Some Musings On Failure, Learning, & Ultimately Success

Over the past few days while visiting Jim here in Seattle, I’ve had the opportunity to do a number of things that I’ve not done in quite a long time: read music & sit in with bands that read music.

The last time I read music, I mean really read music, was before I left Fredericton when I filled in occasionally as the bari player with a large dance band, played tenor for a year with a university jazz band, and played for a year in a sax quintet. The last time any of this happened would have been more than 6 years ago.

Since then I’ve been playing in rock & electric blues bands, where I’ve been responsible for developing and writing out the horn lines, weaving my lines in, around, and behind vocalists, and developing my solos based on the chords. In my jazz ensemble (currently still on hiatus) The Bassic Sax Jazz Ensemble, we only used fake books. In short, I’ve developed great ears, but lost lots in sight reading and basic reading skills.

I went into this week knowing that I would be humbled, because I was going to be playing with people who spend most of their musical time, reading music: my ears were only going to carry me so far. Sure I can stand in front of a large crowd of people and solo, scream through my horn, do all kinds of tricks, play fast, but that isn’t the kind of music that I was going to be playing. I knew that, and told Jim upfront that I was out of practice. He assured me that I was still going to be fine, and not to worry.

I guess I’m just one of those people who likes to be 100% perfect at everything they do. I don’t like being “not perfect”, and this week I’ve been “not perfect”. Oh well…Like I said…It’s been humbling…

Anyone who has ever been in a serious accident, or been seriously ill, knows what it is like trying to come back from total inactivity. That’s where I’m at now, added on-top of the 6 years of not having read music. So I really appreciate the confidence that Jim has shown in me. I also really appreciate the opportunities that Jim has given me this week.  

I have done fine this week. I have held my own…I’m just not where I would like to be…Where I’m used to being…Where I’m comfortable being…But that is not really a bad thing.

I think we all need to step out of our comfort zones, and do what is not comfortable for us once in a while. It is through these types of experiences that we tend to grow as musicians and performers.

This might be as simple as changing our practice routines to include materials to extend our techniques, so we are not just playing the “same old, same old”: the things we might like, but things that don’t move us forward. Or it might be more complex: like taking up the study of a new style of music with a new instructor.

Whatever it is, if we are serious in wanting to become better musicians, we need to push ourselves to go outside of what is comfortable. We will of course most likely not succeed at first, but through that failure comes the learning, and through that learning ultimately comes the success.

While this may seem like a simplistic concept, it is difficult to put into practice…But we have to willing to make that first step.

…this is just my blog. My “real” website is If you’re looking for sax info, you should check it out too.There’s lots there!

© 2008, Helen. All rights reserved.


Helen Kahlke is a professional horn player and sax teacher who lives in Abbotsford, British Columbia. She plays soprano, alto, C melody, tenor, baritone, and bass saxophones.


  1. Hi Randy.

    Well it’s a honour to have you here now ❗


  2. I know how it feels when you are forced to stretch your skills. I had some early legit training on clarimet, but sometimes I feel like I’m the only rocker who ended up playing with a symphony orchestra. Half the time I make up for lost time learning orchestral interpretation. Once in a great while when I get to break out the R&B chops, the orchestra loves it and everything is worthwhile. I had a lot of fun reading your blog – should have done it sooner.

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