Striving to become all the things I am

Second week of September, second week of school. I'm working on my second bachelor's degree and a second chance at life.

On the first Thursday of each term, the music program holds auditions to fit students into jazz ensembles. Auditions induce fear into almost everyone.

Theoretically, I'm a piano major. That's for the associate of science degree I'm working toward. For this degree and for the bachelor's in audio engineering, my piano and ensemble requirements are complete. But I'm still taking lessons. I'm working on unfinished business.

Before attending this state university, my piano training had amounted to six months in 1955, at age 8. The piano bested me then. All my life, I've nursed a fear of it.

Each semester, students at the university are given the same songs for tryout, including the Jerome Kern-Oscar Hammerstein standard, "All The Things You Are."

This tune must contain, on one dinky page, more diverse and ever-changing chords - each one noted above the melody in code - than anything else in the jazz repertoire.

Two years ago, I didn't even try to play it. I could not have managed the first bar.

My university piano lessons commenced at 1 p.m. on Sept. 11, 2001, with the country in disaster mode. Ensemble started a week later, and I found myself on a merry-go-round trying to keep up with the group.

This baptism by fire, the most amazing academic experience I've ever had, was reprised three more semesters.

By the end of my sophomore year, though I was still afraid of the piano, I had passed milestones. I had played in four concerts and three recitals. I'd endured four juries. And I had not died.

I know my playing wasn't good, but it was getting better. And to my amazement, my young peers not only knew this, they applauded me when I tried. The first time this happened, I was totally unprepared for such empathy.

Sometimes I feel so inadequate taking courses with students who could be my grandchildren, who seem to speak music as their mother tongue. In ear-training class, tears of frustration will course down my cheeks as I try to identify the notes, chords, and beats the professor plays.

I know the students notice. They don't say a word. I imagine they're amazed I'm there at all. My goals are not theirs. I'm at school to heal, to learn to bring music into my life.

Friends ask: "But what are you going to do with your degree?"

I say: "I'm going to sit in the corner of the kitchen and play and sing the music I am learning to write."

They shake their heads at this perceived waste of time and money. Then they ask how much longer I'm going to stay at school.

"At least two years more," I answer. "Maybe three, if they let me work on a degree in composition."

Six months ago, I wouldn't have said this. But one day last winter, I wrote a song. And then another. Then six more. I hadn't a clue what I was doing. They just came to me, like gifts from God. During jazz week in the spring, my ensemble played one of them.

Again, my peers applauded. This time, I could see real pride in their faces. I was one of them.

As we queued for the ensemble audition last Thursday, I listened as the new crop of students voiced familiar fears.

Through the closed door, I could hear a flutist, then a trumpeter, then a couple of superb pianists improvise expertly on the changes in "All The Things You Are."

To one worried freshman I said: "Listen: Nobody here could be worse than me. If I can do this and live, so can you."

I mounted the stairs and stumbled through one chorus of "All The Things You Are." Then I grinned at the two judges and said, "That's all you get. It won't get any better."

Bill, my ensemble professor, replied: "Just getting through all those changes once is an accomplishment. It's OK."

And it was. Three months ago, I could not have done it.

As I descended the steps, I grinned at the worried freshmen trying to mask their amazement at my modest rendition. It didn't matter what they thought: I had just gone further than I'd ever imagined I could.

"It's all right," I said to them. "Take a chance. There's nothing in that room to be afraid of."

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