This essay originally appeared on Violinist.com, part 13 in the series “A Parents’ Guide to Conservatory Auditions”
In a poem, one line may hide another line,
As at a crossing, one train may hide another train.
That is, if you are waiting to cross
The tracks, wait to do it for one moment at
Least after the first train is gone. And so when you read
Wait until you have read the next line–
Then it is safe to go on reading.
—Kenneth Koch, from “One Train May Hide Another”, 1993
The girl in line behind us at the hotel reception desk spotted my daughter’s violin case and asked if she were auditioning for the conservatory. She told us she was a pianist, and that her own audition was supposed to have been tomorrow. Then she smiled sadly, pointing to her leg, which was in a cast. Unable to use the pedals, she’d have to forfeit her chance to play the audition she’d been preparing for months. We made expressions of sympathy, but she shook her head. It was all right; she’d applied to several other conservatories and had made peace with not getting into this one. Meanwhile, she and her mom had non-refundable air tickets and a Los Angeles hotel room, so they were enjoying a small vacation.
“Well, break a leg—not!” she joked as the hotel clerk handed my daughter our card key.
“How about that,” my daughter said as we walked to the elevator, “they have a thirteenth floor in this hotel!” I took the card from her and stared at it in disbelief as we walked through the lobby: room 1313, really? What were the chances? We’d often chuckled about the elevator in her former teacher’s apartment building in New York, which skipped straight from floor 12 to 14, as if the 13th floor, where he lived, did not exist. Well, I’m not superstitious. I don’t break into a cold sweat if my automatic umbrella accidentally opens inside the house. I’m not afraid to pronounce the name of the Scottish play aloud in theaters. But this was a little much.
As luck would have it, the air-conditioner in room 1313 wasn’t working. So I did not have to feel completely ridiculous when I called down to the desk and asked them to assign us another room.
We fear jinxes because we cannot see into our future. A hotel room number becomes a bad omen. We wear our lucky socks to the audition, and if it doesn’t go well, we get a new pair of socks. If it does, we thank our lucky stars. The concept of fortune, good and bad, helps us construct a soothing narrative when life doesn’t make sense in the moment. But you can’t game the system.
Bad luck knocks you off the path. Even if you work as hard as humanly possible. Even if you’re as good as good can be. Maybe someone slams a car door on your finger. Maybe it snows 15 inches and your flight’s canceled. Or your accompanist doesn’t show up. Or it’s 85 degrees under the spotlight and your fingerboard is sweaty.
Or you do everything in your power to ensure the perfect audition trip, and then you get a lousy time slot. In a 2011 essay in the New York Times Magazine, science writer John Tierney pointed out that, after a few hours, the mental strain of weighing in on case after case wears down adjudicators so that they are no longer performing at their best. If your audition is the last before lunch and the judges are out of their minds with low blood sugar, you may lose before you play a single note. Or you could lose for the mere reason of going first. That’s the luck of the draw.
A few years earlier, auditioning for a precollege program, my daughter was assigned the very earliest slot of the day, 8:30 AM. After the door closed behind her and I heard her begin to play, the elevator dinged and several key members of the panel emerged, five minutes late, holding Starbucks cups. They lingered politely outside the door until she finished. That is to say they did not hear her play. Not surprisingly, she was rejected.
There’s no telling whether she would have been accepted had her audition been an hour, or even a few minutes, later. But the idea of bad luck altered the memory of the audition from active to passive: from if only I’d done it differently, to if only this had not been done to me. Perhaps not a good thing, if we wish to have agency in our own lives. When she applied next time, she was relieved to receive a more felicitous, mid-morning appointment. That time, as she warmed up in the practice room, I found myself fielding panicked text messages from her accompanist, whose train was stuck in Trenton. After thirty minutes it was clear that there was no way would he arrive in time for her appointment. Which meant that, after so much preparation, she would not be able to audition. I thought she’d had rotten luck the first time; this was worse.
And then an administrator came over to apologize to everyone because the panel was running nearly an hour behind. Whereas the other auditioners and their parents seemed agitated by the delay, I suddenly could not imagine better luck. Ten minutes before she was called to go on, her accompanist appeared in the hallway, beet-faced and panting from his sprint up the subway steps. They went in, energized by the excitement of the near-miss and their last-minute spate of good fortune, and played the audition with more gusto than if things had gone in a smooth, non-eventful way; it went great; she got in.
This time my daughter’s appointment was in the afternoon. Late, but not terribly. It was a glorious Southern California day. I sat outside in the sunshine chatting with other parents. My daughter emerged from the audition glowing—it was her best audition of the season, she said. Fingers crossed. Maybe her best audition ever. She’d totally nailed it.
She didn’t get a callback.
Stunned, we flew home on a red-eye, arriving in Newark just in time for a chilly, cloud-streaked sunrise. Moments like this feel terrible because you cannot see around corners. Imagination drops away and you feel blocked, unable to conceive of a what will come next. You curse your bad luck (it was bad mojo from that stupid hotel room) and cast about irrationally for excuses. I should have played the Bach first. I shouldn’t have eaten the tacos. The future feels absolutely blank. But the river of life washes us along. Within a few days my daughter, and all the other kids auditioning, and the pianist with the broken foot, would know the results of all their auditions and clarity would gradually arrive.
In his poem, quoted above, Kenneth Koch writes of what is hidden by the object or objective on which we focus: …At a crossing, one train may hide another train. / That is, if you are waiting to cross / The tracks, wait to do it for one moment at / Least after the first train is gone…
Luck is a problematic concept because it locks you into a static narrative. But only in fiction do stories have a clear beginning, middle, and end. What appears to be good luck, the first audition of the day, turns out to be bad luck in disguise (careful what you wish for). What appears to be bad luck, the train being stuck in Trenton, is good luck in disguise (saved by the bell). Say you’re rejected from a program that you would have absolutely accepted if you’d gotten in. Pass a little time, and your second-choice life—in a different place, with different colleagues, friends, and work—will have become the only trajectory imaginable.
Kenneth Koch published his poem in The New York Review of Books in 1993, nine years before his death and the same year I miscarried a pregnancy. For a while I was crushed by a sense of terrible misfortune. I could not imagine my family without that child, now lost to us. Turns out, however, that my youngest daughter would not have been conceived if the pregnancy had continued. As Koch writes in the poem, “In a family one sister may conceal another…”
When one opportunity evaporates, a hidden one emerges. The train you were sprinting towards pulls out from the station—revealing the second train. If you remain focused on the train you missed, the second train may run you over in its tracks. Instead, catch it, and travel to your as-yet-unimaginable future.