On Failure

Last week I attempted to scuba dive for the first time. It did not go well.

I’ve gotten to snorkel a few times in my life, and always found it fascinating. If I’d grown up a couple of decades later, amidst the burgeoning amount of underwater photography and video of recent times, I’d probably have gone through an “I want to be a marine biologist when I grow up!” phase, as so many kids today seem to. So the one-day “resort course” in scuba seemed a natural way to use a day on a recent family vacation. The course consists of a two-hour class and then a short dive.

The class starts with a video with basic information and safety rules: Don’t touch the coral. Don’t EVER hold your breath. You’ll need to pop your ears on the way down to equalize the pressure in the air spaces in your head, but it’ll take care of itself on the way back up. Here’s how you adjust your buoyancy, but for this short course you’re not going to do it yourself, the instructor is. Did we mention don’t ever hold your breath?

Then into the pool for the practical part of the course: put on a wetsuit. Get strapped into the harness with the air tank. Practice breathing through the regulator. Learn a few of the underwater hand signals: thumbs up means go up; thumbs down means go down; waggling a hand as if to say “only so-so” means there’s a problem; the okay sign means everything’s okay. Practice clearing water out of the face mask by blowing out hard through your nose. Practice retrieving the regulator if you lose it. (This was the biggest surprise of the class to me: you have to keep the regulator in your mouth by clenching it there. I’d have thought it was strapped on somehow.)

All of that successfully concluded, we went to lunch, and reconvened at the dock a couple of hours later. We were only one of several dive groups going to the same spot on a local reef; as the beginners, we’d be the last ones off the boat. We’d also be descending by rappelling (more or less) down the boat’s mooring rope, so that the instructor knew exactly where we’d be.

The moment comes. Giant stride off the back of the boat, while holding the mask in place, just like in the movies. Swim around to the front of the boat where the mooring line is. Start down the rope; the underwater vista maybe 30 or 40 feet below is breathtaking and tantalizing. Hand over hand down the rope, popping my ears. Popping my ears: pinch the nose and force air into the Eustachian tubes. Wait, it’s not working. My ears aren’t popping. What the hell? Every time I try and blow into my ears, the air just comes out my mouth. I can’t just stop and figure it out; the rest of the party is halfway down the rope. The instructor looks up at me; I waggle my hand and point to my ear. He swims up and surfaces with me and “suggests” I head back to the boat. I do.

Drying off and waiting for the rest of the divers to come back, I figure out that, having internalized the instruction to never, ever hold my breath while scuba diving, I  somehow convinced myself not to close my glottis while trying to pop my ears, which of course made it completely ineffective. Glumly sitting wrapped in a towel, I decide that if I can somehow make an analogy to something musical, I can get a blog post out of this, and it won’t have been a complete humiliating waste of time.

So here’s the analogy: The pool portion of the course had us practice everything required for the dive—except popping our ears, because there’s no way to do that in the pool. And who needs training for that, anyway? It comes naturally, right? This reminded me, without too much forcing, of music school, where we who trained as composers were taught an awful lot of skills—but not how to build a career. Networking comes naturally, right?

For some people it does. Composers, like other types of writers and like many performing musicians, tend to be people who are very comfortable alone in a room for long stretches of time, and possibly not as comfortable, say, approaching strangers at receptions. This has certainly been my experience. However, networking turns out to be the primary ingredient in getting all the way underwater to an actual career.

I didn’t get another chance to dive and salvage my pride—the weather turned nasty, and there were no more opportunities on that vacation. Perhaps there will be others later. Chances to network come more frequently, though, and the definition of success is blurrier. If you see me at a post-concert reception holding my nose, chances are I’ll be trying to pop my ears.

(Speaking of success: one reviewer so far has recommended my CD Seventeen Windows, which was released last month by Albany Records. You can read the recommendation here. (The CD is also available from Amazon.com and iTunes.))

2 Responses to “ On Failure ”

  1. [...] From my friend and colleague, David Wolfson:On Failure: or, how composing is like being under water.http://davidwolfsonmusic.net/blog/?p=466 [...]

  2. Erich Heins says:

    I had a similar experience with skiing; the instruction covered posture/balance/form issues, but didn’t mention that turning is used for speed control, as well as navigation. So you don’t just point your skis straight down the mountain, or you’ll be going a hundred miles an hour when you reach the crowd at the bottom. (Assuming you don’t fall over first, and injure something.) I mean, that’s just obvious, right?

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