Follow Your Heart

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I recently had a student who was on the path toward medical school and a lucrative future, but felt drawn to change his major to music education. He talked with me about his feelings and concerns, knowing he would have to discuss the issue with his parents. Thankfully, they were supportive…so many times that is not the case. I have seen so many frustrated students over the years pursuing degrees that they are not passionate about, all while being as involved as possible in the music program, trying as best they can to live their dream, if only for a few short years. I, too, felt that calling to follow my heart and become a musician, and I, too, had a father that discouraged me from pursuing that dream. What if I had listened to him?

All along, my father told me not to worry about college, that if I worked hard and did well, he would take care of my education. Mom and I lived on a less than shoe-string budget after their divorce, so his words meant a lot to me. This promise was made during one of the very few phone conversations we had over the course of a year. Dad lived only forty minutes away, but I saw him maybe once a year for about fifteen minutes. He never once heard me play clarinet, but did hear my middle school jazz band perform at the county fair during my first year of teaching.

Dad was an Army man, a Lt. Colonel, in for a thirty-three year career. To him that was the only way, all he knew. My oldest brother followed his footsteps, serving for twenty years, and paid dearly for his service, fighting in the Vietnam and Korean wars. I knew all along that that wasn’t the life for me. I felt the calling to perform and to teach singing through my veins. I knew there was nothing else I could do in life and be happy. I knew I would never be wealthy, and that didn’t matter- it made my soul smile, so that is how I knew I needed to spend my life.

I graduated with honors, was first chair in our band and orchestra, in one of the top programs in the country. I decided that I wanted to pursue music education at Florida State University, and proudly called my dad to let him know. I was blown away by his words, “Gal, you’ll never work as a musician. If you have to be a teacher, at least teach math or English. If you want me to help you, you’ll need to go into the ROTC and enter the Army.”

Wow…talk about a bait and switch. I was devastated. For the first time in my life, I found the courage to speak up to him…

“Thanks, Dad, but I am going to major in music at FSU if I have to scrub floors from here to Tallahassee to do it. The Army is not for me.”

Needless to say, my father was not happy with me. However, I had one strong voice of support all along; the woman who listened to hours and hours of my beginning squeaks and squawks, who attended every concert, every band and orchestra booster meeting. My mother always told me, “Honey, you follow your dream- you can be whatever you want to be. We will find a way.”

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And we did. Scholarships, financial aid, student loans, working- I made it through undergrad and ended up getting my first job teaching junior high band in the same town where my father and his new family lived. Rather ironic, but I do believe that everything happens as it is meant to. Dad finally came to hear my band perform, and I will never forget the look of shock on his face when he came up to me afterwards and said, “Wow- they sound good, Gal. Proud of you.” He had never said those words to me before in my life.

After I taught band for five years, I felt the pull to perform, to grow more as a musician, and left to earn my Master’s in Clarinet Performance  at the University of North Texas, the largest music school in the country. Still no word from my father, still tons of encouragement from my mother. I finished my degree and was voted ‘Outstanding Graduate Student’. I won my first college teaching job at a small liberal arts college in the beautiful town of Mars Hill, North Carolina, and I thrived, loving my chosen career. I was so proud to call my dad and tell him I was a college professor. He told me again that he was proud of me. For some reason, even though he had so little to do with my life, his spare words of praise were like treasures to me.

At the end of my first year of teaching, I and some of my students were packing up my rented home, preparing to move to a new house. A stranger walked up the hill and interrupted the move.

‘I am from the Red Cross. I am sorry to inform you that your father has died.”

Time stood still. This man, whom I had worked so hard to win approval for for thirty years, had died. My heart aches with the knowledge that I would never truly know my father, nor would he know me. I felt some sense of relief that he at least knew I had succeeded as a musician, that I had been successful. That I had followed my dream and was living a happy life- without his help or support.

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Years later, I visited his grave for the first time. From my vantage of passing years, I forgave him; forgave his abandonment of me, his lack of encouragement, support, love. I told him that I had completed my doctoral degree, I was teaching at a university job that I loved, that I have performed all over the world, that I was fulfilled, happy. I told him that I had always loved him, and that he missed out on a really great daughter. The air around his grave felt alive to me, electric. Real or imagined, I felt like he somehow heard my words.

Tears rolled down my cheeks, tears of loss, for what might have been, tears of gratitude that Mom had believed in me, and tears that Dad’s lack of belief helped to give me the drive to succeed, to prove to him that I could make it in life as a musician…to follow my heart. 

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