Monday, May 9, 2011

How I Got Into College

I was so clueless as a senior in high school. All of my friends were gearing up for college, and getting early acceptance letters to Texas A&M, UT Austin, Texas Tech, Baylor, or any of the other Texas schools.

Not me.

I had to get out. I was absolutely clueless, though. All of my friends had taken the SAT months before, and here it was—November of my senior year in high school, and I was forced to sign up for the latest date the SAT was offered.

On top of that, my parents wouldn’t let me take an SAT prep course. They wouldn’t even let me buy an SAT prep book—because after all, they thought the SAT was meant to test my actual abilities, and any prep course or book I used would unnaturally “enhance” my scores.

Of course it would, and that was the whole point. But my parents didn’t like the sound of that. So, in December of 1992, I walked into the SAT test classroom, cold. I had no idea what would be on the test—I didn’t even know the format.

I opened the test and immediately thought I was screwed. I finished each section of the test before a lot of others in the room did. I found myself going back over my answers, questioning what I’d chosen on some questions. Sometimes I’d change the answer and other times I didn’t. I was frustrated and anxious. I wanted out of that room as fast as possible. 

And then, just like that—the test was over.

All I could do was wait. I knew I had done poorly. I figured I would easily get in to A&M, but I wanted something different. I wanted to go out of state. I looked at my sister and the life she had chosen, and I knew that didn't feel right for me. I looked at my parents, at the life they’d chosen, and I knew that wasn't the right fit for me, either. 

I had no clue what I wanted, but I knew I was different and would have to find my own way.

I got my test results a few weeks later, and sure enough—I had done pretty poorly. I was fortunate to at least break 1000, but I knew this would make it tough for me to get into any school, especially out of state.

Still clueless, I strolled college hall—the hall of my high school where all the college posters resided. I grabbed a card from each poster, mailed them all in, and waited.

Brochures and packets peppered the mailbox daily. I had several tall stacks of brochures when it was all said and done. I read through all of them, and I narrowed my choices down to three: Marquette, Tulane, and Vanderbilt.

I don’t even remember why at this point. I guess I thought Marquette’s English program sounded good, and I have no clue why I selected Tulane—probably because I knew it was a good school. And Vandy? Well, I certainly had no idea it was a Top 20 university. I chose Vanderbilt because of the Blair School of Music. It was growing, so I knew they’d be more likely to admit someone with lower test scores (even though I had straight A’s in high school) because they wanted to grow the program exponentially over the next couple of years.

And I thought to myself… music school. Perhaps I could be the next Van Cliburn. The next Horowitz. I could be a concert pianist.

I talked to my piano teacher at length to help me make this decision. I could only apply to one school, because my grandmother could only afford to give me the money for one application fee. So I had to choose carefully.

I probed Mrs. Hansen about my chances for getting a repertoire ready for audition by the end of February. I had to play pieces from the four different genres—Baroque, Romantic, Classical, and Contemporary. We took up an entire lesson time going over the requirements and what pieces I could use for the audition. I was already in preparation for the Lois Boyer competition: a competition that only high school seniors are allowed to enter, and you have to play 30 minutes of music representing the four genres. So… I already had music picked out for that, it was just a matter of accelerating my ready time by three months.

My piano teacher knew me quite well. She’d taught me since third grade, and she knew what drove me, she knew my favorite composers, she knew my discipline issues.

Mrs. Hansen also knew that I could pull a performance out of my ass like none of her other students could. At the end of our conversation, we had set out a plan for how I was going to prepare myself for my February 20th audition.

I had two months. Two months to prepare about 30 minutes worth of music: to learn, memorize, and perfect my entire program.

I left Mrs. Hansen’s house filled with absolute determination. Up to that point I had never worked so hard for anything in my life. I was driven by the notion of getting out of Texas and away from everything and everyone. I wanted to start over. I wanted a clean slate.

The idea crept into my mind that I could actually pull it off. I gained more confidence as the days passed and I learned my music better than I’d ever thought possible. My progress was excellent. I practiced at least two hours every single day—and for a high school senior with a very strong case of senioritis, this was a pretty amazing feat.

The time came for my trip to Nashville for the audition. Everything inside of me seemed to be colliding all at once, and the adrenaline was pumping in overdrive. My skin felt like a loose shell that might explode and expose all of my uncertainties at any given moment.

My mom and I arrived at the Blair School of Music. I was ushered to one of the professor’s studios to warm up. I couldn’t get over what I saw—a room twice as big as my bedroom, with windows and two grand pianos. Two! I could hardly believe it.

I sat down and started warming up. A wave of confidence and subsequent calm washed over me and formed a protective shell around me.

I warmed up. I went over some potential trouble spots in my music.

Then, I sat and stared out the window, fighting back tears. I had already fallen in love with the campus. I fell into a daydream about starting my life here and never turning back.

Then, a knock on the door—a messenger, letting me know it was time.

The nerves and sweaty palms instantly take me over as I’m writing this. It was the most important audition, the most important performance, of my entire young life.

I quietly stood while the judges (all professors) introduced themselves to me. There were four: two men, two women. I immediately forgot their names. I made my way to the auditorium’s stage. I carefully adjusted the bench to the appropriate height.

And I sat, hands in my lap, thinking about my first piece. I closed my eyes. I tried to forget about the four judges in the back of the room.

I opened my eyes and the lights focusing on me nearly blinded me. I could already feel myself sweating under their heat. And my hands were sweaty.

None of this fazed me.

I took a deep breath, rubbed my hands against my dress, and placed them on the keys.

I played.

The magic that poured out of my fingers and into that room still amazes me to this day. I had never performed so well and with so few mistakes. I wish my whole family could have been there to hear that performance. I wish my friends could have heard the expression from deep within my soul, finding its way to ivory keys, hammers, strings, and finally—the emotion bursting into the air, embracing the judges and taking them on my journey.

A journey filled with pain I had yet to realize, a journey filled with anger deeply seated in my heart, a journey filled with promise and desire and passion.

My journey.

I nailed every piece but one, and even in that one, I only had a couple of small “bobbles” as Mrs. Hansen always called them.

But I’m convinced the piece that won over the judges was Toccata by Jack Hawes (Disclaimer: that's not me in the video. I figured you knew that, but just in case...). None of them had ever heard it before, and I played it absolutely brilliantly. I was in my comfort zone by the time I got to that piece, and I literally flew through it. I played it faster than I’d ever played it before, and my fingers found their home on those keys. I surprised myself with my performance on this piece.

I never wanted that performance to end. My favorite part of playing piano was performing. I loved to show off. I loved showing off my ability, my dexterity, my emotional expression, my posture, my hand position—everything. I loved performing.

When those moments were over, I sat on the bench for a pregnant moment before giving the room one last glance from the stage and making my exit. The judges thanked me for coming, and I strolled out of the auditorium feeling myself walking tall, with a big goofy grin on my face.

I knew I’d done well.

I knew I’d get in.

And, three weeks later, I got that letter in the mail. 

The letter that changed my life.

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