I was a freshman in college, it was weeks away from Christmas break, and I was standing in my vocal performance teacher’s office.
To my right was my accompanist, a slender redhead named Katelyn who I’d met on the first day of classes. She was at an upright piano with my music displayed in front of her. Her fingers gracefully played “Down Among the Dead Men,” a classic English drinking song I was scheduled to perform in front of a large audience in two days. The performance would be graded, and the grade would serve as my final exam for my Vocal Performance class.
To my left was a large well-organized desk. On it sat a computer screen, a keyboard and mouse, a jar of twenty freshly sharpened pencils, and a notepad filled with angry ranting about how bad a student I was. Behind the desk sat a broad shouldered, large chested, African American man whom I called Dr. McLean. He was my vocal performance teacher. Dr. McLean had been a successful opera singer before coming to teach. It was his first year at the university, and thus his vocal performance studio had been filled with all the rejects.
Yes, I was a reject. When I was accepted into the music program, somehow all the professors had quietly said to themselves, “That one is never going to make it and I do not want him in my studio because he is a waste of time.”
And they were right.
My problem was, I liked playing basketball and racquetball more than I liked sitting in a practice room doing vocal exercises and rehearsing my music. Truth be told, I liked almost anything better than sitting in a practice room alone, with just a piano and a mirror, working through music. I’d literally rather have been stabbed in the eye with a safety pin than spend an hour a day in a practice room, which was why I had no idea what the words to “Down Among the Dead Men” were.
“Again,” Dr. McLean called after I’d missed a phrase in the song.
I glance over Katelyn’s shoulder. She had the piece memorized. The music was there for my benefit, but as my eye caught the phrase I needed, a sharp pencil flew across the room and stabbed me in the shoulder.
“No,” Dr. McLean said. “This should have been memorized a month ago.”
I grumbled to myself about things being unfair as Katelyn played the introduction of the song again.
“May love and wine their rights maintain,” I sang. “And their united pleasures reign. Now let loose the dogs of war.”
Another pencil flew across the room. This one stabbed me in the ribs. “Ouch!” I yelped.
“No,” Dr. McLean called, not looking up from his computer screen. “You’re mixing verses. Do it again.”
I rubbed my side. Although the pencil was sharp and Dr. McLean had superhuman aim, only my pride was hurt. Katelyn started the music again, but
In fear of another flying pencil, I didn’t risk a glance.
“May love and wine their rights maintain, and their united pleasures reign,” I sang with confidence. “Let Bauhaus say to come ashore and call to all of us ahoy.”
Another pencil pierced my shirt and stabbed me in the bicep. “Now you’re not even trying,” Dr. McLean complained. Then, looking up from his computer screen he said, “Katelyn, Mr. Elkins has wasted enough of your time. He will pay you for the full hour. Thank you for coming. You can go.”
“Sorry,” she mouthed to me as she gathered her things and scurried from the room like a mouse abandoning a sinking ship.
“Come over here and sit,” Dr. McLean said, motioning to the chair across from him. With my head hung low in embarrassment, I did as I was told.
“You are going to fail this class,” he said, not looking up from his computer screen.
“But I-” I said, starting to defend myself.
“No,” he said, holding up his hand. “It’s my turn to speak.”
“Yes, sir,” I said, looking down at my feet.
“You are by far the worst music student I’ve ever seen. You don’t know your music. You don’t practice. You struggle to sing in tune. From what I can tell, you seem to have little to no musical ability. I looked at your admissions package and you had no local performance experience before coming here. Which only added to my confusion. You see, I’ve been wondering how in the hell you were accepted into the music school at all.”
He paused to take a sip of coffee. I thought about speaking up, but there wasn’t anything to say. I was the worst music student ever.
“So I went to Dr. Bailey,” Dr. McLean continued. “Your packet said he was at your audition, and he told me you got in because you had incredible letters of recommendation and you wrote an amazing essay about how hard you would work if you were accepted, and about how even a kid from the inner city who went to a school with no choral program should be given a chance to sing.”
“This is like the reverse of one of those feel-good movies. You get that, right? The underdog gets a chance and fights his way to the top, but instead, in this version of the story, the underdog gets a chance and wastes it being stupid.”
“I have an A in music theory,” I offered.
Dr. McLean smiled. “I like you, Jeff,” he said. “And I don’t want to fail you.”
“Thank you, sir,” I said.
“But you don’t deserve to pass,” he said.
“I know, sir,” I said.
“At the same time, if I fail you, you will have to make up this class next semester. Which means I will have to waste another hour of my week throwing pencils at you.”
“Probably, sir,” I said.
“Mr. Elkins, I talked to your adviser yesterday. He told me that you have changed your major.”
“Yes, sir,” I said, still not making eye contact.
“That’s a good decision,” he said.
“Thank you, sir,” I said.
“He said you are going to be pre-med,” he said.
“Yes, sir,” I said.
“Okay,” he said as he looked at his computer screen again. “Here’s the deal. If you promise to never sign up for one of my classes again, you stay out of the music school, and you never make me listen to you sing, then I’ll give you a C.”
I looked up with a smile and said, “You’ve got a deal.”