The kids went to Star Factory camp last week. Five half-days, and they pick a song to sing in front of their assembled peers and parents. My older daughter Hannah chose "Invisible" by Taylor Swift.
But this was Star Factory Camp, not Hannah's voice teacher, so Hannah was free to do what she wanted. What she wanted was to sing Taylor Swift, and she's smart enough to know not to pick a song that everyone's heard ten thousand times before.
Listening to this, I find it hard not to be hyper-critical. Hannah's a good singer, she works at it, and she's begun to raise my expectations about what she can do when she performs. I love my daughter, but I also want to be honest with her--and with myself--about how she's doing, and I want to be able to give her feedback that actually means something. But I feel for her, too, because I remember what it's like when people start to have expectations about how you're going to perform, and I also remember what it's like to win and have everyone shrug. I definitely don't want her to have to go through that.
So many people seem to think that success comes from luck or from some kind of God-given innate ability, and yeah, natural ability does have something to do with it, but you still have to develop that ability, that's the part that separates us. You have to swim every lap--or in Hannah's case, sing every note--and you have to be good, even in practice, even when no one's watching. That's reality. That's why only passionate people can be successful over time. Because to be willing to put that much effort into it, you have to want it bad.
But Hannah is only nine. I didn't start swimming until I was ten, and I didn't make it to a championship until I was twelve. So in thinking about the way she's performing, I want to keep it in perspective. I mean, yeah, this singing thing is her idea, and she wants to be out there; my part of it is to encourage her and to be honest with her without holding her to my unreasonable standards... until (and unless) they're appropriate.
With all of that in mind, I think Hannah did well enough this time out, especially given the fact that she didn't do much rehearsal for this particular show, but in terms of just the vocals, this was a long way from being one of my favorite performances. It's not bad, but she was off in a couple of spots, especially late in the song, and knowing my daughter the way I do, that's down to a sheer lack of practice. Still, there was a lot to like here. In the past, she's hit her notes precisely but sung either with her eyes closed or looking straight down at her feet. This time, she's looking out at the crowd, making an effort to connect with us, and it's a quantum leap forward from where she was just a few months ago. Fact is, Hannah's a little shy. She controls her fear, but it's still there, and working on it is an ongoing thing. What I see here is therefore a step in the right direction. But we still need to learn to put it all together.
Still and all... she's nine. I feel like she's getting there.
Anyway, after the show, Hannah learned a hard lesson about expectations. She was bummed because she felt like she sang well--much better than her sister, for example, who doesn't even take voice lessons--and she didn't understand why we weren't treating this performance like another one of her triumphs. Why, in fact, were we spending so much time talking about Emma and how well Emma sang?
I could tell Hannah was mad, but I have two daughters, and frankly, I think Sally and I both wanted to praise Emma for the way she got out there and tried, for having the guts to go head-to-head with her sister in her sister's favored venue. So I pulled Hannah aside, and we talked about it, and I explained a little about expectations to her.
I said, "You did well, Hannah, and I'm proud of you. But we know you can sing well, and we expected that you'd be good up there. We're proud of Emma because this isn't her thing, and she got up there and laid it all out even though she's not as good at it as you are.
"Look, you can't be proud of yourself for singing better than your sister. You're a singer. We already know that you're good. It's just like if your mommy and I had a swimming race, I wouldn't say, 'Oh, I beat you; I'm a better swimmer' after the race. That wouldn't be a statement, we already know I swim better. The question wouldn't be, 'Did I swim better than Mommy?' The question would, 'Did I swim well? Was it good compared to what I can do?'
"We know you're a good singer, Hannah. If you want to impress us now, you have to be amazing."
My grandfather used to have this plaque. It had a picture of a guy looking bored on it, and underneath it said, "Ho hum. Dan wins again." I threw it out after he died, and in fact, the act of throwing it out gave me the only sense of satisfaction I got during the entire weekend of his funeral.
I thought about that plaque when I was talking to Hannah on Friday after the show, and I've gotta admit that it wasn't a good feeling.