In the few seconds before the end of the song, I hurriedly scanned my copy of Chopin's Waltz in E Minor. As the sound of the final note gently faded away, my friend Jessica stood up from the piano bench and triumphantly bowed to the audience - my cue to walk up to the stage. When I reached the shiny black piano, my heart rate escalated to a rapid staccato beat, and I wished that I could feel confident and prepared while I unfolded my first piece. Naturally, I was not rewarded with a sudden stroke of luck. My performance sounds like I have practiced once in the last two weeks. And unfortunately, that was the truth. By the time I struck the last chord, my face burned with embarrassment. For me, these three minutes were enough time to change my perspective on work ethic and motivation.
With the annual piano recital a little over a month away, or as I saw it, a whole month away, I had gradually become immune to my piano teacher's increasingly frequent complaints about how little I practiced. As much as I wanted to do well, I either laughed these criticisms off, insisting that plenty of time to prepare still remained, or felt frustrated and annoyed, believing that it was unrealistic for her to think I could find time to practice at all. After all, I thought, the spring of my junior year in high school had brought a mountain of homework and stress, so piano should have been the last thing on my mind. My teacher and I usually did not see eye-to-eye on the acceptable amount of time to spend seated at the piano. The more I argued that sports and friends filled up my leisure time, the more adamant she became about setting aside time to practice. Wrapped up in my hectic schedule, I focused almost exclusively on short-term goals, like getting an extra hour of sleep before a meet or remembering to tell a story to a friend, and I shoved future events like the piano recital down my list of priorities. Balancing time and effort spent on extracurricular activities had not seemed essential for success - until this disastrous recital.
As I returned to my seat, determinedly avoiding the eyes of my family members and fellow musicians, I caught myself mentally, automatically, tabulating a list of excuses for my bad performance. Startlingly, none of my imagined excuses were even true - I did not go to bed extremely late the night before, and I was not coming down with a cold. I only had myself to blame for months of ignoring the inevitability of playing in the recital. Declaring that I perform best under pressure would no longer be an acceptable form of preparation.
That night, I stared up at my ceiling, trying unsuccessfully to convince myself that all of my mistakes didn't matter. It didn't matter if the relatives of the other students thought I didn't take the recital seriously. Why should I care if my teacher thought I was a bad musician? Everyone in the audience would forget about the recital in a few weeks anyway, wouldn't they? I was wrong - I did care about my performance. However, it was not because of what others thought; what bothered me the most was knowing that I could have done better if I had committed myself to preparing for the recital just as I knew I should. The motivation to succeed came from myself, and I could not be satisfied as long as I knew that I could have done a better job with more effort. The accuracy of the notes represented not my skill as a musician, but proof that I felt passionate enough about music to commit to and complete learning the song. More importantly, I realized that ultimately, I had the greatest influence on my own actions.
With a fresh outlook, I sat down with the waltz once again, determined to improve the piece until it sounded as professional as I could make it. If I made a commitment to an activity, I reasoned, why not complete it to the best of my ability? Even though academics were my first priority, music was still an important part of my life. No longer did want to I settle for mediocre work in any of my endeavors.
Being able to influence my own ability to succeed empowered me. As an added plus, hearing my improved performance, consonant notes, and correct rhythms during my lessons thrilled my teacher. By the end of one lesson, I had successfully played Chopin's waltz from beginning to end with no mistakes. My effort was perceptible; I could hear it in the music. The delighted smile slowly spreading across my face mirrored the satisfaction of fulfilling my self-determined expectations.