On wanting unreasonable things

December 6, 2011

When I was in sixth grade I tried out for Peter Pan – not just the play, the role itself. It didn’t occur to me that a scrawny shy kid with buck teeth and huge glasses wasn’t lead material, or that I hadn’t developed the breath support to sing a convincing high F, or that I couldn’t dance. (Still can’t.) I just knew I loved to run around the house singing “I Gotta Crow” and “Never Never Land.” I saw something I wanted, I showed up, and I asked for it.

I didn’t get the part. I was cast as the only 6th grader in the pirates’ chorus, while my prettier, more agile friends got to play Indians and Lost Boys. But I got to wear a parrot on my shoulder and “play” a prop cello that my dad made out of foam core, dowels, and twine. I was totally intimidated by the older pirates, especially this redhead named Eric who kept trying to talk to me, though I did eventually become friends with an 8th grader named Jen who would tell me about her obsession with Bono while we waited to go onstage. (By the time I reached high school, she’d become locally famous as a guitarist and singer/songwriter in her own right.)

Five years later, having lost the braces, gotten contacts, and discovered Rent, I listened to “Another Day” about sixteen times on repeat before getting up the nerve to ask my crush to the junior prom. No day but today, I told myself. Give in to love or live in fear!

He said no. He’d planned to ask a friend of mine — a friend I knew had plans of her own, though it seemed wrong to say so. My track teammates, a year younger and perhaps living vicariously through me, insisted that even if he came crawling back, I shouldn’t go with him. But I thought that was silly; I did still want to go, and why sacrifice that for the sake of pride? He asked. I accepted. My track friends jumped up and down and hugged me when I told them.  I got my hair done and wore a dress my mother made, and I had a great time, even though I would’ve rather ditched the dance for a midnight showing of Star Wars Episode I. Which we actually did attend after prom, a bunch of us in our dresses and tuxes, practically falling asleep the whole time, and that was just as well, because the movie was awful.

The thing is: I like to think I’ve gotten braver in the last few years. But I don’t have guts anything like what I had when I was 12, or 17. Today I would carefully analyze my vocal range, size up the competition, and try out for a featured ensemble role, all the while secretly hoping the directors might see something special in my audition and upgrade me to the role I actually wanted. Upon meeting a guy I really like, I’ll tell myself all I want is friendship; nobody that talented/attractive/awesome could be interested in me, anyway. And then I try so hard not to betray my feelings that I probably come off as pretty uninterested myself, and a lot colder than I mean to be.

I have musician friends who send out unsolicited resumes all the time, hoping somebody will just happen to need their skills — heck, I hired one of those friends in the first place because of such a submission, figuring I was better off grabbing someone who already wanted the job I hadn’t even posted for yet. So I know that strategy works sometimes, and yet I haven’t tried it myself since college, ostensibly because I don’t want to pester anybody. I limit myself pretty much to responding to explicit job postings, and even then I often don’t bother if I think my schedule will be too difficult to accommodate, or I don’t have the right experience, or I might not live up to the employer’s expectations.

I played a show this weekend that was one of the most joyful experiences I’ve had in a long time, and I almost didn’t apply for that gig, primarily because it was in Rhode Island and I didn’t think I had the time to drive out of state every day for a week. Too many students to reschedule, not financially worth the commute, blah, blah. I probably would have overlooked the posting completely had it not been specifically brought to my attention by a friend who checks the same pages I do, but more often, and with a more flexible sense of what is possible or worthwhile. I thought about it, and I realized it was stupid to sacrifice what I actually want to do — make music with awesome people — just because it would be easier to not inconvenience my students or my boss.

Also, the job ad said they needed “a proficient, detail oriented sight-reader” who could also “completely let loose and rock out.” At the risk of sounding massively arrogant, I read that description and thought it sounded like me. And then I felt bad for thinking that, and tried to mask those thoughts by telling myself that there must be someone else out there who could play the notes more perfectly, AND rock harder, and they probably even lived in Providence.

Stupid. I can psych myself out so easily. But here’s what I would have missed out on if I hadn’t done it: The opportunity to watch some talented, committed kids pour their hearts out onstage, and to see them grow even in the single week I was involved. A couple of potentially useful business connections that I didn’t even ask for — I just told one person in passing that I was moving to New York, and he told someone else who told a bunch of someone elses, and suddenly everyone wanted to help me. A really humbling amount of encouragement and appreciation for the work that I did, which mostly didn’t even feel like work. A small revelation about the benefits of a focused warmup. And a much-needed reminder of the sheer, unadulterated joy of playing the best I know how, in the company of some of the best collaborators I’ve had the pleasure to know.

I think what I’m trying to say is that there’s always a reason not to try something that seems difficult or inconvenient, that requires too much talent or self-assurance. Most of the things I want are irrational and unreasonable; I don’t deserve them; possibly nobody does. But if I don’t dare to want unreasonable things, I’m excluding myself from the chance to be blessed in amazing and unpredictable ways.



  1. Bethany: Thank you for this blog, which is beautifully written. I enjoyed it thoroughly. see you at the Stadium!

  2. I always wished we could have worked together more…

  3. So glad you came.
    See you soon.

  4. Love it–the last line is the best, and so true!!! You should write a song, “Dare to Want Unreasonable Things”.

    For real.

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