I experienced a wonderful instant of humility last weekend. I needed it, too, though I didn’t realize that until afterwards.
I have felt, for most of my life, that my academic and musical talents were not just my best traits, but also remarkably good, taken objectively. With only two or three exceptions, my grades have always been commendable — I held a 3.9 average in high school; 4.0 for my bachelor’s degree, and 3.8 for the masters courses I took before leaving school for good. I learn new tasks very easily, and I’ve held any number of jobs which required accelerated mastery of tools or skills that were new to me. I know I sound like I’m blowing my own horn. I am. I’m pretty smart, except for common sense — in that department I’m not the sharpest knife in the kitchen.
My musical accomplishments, through high school, especially, are another source of pride. I started playing the French Horn in seventh grade, and by the time I was a sophomore in high school, I had either competed or auditioned into whatever organization I wanted to join. I played with the Portland Junior Symphony, sat first chair in my sophomore and senior years in All-State Band, and first chair in All-State Orchestra my junior year. I was invited to participate in a concert at the University of Maine, during which we played music written especially for that concert, and directed by the composer. I went to music camp four summers at UMaine, and that was always a chance to shine. I was good, but I learned in college that I lacked the discipline to go from good to great.
Mom invited me to attend a recital at Bowdoin College’s International Music Festival last Sunday. I hesitated — I was afraid I would see these successful students and go through paroxysms of regret, for what could have been. Within the first ten seconds of the first performance, I could tell I need not have worried — these kids were so talented, so disciplined, and so dedicated to their music that I realized I never would have played at that level. I was satisfied with what came easily, whereas every performer in the recital obviously put their hearts and souls into their playing.
I realized that I had remained ridiculously overconfident in my abilities. I really was pretty good, but when the time came for a challenge from a private instructor, I quit playing rather than admit that I didn’t know more than him, and that, had I done as he asked, my musical career and my entire life would have been much closer to what I thought it would be.
But I also know that regret is wasted time and energy — I can’t change any of this now, so I just smile and remember the fun I had when I was playing. I really loved that horn, and I was always happy when I was playing. Those are good memories to have.