How taking “The Wired Ensemble” at Olin College changed my perspective on music and life.
When I was a senior in high school I struggled with writing my personal essay for the college common application. And when I say “struggled” that is even a vast understatement. I went through many drafts of different concepts, themes, and analogies to communicate who I was to an unknown entity. I specifically remember wanting to answer the given prompt:
“The lessons we take from failure can be fundamental to later success. Recount an incident or time when you experienced failure. How did it affect you, and what did you learn from the experience?”
At this point in my high school career, my most impactful failures revolved around performing. I had taken singing lessons since I was in the third grade, having a love for performing both on stage for an audience and for myself in the comfort of my own shower. The one thing that always inhibited me from performing for others, however, was my crippling perfectionism and stage fright. Nevertheless, despite how powerful these forces were, nothing could keep me from doing what I love: singing. On paper, the articulation of my passion for singing overriding my fear of an on stage failure was a jumbled mess, becoming an analogy about a chrysalis and an emerging butterfly.
It was not until I took a class my senior year called The Wired Ensemble, a freshman elective being taught at Olin College of Engineering- a neighboring college that Babson students are allowed to cross-register at- that my understanding of music and myself changed altogether. The Wired Ensemble is a course where students learn how to compose and perform original works for instruments and voices, develop a “Composer’s Tool Chest,” and learn how to analyze and reflect upon music pieces. I was one of two seniors that took this class and the only student from Babson College.
The pre-requisite for taking this class was a basic knowledge of music and music theory, however this was a massive understatement. I had been in an acapella group and performed in numerous musicals and performances of my own, which I thought was enough to qualify my music knowledge. Creating, writing, and performing music myself would be a completely different story. I remember walking out of many classes close to tears, not being able to understand some of the most basic concepts and consistently receiving far too many edits on my pieces. Every day in that class I felt like a complete embarrassment. Yet, despite the frustrations I felt, there was something incredibly liberating about starting from zero. I could try, make mistakes, learn from them, and slowly improve. If I made a mistake, it would not be the first one I would make nor the last. Failure became normalized for me in this class, it became no big deal. With this revelation, along with a lot of personal growth since that senior year of high school, I was able to write my final paper for this class, a rewrite of my college essay, one that I had dreamed of rewriting for a long time.
It had been my first big failure. I was an enthusiastic third-grader, ready to take the stage to sing in my church’s talent show. I had been a bit nervous, but felt the anxiety melt away as soon as I stepped into the spotlight; this is where I love to be. My eyes were glued to the lyric prompter on the back wall, a welcome distraction. I had almost made it halfway through my song when the prompter glitched and, in a panic, I forgot the words. I stood in silence for what felt like forever. Once the prompter righted itself, I finished the song and quickly ran off stage. I sat silently crying in my seat until the show was over, embarrassed for how poorly my performance had been. When the lights came up, I rushed into my mother’s arms as she consoled me and insisted that she didn’t even notice the blunder- but that is never our impression as performers, we notice everything that goes wrong, while the audience remains oblivious. But, I knew my mistake and that was enough to make me afraid of another failure.
From that point on, whenever I got onstage, I had debilitating stage fright. I would write lyrics on my hands, have nightmares of standing on stage in silence, and needed to be pushed on stage before every show. I wanted my singing to showcase my talent, preparation, and excellence and every performance seemed like a disappointment if it did not go to plan. The pressure for perfection overwhelmed and began to cripple me. The only reason I was able to pull myself back on stage was for the thrill of performing, my excitement for taking on challenges, and my true passion for music.
In reality, music sets you up for failure, inevitably, every performance will not turn out how you practiced it. Paradoxically, in this way, music sets you free from failure, it should be expected. This became evident with every show I watched following my talent show disaster. Once on opening night, I saw the musical “Hairspray” and was shocked when the actors began laughing hysterically during one of the comical scenes. The laughter became so uncontrollable that after 10 minutes the entire theatre was giggling and clapping along, a genuine moment exhibiting the joy of the unexpected. One performance after another, I began to witness singers forget their lyrics, sing the wrong harmonies, and have their voices crack and they were always O.K.; they walked off stage, they survived failure. Observing this helped me to remember that if I made a mistake on stage again, I would be O.K. too. My performances could have mess-ups and were inevitably going to turn out differently than I had practiced, and that would be alright. Despite the challenge, every performance gradually became easier. There were still doubts, discomfort, and bumps along the way, but I used my reactions to these mistakes to gauge my maturity in accepting these errors.
The unexpected nature of live performances is what makes them worth watching. There’s a certain authenticity and vulnerability in our failures that make our work truly personal, it makes them ours. I realized that it is not really about the product of the performance itself, it’s about sharing what you love with others and the medium just happens to be the music. This idea fully crystallized when I performed at Babson’s Aman show, my first performance in 3 years. I was so worried to have all my peers and close friends see a different, deeply personal side of me for the first time. However, before I entered the stage, I felt an unusual calmness I hadn’t felt since before that horrible day of the talent show. I had practiced and knew my music- I would be singing in both English and Hindi. There was no prompter, just me and the stage. Stepping into the light, I knew that this performance wasn’t for anyone else, it was for the little third grader inside of me and if I was singing for me, everything would be O.K. regardless of the outcome. And it was.