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Personal Story: My failed music career

I started playing the piano aged four, and was told I had a talent. But when I studied music at university I discovered that it was not, as it had been at school, mine for the taking. 

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I arrived early to my final audition, scheduled at 9.20am one Friday in December 2018. I sat in the entrance hall of the Guildhall School of Music & Drama for an hour before I was sent to warm up on the piano, my programme of Beethoven, Chopin, Rachmaninov, Gershwin and Glass whirling around my mind.

The two members of the panel were positioned at the top of a bank of seating in an otherwise empty lecture theatre, except for the Steinway on the lowered stage. When I played, chaos reigned. I tend to forget details of performances, but I know there were stumbles, shaking hands, an adjustment of the stool. At one point – though I couldn’t say for sure – I recall a piece coming completely unstuck.

My suspicions of failure were fortified afterwards, when I perched awkwardly on a chair the row below the panel for an “interview” and the conversation lasted less than five minutes. A few days later, I received my rejection – the final result of my auditions to study for a master’s in performance, on the piano, at a conservatoire. I hadn’t got into the Royal College or Royal Academy of Music, but I had one offer from the Royal Northern College of Music in Manchester. In the days that followed, I knew I had made up my mind. I wouldn’t be going. I would give up my pursuit of a career in music.

I started playing the piano aged four, and was told I had a talent. I was fortunate to have supportive parents and access to instruments and lessons. Music spoke to me in a way that nothing else did, and I felt the feeling was mutual. I discovered that I had perfect pitch. This made me feel deeply and personally connected to the nuances of even the most brash pop, which I listened to as a teenager between obscure CDs (Pat Metheny, Moondog, Imogen Heap) borrowed from my dad, and whatever late Romantic symphony we were playing in youth orchestra.

Though I continued my weekly piano lessons until I left home at 18, and took up the cello and saxophone along the way, I was always less confident in my ability to play before others. I was nervous and too embarrassed to express myself fully onstage. I reconciled this as part of my anxious temperament. It wasn’t helped, though, by always being underprepared. I had never done what one piano teacher told me I should: practise until you cannot play it wrong.

When I studied music at university I discovered that it was not, as it had been at school, mine for the taking. Others shared my passion – and were better at it. The talents of many of my contemporaries had been nurtured not just by loving parents and encouraging teachers but elite establishments (junior conservatoire, the National Youth Orchestra, BBC Young Musician).

Rather than trying to compete, I distinguished myself as someone who would rather write essays than play. In private, I was engulfed by jealousy. I worried that by retreating from the piano I was somehow upsetting my own fate. Equally, I was too scared of failing in front of my invariably successful peers to try.

In my lessons, I needed more and more reassurance. Rather than taking an interest in what I was playing, I just wanted to play it well. I asked my piano teacher at university, a professor from the Royal Academy, if it was worth me carrying on. “There is talent there,” he shrugged, “but it’ll take a lot of work.” When I graduated, I began having lessons with a master’s student at the Guildhall. In my first lesson I enquired anxiously if she thought I was good. “Yeah,” she said. “Yeah. But I mean” – she laughed, sympathetically – “you’re never going to be Horowitz.”

In early 2018, I was working as an administrator at the Royal Academy of Music, and interacted with students who were studying for performance degrees. I couldn’t let go of the idea that it could have been me. I decided to test the theory. I found a new teacher. I resolved to apply for master’s courses at prestigious conservatoires the following year. My piano teacher at university had suggested that to be as good as I wanted to be, I should start practising for two or three hours a day, at a minimum. I would do as he said, and see how good I really was.

Learning a 45-minute programme of virtuosic music by memory is itself “a lot of work”. By my first audition in November, I was just about prepared, but I never felt completely comfortable. There were tricky passages I would dread, notes in the middle of chords I would bluff and hope nobody noticed. But in between attacks of nerves I felt a thrill, and a sense of harmony, when I managed to make the notes sparkle; when my mind, my hands and my ears were all in sync.

That I would do the practice and the auditions was never in doubt, but I remained unsure of what I was aiming for. Eventually I conceded that even if I went to Royal Northern, it was almost unthinkable that I would end up with a solo career. But nor did I want a solo career enough. Every step had felt difficult. I was tired. Sometimes the piano keys themselves seemed to turn on me, becoming too heavy for me to push down.

As children, we do not understand that the things we love do not belong only to us. Then, I was not prepared to relinquish music to anyone else’s ownership. Now, I have finally loosened my grip.

There is something freeing about rejection. Having an aptitude for something as magical as music had always filled me with a sense of responsibility, and suddenly it was out of my hands. The report from my audition at the Royal College specified that I was “clearly of insufficient standard”. I was playing at the highest level I had in my life, yet the panel still found that my performance lacked “depth”, “nuance”, “bravura” and “dramatic gesture”. I was stung, but the message finally became clear. I wasn’t cut out for this. And though there was loss there, what’s more profound – and hopeful – is that nothing had really changed. 

Emily Bootle is the New Statesman’s editorial assistant.

This article appears in the 04 September 2020 issue of the New Statesman, Britain isn't working