Failure and Giving Up

In this episode of The Classical Guitar Corner Podcast, Simon shares some personal stories about failure and giving up on the classical guitar. You definitely won’t want to miss this inspiring episode!

Failure Story #1

Perseverance is one of my favorite words. I started out at a high school in Australia whose motto was not a Hollywood-style victory lap. No, it was “Persevere!” How boring. It always seemed to me very passive. But I’ve come to learn over the last couple of decades that perseverance has been the one thing that has taken me to places I want to go.

So here’s story number one. When I was around 16 or 17, I went to the closest thing we had to a classical guitar competition in Sydney. It was a big deal to us. This was my first time as a performer. And I played two pieces: I can’t remember what the first was, but I definitely remember the second one. And the reason I remember the second so well is that I didn’t remember it at the time.

I was playing the Bach “Prelude” from Cello Suite 1 and within the first few measures, I had a gigantic memory slip. Time never moves more slowly than in these moments. So I tried to restart the piece and it happened again. I don’t remember how that all ended, but I remember the feeling. The music never came back to me so I finished, took a bow, and then I went and balled my eyes out. It was embarrassing. I can still palpably feel that moment.

Over the years I kept getting back on that horse. And when I was about twenty-one years old I ended up winning that competition. And that was a big deal to me because of the trauma I had previously gone through. I think this is an example of a painful experience that didn’t stop me from going back each year and trying to improve.

Failure Story #2

I’ve been reading a lot of Stoic philosophy, like Marcus Aurelius and Seneca lately. And a central tenet of Stoicism is that your biggest obstacle can prove to be an opportunity. Story number two is a good example of this principle.

When I applied to undergraduate schools, I first made application to the Peabody School in Baltimore. While I got into Julian Gray’s studio, I didn’t get any scholarship money. And that really prevented me from being able move forward.

But that didn’t stop me. I worked as a classical guitarist in whatever ways I could. And the following year I applied again to Juilliard, Manhattan School of Music, and Yale University. And as many of you know I was fortunate enough to go to Yale University and even more fortunate on a full scholarship. That was a great example of not only perseverance but really a kind of blessing in disguise. Taking that year off set me up for a wonderful experience at Yale.

Failure Story #3

The biggest accolade I achieved, on paper at least, was that I was the first guitarist in 30 years to complete a doctorate at Yale. The entry exam into that process is really grueling. It was a four-part, four-hour exam. They could really quiz you on anything in the canon of Western classical music, so I studied for a solid year before the first exam. The way you pass is you have to get above 80% on each portion of the exams.

The most difficult section was the listening exam. They play you a piece of music and you have to identify it, but you also have to show your work and how you arrived at your answer. And I didn’t pass.

But, just like my high school motto, I persevered. And the second time I took it I passed. And that really changed my life. But I was awarded for persevering in the face of failure.


I hope this resonates with you. Sometimes we fail. And the more I learn about failing, the more I think it should be celebrated. Because it means you tried something. Especially in the art world, failing means you are experimenting and creating and this teaches you things along the way.

Recently we had about a 25% pass rate at Classical Guitar Corner Academy. This isn’t really a fail rate, it’s just saying that you should keep working on some things before moving on to more difficult material. And this would be irresponsible for me as a teacher to do this. One of the greatest joys recently has been to receive resubmissions of member’s Grade Exams. And not only is there obvious evidence of improvement but now I feel fully confident that that person has the fundamentals to move on.

So maybe the next time you read that biography of the person who seems so “talented,” know that there are so many failures in that process. And that’s wonderful. If you feel like you’ve had a failure, keep persevering.