techniques.  I had to start with the last measure of the piece and play only that measure through five times without hesitation.  Then I would look at the last two measures of the piece and play them through five times;  eventually I worked my way back (adding one more measure each time) until the final passage was mastered and memorized.  I repeated that process with each section of the music, dividing the piece up into smaller manageable chunks.  I also applied this method to learning the transitions from one section of music to another, and eventually the piece just flowed together beautifully with no “trouble spots.”

As we grow older and gather more and more experiences, we begin to really get good at the things we spend our time doing.  Eventually we no longer have to even think about what we’re doing, but rather just enjoy the doing.

I enjoy projects that are complicated and time-consuming, and that require some degree of expertise;  there is tremendous satisfaction and joy in accomplishing a difficult task.  But periodically I appreciate the opportunity to just do something simple and elegant, a quick project that only requires me to skim the surface of my creativity:  a handmade card sent to a friend, a small token of friendship or encouragement given to someone from my heart, a pretty quilt or pair of knitted booties given to welcome a new baby into the world; all quick but well-made after years of practice.

When I was in college in southern California, I had the opportunity to see Vladimir Horowitz in concert.  It was an amazing experience, as he was considered one of the elite concert pianists in the world at the time.  He dazzled the audience with his repertoire, playing one difficult piece after another to the astonishment of the crowd.  He obliged us with two challenging encores after his program was complete, but when it came time for his third encore, he was spent.  Somehow he found the energy to come back one last time to the piano.  He sat down and started to play Bach’s Minuet in G major, a piece that every piano student learns in elementary school.  You could have heard a pin drop as the audience hung on every note, taking us all back to that time when we were small children, with legs dangling high off the ground and hands that were too small to comfortably span the keys, determined to tame a piece that to a little kid seemed like a daunting masterpiece.  His hands had played those keys millions of times with complex flourishes and furious arpeggios dispatched at breakneck speed, but it was the elegant dignity of that last simple piece that I still remember.  Even after accomplishing a complex and exhausting program, there was still joy in a little child’s song played with nostalgic longing and tenderness.