ORIGINALLY PUBLISHED IN MAY 2016 - This was an article written for The Penguin, the student newspaper of the New England Conservatory, to which I owe much of the confidence that I have in my own writing. I was honored to discover that this article was quoted by Tom Novak in the 2016 NEC graduation ceremony.
I have a Bachelor of Music degree from the New Zealand School of Music. It was a three-year degree program, the third year of which I spent as an exchange student at the University of North Texas. I arrived home literally the day before my graduation ceremony, having watched all of the movies I had ever missed over 25 hours of flying. After a short rest, I went to a department store called ‘Farmers’ to buy a nice purple shirt and received my degree in hand the very next day.
What happens next? You’re probably more than aware that graduation is not the end of the story. It isn’t even the beginning of the story - if you’re trying to go to grad school like I was, then months of preparation and emotional ups-and-downs have already taken place.
In my last semester at North Texas, I had auditions at Juilliard, Eastman and Manhattan schools of music, as well as the University of Michigan and Michigan State University. I missed my UM audition because my plane was frozen over, and I had to stay in the airport overnight (thank goodness for 24-hour Mexican food). The next day, I had no choice but to spend every last cent in my bank account on a towncar service that would take me across a couple of different towns to get to my Michigan State audition on time. When I finally arrived, the school bass they provided was absolutely awful. My performance of the Prelude from Bach’s Cello Suite No. 1 was not a success by any measure, and with my depleted wallet, neither was my dinner that night.
The rest of my auditions did not pan out so well either. I was waitlisted for Eastman, did not pass the first round at Juilliard and, fed by equal amounts of frustration and determination, played my best audition ever at the Manhattan School of Music - only to receive admission with zero scholarship.
In my mind, I had convinced myself that the next few months was going to be my breakthrough story, a saga of struggle and success for Umar Zakaria. I was going to raise $25,000 in less than a year, in a currency that far overpowered my own country’s - probably more money than I have ever seen in my life - then arrive at MSM and prove them wrong.
During those next few months, I was able to save less than a thousand dollars in New Zealand currency. My level of success was effectively zero.
However, what actually did happen turned out to become a different kind of breakthrough story. I was living at home, and sometimes went weeks without any gigs. I applied for every scholarship I could find, even though most support for music students in New Zealand is basically reserved for classical musicians. I did not feel like going back to school in New Zealand would be a step forward, but I ended up giving in because having an extra letter next to my name would look good on those scholarship applications.
I literally felt like I was going nowhere, not noticing that inside my mind, things were actually beginning to take shape. All of these scholarship essays and nights of feeling stuck and pushing ahead anyway had forced me to think a lot about myself and my relationship with music. You can see the results of this in the articles I’ve written and the projects you may have seen me undertake.
Eventually, an opportunity came by out of nowhere to apply to NEC, and I just did it because I could. I was so accustomed to just applying to things even when I was 99% sure I probably wouldn’t get it. Now I’m at a school that has changed my life in ways that I could never have seen coming - a school that I didn’t even apply to originally. I’m really glad that things turned out the way they did, because I would not be the same person I am now without experiencing the traditions, ideas and especially the incredible people of the New England Conservatory. And I love it.
So back to that tantalising headline - what can you expect after graduation? The truth, for better or for worse, is that you can’t really expect anything. Even if things seem to be going exactly to plan, it’s hard to tell what surprises await us around the corner - in fact, the more things seem to go well, the more disappointment we will feel when a tragedy occurs and our expectations are not met.
Having the courage to pursue lofty dreams can really be a big part of the journey to success. But if we do have to face disappointment, it’s important to understand how much of it comes from our expectations of ourselves, because that is how much we have control over - and often, it’s quite a lot! The last thing you need to be getting in your way is yourself, and understanding this can really help us to recover from our mistakes, our missteps and our mishaps so that we can move forward. The path to success is a long and winding one that might not take you where you were hoping, but success is a direction, not a destination.
I am not writing this to tell you to prepare for everything to fail miserably. It might, or it might not. All I’m trying to say is, don’t let your expectations get in the way of having fun, taking chances, and picking yourself up if things do turn out unexpectedly. I believe in all of you and I know that each one of you has an incredible contribution to offer the world - so if you come upon a chance to make that contribution, go ahead and make it! There is always a way forward, even if it takes longer than you thought it might, or takes place in a location you didn’t expect, with people you never imagined you would meet.
If there is one thing that you can expect after graduation, it’s this: you will find out that you are stronger and more beautiful than you ever imagined you could be. It might take a while, though. I’m still working on it - but I’m looking forward to seeing you on the other side.
All the best.