How to still be your best when the pressure is high.

My son Johann is a talented musician. He is involved in a lot of musical activities and I’m not sure how he keeps them all straight. Here’s an example of one of his weeks this spring. On Wednesday evening he played violin in the all-district orchestra concert in Mequon, Wisconsin. (My daughter Ava and son Magnus played violin and cello in the same concert.) Thursday evening Johann played tenor saxophone in his school band concert. And I won The Father Of The Week Award because I missed both of those concerts due to work travel. Boo.

To cap off his musical week, Sunday morning Johann had his annual regional piano competition at UW-Milwaukee. Johann, who has been playing piano since he was 5 turned 15 on Monday and is a really great piano player if I do type so myself.

But despite the fact that Johann was extremely well prepared, things didn’t go as expected. In fact, we could have never predicted what unfolded during his competiton.

Here’s The Story

Johann competed in 2 different piano categories. First, there was a piano concerto in which Johann and his piano instructor play a piano duet. They play on 2 different pianos, so it is not quite like Stevie Wonder and Paul McCartney playing Ebony and Ivory, side by side on the piano keyboard. But it’s close.

Then Johann played in an individual competition, where he performed 2 more solo pieces. All 3 songs were completely memorized. He practiced for months to prepare for this competition.

Johann and his wonderful piano instructor, Rita Shur.

Part 1

The competition started with the Concerto. Johann and his instructor went into the audition room. The room judge shut the door and they warmed up on their pianos. I was outside the room, listening in. There are no interlopers, parents, or groupies allowed.

I waited for the warmup period to end. Then I began recording the audio from the hallway with my iPhone as they played their actual competition piece. It sounded great.

Plot Twist!

But after 30 seconds the music stopped. Confused, I figured that they were still warming up. So I stopped my recording, deleted my video and prepared to record again. But after 15 seconds they started playing again, but not from the beginning of the song. I was thoroughly confused. They played the song to the end, got up and walked out of the room.

As Johann’s instructor emerged from the room she had a panicked look on her face. She turned to me and said, ‘One of my pages of music was missing! When I turned to play the next sheet, it was not there. So I stopped to look for it. But could not find the music. So I tried to play by memory.’

This was not how you want to start the piano competition that you have spent months preparing for. Suddenly I felt like the nervous emoji that shows a lot of teeth.

His teacher turned to console Johann and said, ‘You played wonderfully.’

Concerned, Johann asked, ‘Do you think I will make it through to the state competition?’ She replied that she hoped so. She added that as they finished she told the judge that the mess up was her fault because she didn’t have all of her music.

Part 2

We tried to shake off the rocky start to the morning as we headed upstairs for his individual performance. We arrived at the room right on time for his audition, only to discover that the competition was running behind. The person to play before him still hadn’t been called into the room. So we waited for Johann’s turn. But when the other competitor and judge emerged they announced they were dealing with technical difficulties. Apparently it was that kind of day.

Finally, they called for Johann. The judge invited Johann into the room to warm up, but warned that they were trying to straighten out some technical challenges. Johann entered the room. So did a gaggle of other judges and official-looking people. They shut the door. Johann went to the piano to warm up. And 6 adults gathered around a laptop, looking as if there was nothing but bad news on the screen.

Through the window in the door, I could see Johann warm up. And then look up at me. Then look over at the judge scrum. Then back at me. This went on for a minute. Then 2 minutes. Then 5 minutes.

After Johann had been sitting there watching the tense judges for a long time his instructor said, ‘This is not good. They make the poor kid sit there for 10 minutes, just getting more and more nervous!’

Plot Twist!

But just then I heard something interesting coming from the room. As the huddle of tension continued, Johann began playing a song on the piano. But it wasn’t one of his competition songs. I instantly recognized the playful and bouncy track as Glenn Miller’s In The Mood. It is one of the most fun, upbeat and happy songs ever written. It was the 1940s equivalent of Pharell William’s smash hit Happy.

I could see Johann smiling behind his mask. Then I saw the instructors. Struck by the playful music, they immediately lightened up. You could see their posture change. Muscles relaxed. Toes tapped. And they began bouncing and dancing to the playful music.

The mood in the room completely changed. Because Johann changed it. He sent a message to the instructors that he was cool. That they were cool. That everything was cool.

Within a few minutes, the judges either solved the problem or figured out how to move forward without solving it. I don’t really know. But the additional problem-solvers finally exited the room, and the attention finally shifted to Johann and his performance.

Johann played his 2 memorized songs, stood up from the piano, thanked the judges, and exited the room. His instructor greeted him, and she told him he did a very nice job. She told him several things that he did very well. Then Johann asked, ‘Is there a but?’ (I snickered on the inside.) He was wondering if there was some bad news to accompany the good news? She said there was not.

We gathered our things, walked down the hallway, down the stairs and exited the building.

There on the sidewalk in the quiet of a Sunday morning on a college campus, I stopped Johann and said,

‘I am so proud of you Johann. I don’t really care what the judges say about your performances. You went into your Concerto, got thrown a major, major curveball and just kept playing and did all that you could do to perform your best given the circumstances.

Then, during your individual competition you had to not only shake off what just happened in your first performance, you had to deal with the delay and technical difficulties.

But then, when the room was the tensest, you, the kid in the room who had the most reason to be tense and nervous, you did something remarkable. You read the room, knew what was needed, and you lightened the mood by playing a fun and playful song to pass the time.

In the process, you showed composure, emotional intelligence, a sense of humor, and you got to show them that you are a freaking great piano player who has some jazzy tunes up your sleeve.

Whatever happens, I want you to remember how you responded to this adversity. And I want you to carry this reminder with you the rest of your life.

-A Proud Father

I could tell that Johann absorbed the lesson and appreciated the support. He thanked me for saying what I said.

We walked to the car and drove home to enjoy the rest of our Sunday.

The News

The following Tuesday I got a text from my wife Dawn. It was a screen capture from his instructor that said:

Good evening! Congratulations!!!

Piano Concerto – Superior level, and going to State!

Piano Solo – Superior level and going to State!

I am Soooo PROUD of our terrific Boy!!!

Bravo!

-Johann’ Piano Instructor

Follow Up

Last weekend Johann competed in the Wisconsin State Music Festival in Milwaukee. Once again, he showed up well prepared and performed at his best. This time there were no curveballs. There were just 5 excellent piano players and 3 judges determining the best of the best in each competition.

Soon after his competitions we got the great news that Johann won both his concerto and individual competitions. I am a very proud father. And now he also has some state championship trophies as symbols of his hard work and dedication. But the real wins were the life lessons he learned about preparation and composure along the way.

Johann and his proud parents after his State competition.

Key Takeaway

Life is going to throw unexpected challenges your way. That is part of the game. It is all a test. Prepare as well as you can. Be ready for things to go wrong. Stay focused on what you can control. Keep your cool, and good things usually happen. It is your response to the challenges, the mistakes and the curveballs that make you great at life.

*If you know someone who could benefit from this message, please share it with them.

+If you enjoy this story and would like to read more like it, check out my new book What Does Your Fortune Cookie Say? from Ripples Media.

The best moment of my life was 14 years ago today.

If you asked me what the best day of my life was I couldn’t tell you. My wedding day was spectacular. So was the day I first met my wife Dawn. And our first date. And the day I asked her to marry me. And the day we moved into our first home.

There were days snowmobiling and riding roller coasters that were thrilling and made me feel as alive as a human can feel.

There was the Father’s Day when my family and I hiked on Mt. Rainier and then watched a purple-sky sunset at Mt. St. Helens that was epic.

I had a day in Iceland that never turned to night. (And I ate like 12 lamb dogs with crispy onions.)

The day I broke the state record in the discus, 8 months after ACL reconstruction surgery was indescribable.

But I don’t have a clear and obvious answer to which day was the best of the best.

But if you asked me what the best moment of my life was I have an easy answer. It was the moment my son Johann was born. But I didn’t choose the moment. The moment chose me.

At the time Dawn and I had a 21-month old daughter named Ava. And right up until we met baby #2 we didn’t know the baby’s gender. In fact, we didn’t find out the gender of any of our 3 children before they were born. That surprise is perhaps the greatest surprise of your life. And Dawn and I are both don’t-eat-the-marshmallow types.

Minutes before the baby arrived the delivering doctor asked us what male and female names we had chosen. We told her Johann and Giselle. (Although I was tempted to say Tina and Uncle Rico.) And then, when the new addition to our team made the grand entrance, the Doctor held the baby up like Simba in “The Lion King” and declared, ‘It’s a Johann!’

When she said those 3 words, and I saw the evidence for myself, and double-checked to make sure I was not looking at the umbilical cord, I was filled with more joy than I could ever imagine feeling.

However, it was not because the baby was a boy. It was because I now had everything I could ever want. Finding a spouse, and then having both a daughter and a son were out of my control. The universe would have to provide those things for me. And I would have been perfectly happy to have 2 daughters. But in that moment when Johann was born, I immediately realized that I had everything I ever wanted. Or ever could want. I checked all the boxes. I had the complete set. I felt like I had won the lottery. And in many ways I had.

Happy 14th Birthday Joh! Thanks for being a Johann. And for making my life full and complete.

A lesson from my son on the value of mistakes.

Over the past week my family and I enjoyed a spring break trip to Texas. On Good Friday my son Johann and I got up early to nab poolside seats for our last day before returning home. In fact, we got down to the pool before it was open for the day. But there was no moose out front telling us the pool was closed for two weeks for cleaning and repairs. So we found some Adirondack chairs near an outdoor fireplace, and sat and talked, like fathers and sons should.

Good Talk Russ

Good Talk Russ

Johann is one of my favorite people to talk to because his mind dances. We talked about whether Star Wars took place in the past or the future. While I said it all seemed futuristic, he reminded me that it took place long ago in a galaxy far, far away. We covered funny Chris Pratt lines from Jurassic World: Fallen Kingdom. And we talked about the leaning tower of Pisa.

The Leaning Tower

As we discussed the leaning tower from a long time ago in a country far, far away, Johann shared an interesting observation. He said, ‘You know Dad, no one would care about the tower if it wasn’t leaning. It is the leaning that makes it interesting.’

I asked Johann if he thought there was a life lesson to be learned from the leaning tower. He quickly replied,

‘Even our failures can be a work of art.’  -Johann Albrecht (age 11)

Key Takeaway

Don’t beat yourself up over your failures. They make you and your story more interesting. Make the lean in your tower work for you. Make a wrong turn at Albuquerque, then make that your catch phrase. Don’t avoid your mistakes. Embrace them. They are often blessing that pay dividends for years, or even centuries to come.

*If you know someone who could benefit from this story, please share it with them.