In the wake of Simone Biles’ withdrawal from the Individual All-Around portion of the Olympics competition, I was startled by her teammates’ insight that they can perform their gravity-defying feats only if they believe they can.
We hear all the time to believe in ourselves. Yet I don’t think I understood it as deeply until then. To put yourself out there without supreme confidence, whether on the vault, track, skate-, surf-, or diving board, is dangerous.
Come to think of it, I’ve always understood this to the core, to mixed results. I think a deep-seated lack of confidence has caused me to over-prepare for whatever I deemed important. This worked fine for grades, scholastic achievement and careers.
The flip side is, I missed out on a lot I likely would have enjoyed and from which I and others could have benefited.
I quit Girl Scouts after fifth-grade because I feared the homework load in junior high school. (Really!) I played the piano through high school without ever performing in public beyond the teacher’s informal workshops. I studied six to eight hours a day for my engineering degree, declining social invitations and sports for fear of the next problem set.
Then I married into confidence. Dave tells a story of the time he and his two-years-older brother were mistakenly switched in the age groupings at summer camp. My husband was thrilled to be placed with the older boys while his brother was too embarrassed to object, so the groupings remained.
In college Dave was the kind to register for courses that interested him regardless of whether he’d obtained the prerequisites. The very idea of not having the background would have struck me as horrifying and deeply anxiety-provoking.
Which brings me to SBCC Summer Jazz workshop. I signed up on a whim at the general suggestion of City College music instructor Andrew Martinez, who was guest conducting our Prime Time Band.
“Our veteran staff of jazz educators plus big-name pro clinicians will take you through all levels of jazz playing and improvisation in jazz combos,” proclaimed the website. I was departing on a short trip, so didn’t examine the time commitment or consider implied prerequisites.
To say I was out of my comfort zone is a vast understatement. The first day, we assembled in our assigned ensemble and played through the lead sheet of a jazz standard. Then the instructor started pointing to students to solo. The first student played something I would have merrily tapped to at a jazz club, and then he pointed to me.
“I don’t know how to do it!” I blurted.
The six weeks progressed likewise, a surreal mashup of dream and nightmare. The pleasure of convening on the West Campus grass overlooking the ocean, enveloped by carefree jazz, regularly pixilated into the realization of my musical illiteracy.
I didn’t know a mixolydian from a Nickelodeon; I was ignorant of when to lay back and when to lay out. I knew as much about vamping as vampires.
In fact, Martinez plus talented musician instructors David Campos, Rob Moreno, Ed Smith and Philip Menchaca worked diligently and patiently to incorporate all levels of learners. By the end of the workshop, practicing scales, arpeggios, and licks between classes, I willingly jumped in when the conductor gave me a nod, and occasionally it sounded decent.
I have barely skimmed the surface of jazz appreciation, improvisation and technique. Nevertheless, the six weeks succeeded in feeding my desire to learn. Had I waited until I felt sufficiently confident and prepared to join a jazz ensemble, I likely never would have taken the workshop.
Unlike competitive diving, I wasn’t shearing into the water at 35 mph. No one was running me over on a track when I fell. The other students cheered me on, as I did them. We were as supportive as any gymnastics team, and it helped.
All of us stepped out of our comfort zones and into mutual appreciation. We helped each other overcome our fears, whether grounded in inexperience, gender, age, disability or under-representation. Most were teen boys; at least a couple will surely be professional musicians whose autographs I’ll wish I had for my grandchildren. They may have been surprised to find a grandmother in their class.
As a new school year begins, my wish is that everyone will take that leap of courage in their chosen field or a new one. Claim the confidence that allows successful people to believe they can accomplish the homework, the dive, the lick, the project, the painting, or the vault. The risk comes in not trying.
— Karen Telleen-Lawton