Mrs. Caldwell was my elementary school music teacher. She had the quintessential look of a spinster school marm. Long black wool skirt, white blouse, black cardigan sweater, long braided hair coiled on top of her head, pinned in place with a sharp pointy thing.
Reading glasses perched at the end of her nose, held by a chain around her neck, Mrs. Caldwell had a stern look and an air of prim authority. She was intimidating.
Despite all that, I liked her. She was a great music teacher.
Though I come from a family of musicians and teachers, it was Mrs. Caldwell that taught me to read music. She patiently and clearly explained music theory, how to subdivide measures, to read key signatures, and to play scales. I use what she taught me to this day and I’m a darn good sight-reader because of her.
Sure, I was embarrassed the day she pulled a nail clipper out of her purse and forcibly trimmed my fingernails in front of my classmates. But she was right, my nails were interfering with my violin playing.
So when she told us things I listened. She urged us to work on our tone. To make a pleasing sound with our instruments was the whole point of music.
She often told us this – “Play loudly so I can hear your mistakes. If I can’t hear them, I can’t help you correct them.”
I took her advice, graduated to trumpet, worked on my tone and developed a good sound. Over time I got pretty good, good enough to win a spot in a college jazz ensemble, then be recruited away to another school.
I arrived a week before their spring concert. I learned the charts and was ready for my debut. Halfway through that first program it happened. My test of Mrs. Caldwell’s theory on mistakes.
We were playing Count Basie’s “All Of Me”, a piece that started off with a soft intro by the rhythm section. Then suddenly, all at once, the horns came blasting in on the downbeat of one. All except me.
I came blasting in on the downbeat of four.
A full beat ahead of the ensemble, in a packed auditorium, I couldn’t have drawn more attention to my mistake. But thanks to Mrs. Caldwell, I stuck that note. Loud and proud, with a full, fat sound. I nailed that note full force.
At the end of the piece, the director acknowledged me, the newest member of the band, for my unintended solo. I took a bow and the audience roared. I was embarrassed as hell.
My band mates ribbed me good and I thought I’d never live it down. But a funny thing happened. They let me off the hook and the whole thing was quickly forgotten. Something about my mistake helped them accept me into the group. If anything, the way I fully committed the mistake seemed to win their respect.
Strange. The things we fear. Shame, humiliation, embarrassment. When you make an “honest” mistake you create an opportunity. To embrace your failings, take your medicine and show some humility. People like that. They even admire it.
I was in the audience at the 2015 National Speakers Association conference when security expert Robert Siciliano was introduced. He’d earned a coveted five minutes in front of 2,000 professional speakers on the main stage.
One minute in, Robert froze. He forgot what he was trying to say. Everyone’s nightmare. 4,000 eyes on him, his mouth working but nothing coming out. The audience began to squirm. We felt for him, and someone shouted, “we love you Robert!”
He suffered his failure with grace. Two nights later they gave him another five minutes. He came out to a standing ovation, performed flawlessly, and bowed to another standing ovation. It was the highlight of the conference. This past year he got 15 minutes on the main stage to talk about his failure and what he’d learned. He was the darling of the conference.
Robert’s failure propelled him to greater success.
Folks like us need to put ourselves out there and express ourselves in front of others. It takes courage. There’s always a risk we’ll screw up, but if we do it with aplomb it will strengthen us.
It is The Way of the Manic Impressive.
So when it’s your turn to screw up, I suggest you do it with gusto. Nail it. Let your mistake be heard, seen, read and experienced by others. Don’t hide from it – acknowledge it with all the grace you can. Your audience will be glad it wasn’t them and cut you a lot of slack. They’ll feel for you, and if you’re sheepish enough, they’ll like you all the more.
And if you run into Mrs. Caldwell, please thank her for me…