That Time I Auditioned for Vocal Point

I was visiting my sister one week ago when the topic of discussion moved to a mutual friend that we both had. It was a cool thing because I think this guy has met every member of my family independently. He had been a member of BYU’s popular male a cappella group Vocal Point and she was telling me how talented this guy was. I had recently found out that auditions for the group were this week. “You should audition!” she said. “Then we would have to go to concerts!”

Being familiar with the audition process from the dozens in which I had before participated, I knew that signing up for an audition three days before it actually happens is never a good idea unless you are already sufficiently prepared, which was certainly not the case with me. But the thought was appealing, if only for the reason that it’s good experience to have, even though I knew that the chances of admission were diminutive. So I signed up.

I had done choir in high school, and on one occasion one of the soloists of a Rent medley we were singing became drunk on the day of a concert. He wasn’t permitted to come and perform, so I was asked to learn the part quickly to fill in (it was only one verse). It wasn’t very much, but when it came time to perform, I was nervous enough to switch some of the words around, but hey I’d only learned them that day. If I could do that, maybe I could be a little more optimistic about this opportunity. I was fully aware that forgetting lines shows less than minimal preparation for an audition.

Apart from only ever having sung solo that one time for one short verse, I also don’t listen to pop music. I recognize a few tunes, but I certainly never listen to any of them enough times to learn any of the lyrics. I have been listening to Chinese pop music actually, but the auditioners didn’t want songs they weren’t familiar with. Broadway was also ruled out, as well as vibrato (basically my art song and opera music), so I had to look for something to sing. The other recommendation was that the song show off my range. The only pop songs I ever heard wouldn’t show off anyone’s range (I’m certain that’s not true, there’s just none I could think of). I don’t know how I found it, but I stumbled randomly upon “Not a Bad Thing” by Justin Timberlake. His voice hits a pretty wide range in it, plus it’s by a super famous popstar so it’s along the lines a group like Vocal Point could sing. So I decided to learn the first verse and chorus, simple enough.

I felt pretty confident going in on Wednesday that I could remember the words and hit all of the notes. At the same time I kept asking myself Why am I doing this? and then, not having a real answer, reminding myself it was just for the experience. Because I’m not a very experienced singer, I wasn’t accustomed to any techniques or warm-up I could do. I was nervous, knowing that I had not prepared sufficiently (but I had known that from the beginning…) so I talked with people sitting outside the audition room, trying to put off thinking about the outcome. We typed up answers to some questions about ourselves, such as “Why do you want to join Vocal Point” and “What are your top three favorite artists/bands?” My answers were similar to “Because honestly it would be fun, and a lot of hard work” and “Beyoncé, Jamie Cullum, and Steely Dan”. I honestly don’t know too much Beyoncé but I couldn’t put down Marc-André Hamelin. I am actually a big fan of Jamie Cullum, but I was afraid that not everyone would recognize songs sung by him.

When we were called in, we began with sight singing. I am actually quite good at sight singing, but we were asked to sing “Let the Holy Spirit Guide” straight from the LDS hymnal, probably the most popular hymn of early morning seminary for its shortness. So there wasn’t really a chance to stand out there. Then, I was asked to perform my song first.

First, darn it. I wasn’t preparing right before, like I would be cramming for a test (which I don’t recommend), so I kind of wished I could take a few seconds to pull myself together right then. But I didn’t have that, so I started singing.

I remembered the first line. Subsequent lines became less and less clear, and I made sure to pause at the end of each phrase because I couldn’t think of how the following line went. I saw the members of Vocal Point dancing along to the beat which I kept interrupting because I couldn’t keep remembering the words in time. I was cut short, then the group leader asked me to sing the chorus, starting at his desired pitch. Two lines in, I stopped, saying “I don’t remember how it goes.” One member sang the next line for me and I sang it back until I was stopped again, and they moved onto the guy next to me.

“I’m going to sing Hallelujah,” he said.

“That’s a good one,” said one member.

Hey, I knew that song. Maybe I could have performed that.

The following guy said next, “I’m going to be singing Let it Be by the Beatles.”

“Great song!” they responded.

Hey, I’m really familiar with that song too! Maybe I could have sung that one.

I don’t remember what the fourth guy sang, but he was powerful. We left after that and congratulated him. He got called back, of course.

Well, I thought as I left, that was it. Haha. It actually went worse than I anticipated. But I wasn’t hurt, I knew I had asked for that.

The next day I attended a concert by another a cappella group, Beyond Measure. As I came in, one guy stopped me. “Josh, right?”

“Yeah.”

“Thanks for coming in yesterday. It went well!”

“I know, but I’m aware that it was actually pretty bad,” I said with a smile.

“You’ve got something there though. I just want to tell you not to give up. We definitely want to see you back next year.”

I told him that I didn’t have much singing experience and that this was just for fun. I had only started preparing for it the week of. He told me it would be a good idea to prepare throughout the year.

I’m mostly just impressed that, in spite of my audition being objectively bad (like I said, you don’t forget lines for an audition), he still stopped to talk to me. I mean, if I were in the group and had witnessed such a disaster from just one of dozens of fabulously talented auditions, there’s a good chance I would have just ignored me. It’s always good to remember names, but this one crappy kid? That’s pretty impressive. But maybe this is the attitude I should adopt with everyone as well. I hope that when I am in that position (any kind of position where I search for somebody) that I don’t just shrug off the people who don’t even show promise. But it’s a good thing to start being aware of.

The second thing I take from this is that I’m glad to have tried out for something I didn’t really expect to be a part of. For example, I find it hard to be motivated to write up applications for jobs and programs or audition for groups without actually believing that I’ll make it. It just makes everything less convincing. I feel like I really did try my hardest with the minimal time and resources I was given here, but I also was fully aware of a realistic outcome. It really is a strange principle, but it applies to much more than this experience. At one point, we are probably going to break that reality, and by doing out best, we will achieve unexpected things.

The Price of Honesty

I know plagiarism when I see it. I had that concept drilled into me over and over in high school English — how to detect it and how to avoid it. It is a crime, a form of intellectual theft, and it made perfect sense to me. The rules were so clearly laid out to me that I immediately recognized it, after reading a set of essays which a student had turned in for extra credit. More than half of the content had clearly been copied and pasted from at least three third-party sources which I found online, and perhaps even worse, it wasn’t coherent — one part quoting an un-introduced bystander, another speaking of future discussions which clearly were not present in that paper. I quickly assigned it a zero, already knowing the consequence of such actions: a class fail and a report to the honor code office. I mentioned to the professor what I had seen, and he spoke exactly what I had thought, that it isn’t fair to anyone, especially others students, that one person get ahead by cheating. Even though I had asked this student to meet with me after class that day to allow her to present her case, we couldn’t think of any way that something of this nature could be disproved.

She came to me after class, having discovered the topic about which I wished to speak, telling me that she had erroneously submitted a rough draft of the essays and that she had meant to submit a different, more accurate set. My skeptic mind asked, “Really? Can you show that to me?”

“Yes,” she said, “but I have to go to work now.”

“Can you send it when you’re done?”

“Yes.”

“Okay, great, I was worried that we’d have to take more action!”

It wasn’t until several hours later that I sat there regretting my decision for her to be allowed to attend to her job immediately. It’s not that I didn’t believe that she had to go work, but frankly speaking the evidence which I could clearly have gotten ahold of was now invalid because it no longer proved that she was prepared. I sent her an email tell her to contact the professor, as I now lacked the evidence that I needed to make an informed decision. My message was stern in that email because I didn’t know her, all I knew was her actions, and I must treat every student the same. She replied almost instantaneously with her revision attached, stating she had just gotten off of work and how stressful everything that had been going on was. I read over her revised document and found it to be worthy of a high grade. After informing the professor, he replied back to me that we should let it pass. I was a little surprised considering the discussion we had had earlier, but I was almost feeling sympathy for this student, who otherwise was doing extremely well in the class. She will continue to do well, but I imagine the shock I must have given her this last week of classes, after so much work and study had been completed, to be failed by law and perhaps have the mark of a cheater written on her transcript forever.

Naturally my thoughts turned toward myself, as I had all the power to fail this student, and I knew without a doubt that she should. I wondered whether I truly deserved to exercise that authority — perhaps I am like the man from the parable of the talents, who wished to justly punish a man for his inability to pay back a debt, but which was only a fraction of the debt he himself owed. I honestly had not before considered plagiarism to be a possibility in math and science, whereas in writing it was all too obvious. Perhaps the reason is that plagiarism is stealing ideas and passing them off as one’s own, where when learning mathematical concepts or physics those ideas are already credited to their discoverers and are taught to be done in a very precise manner. Then I remembered when I first changed my major to ME and struggled for that entire semester. I had no idea how the other students were faring so well, and I just kept up hope that my depression would fade and I would eventually become like them, always on top of their work and their grades. As a music major I never cared for grades. I knew that if I worked hard and always progressed, I would do well. I never had to go ask for help, it just seemed right for me to independently study and improve. That’s why toward the end of that first semester, after struggling day after day spending hours on individual problems, I visited the TA labs for the first time. I told them I had only begun coming to these labs, to which a TA said, “Well that was a mistake.”

I never did this as a musician. It didn’t feel right. I sat there and watched how TAs sat with students and solved each problem step-by-step. Problems were solved on the board as students searched through their work to find out how to solve their homework problems. It made my life so much easier. But it still wasn’t enough. The following semester I retook a calculus class in order to get a better grade, though I knew every concept back to front. Through the semester I aced every problem I came across. In that time I discovered other students using a website which contains worked out solutions to a number of math textbooks. It seemed to me to be an invaluable resource, particularly because I already knew how to solve the problems, but using this site I could do very thorough checks of my answers. Thus this site became my daily companion. I felt like I could teach this class with all the knowledge I had gained. This semester I attacked two of my classes with both a solution manual and Slader at my side as I worked through my homework each day. I thought nothing of it, I commonly saw other students using these tools and I completed more homework than I had ever done.

I think that’s where the gray area ends. I stopped talking to TAs even when they were present in the lab because I had a resource that taught me at a level and speed accustomed to me, I learned the concepts at a much faster rate, and my grades have been much better than before. But I don’t deserve them. Pondering this topic has changed my opinion dramatically on how work must be done. Even until now, I still haven’t completely learned what it means to be a good student. I thought of turning myself in and receiving those same consequences which I was to administer to that girl. After all, I knew now exactly that I had been committing plagiarism this entire semester. The consequences were clear to me — I would delay my graduation yet another year, failing and retaking these two classes along with others I may not have fully deserved, and worst of all being marked as a cheater on my transcript for good, minimizing more than ever my chances of graduate study. It was the only right thing to do.

I first emailed my academic counselor, who, incidentally being the Mechanical Engineering counselor has helped me immensely to prepare for graduation, also holds a music degree. I explained to her my transformation, not dissimilar to the girl’s whose essays I graded, as her essays turned in every few weeks showed evidence of more and more plagiarism until it was so obvious it was undeniable. Mine was a slower process, but I look back and see the error of my actions and require only justice. How can I be seeker of truth, one who searches for all the knowledge available to man, and not even be true to myself? As with any bad habit, there is no true repentance unless all possible restitution is made. One cannot simply stop gambling, having adulterous relations, smoking tobacco, or even producing excessive carbon without suffering its natural consequences. What’s passed is past, but can we try to undo our own carbon footprints or confess promiscuous relationships to a spouse? Why would it be okay that after discovering the truth, I keep the lies of my past hidden? It was perhaps the environmental situation given Jean Valjean that caused him to commit even respectable crimes, but after realizing the man that these crimes had transformed into and with a blessing from the bishop, his transformation not only impacted him but improved the lives of many in his city of mayorship. Still a man had to be convicted of his crimes, and he could not hide himself while another man suffered the terrible pains he remembered, so after revealing himself in court he fled, already having committed himself to a higher duty.

I’m still waiting for a reply to that confession, but I’m hoping that it comes soon and that as a result I will discover greater integrity in myself. Regardless of what happens, the thing that I wish most not to forget is that though I deserve to respect myself, the respect I receive from others should be based on the person that they see in me, rather than simply the person that they see.