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Relentless: Discovering a Life of Persistence, Grit, and Faith
by John Tesh
Learn More | Meet John Tesh
Mentors in Persistence
Music, Movies, Machines, and Mischief
I was an impulsive kid and, like anything, this impulsivity had its upsides and its downsides. On the positive side, I was continually interested in new mind-expanding, horizon-broadening rabbit holes, the first of those being technology.
At age seven, I wanted to find out how everything worked. I recall the day my parents bought a new Magnavox stereo at Korvettes. We listened to the Bert Kaempfert Orchestra for five days straight. Then I decided I needed to disassemble the unit and enhance the sound. I removed all the electronics from inside the piece of furniture in which the stereo resided and drilled holes in the chassis so the sound had more places to come out of.
In my defense, throughout history successful inventors and explorers have embraced this timeless process of testing, failing, retesting, and more failing. Thomas Edison famously said that he had never actually failed, he had just found ten thousand ways that wouldn’t work. And just like Edison, I found many, many ways that didn’t work, discovering in the process that there is also a certain amount of pain and suffering one must endure as a result.
The suffering, in my case, came from the business end of spankings by frustrated parents. The pain came from a far more unforgiving master: physics.
During what I now refer to as my exploration phase, I took apart numerous kitchen appliances, radios, and just about anything else in the house that was plugged into an outlet. The only problems I encountered came when, in my hyperhaste, I forgot to unplug a device from the 110 volts of alternating current pumping through it before beginning disassembly.
If she were alive today, my mom would tell you that I frequently experienced serious electric shocks during my wonder years, and after consulting her personal copy of Grey’s Anatomy, she became quite certain that during that time in my life I suffered several auto-electroconvulsive episodes. She would also tell you that at no point did any one of these electric shocks dissuade me from taking apart the next machine I could get my hands on. My desire to know how things worked, to understand why, muted any adolescent misgivings I may have had and thwarted any attempts she might have made to keep things with plugs out of my reach. Paradoxically, while my quest for deeper understanding drove me to persist on my Edisonian voyage of household discovery, none of that seemed to translate to schoolwork. I should note here that my mom always used to blame those electroconvulsive episodes for my absence from the honor roll.
After technology, there were film and music. By first grade, it had become clear to me that my future would be as either a director or a composer. The light bulb went off the moment my dad walked in with a brand-new 8mm movie camera. His plan was to document an upcoming family road trip to Yosemite. My plan was to be Hitchcock. Or Fellini. Or H. G. Wells. My first motion picture, however, would be more of an homage to Rube Goldberg.*
I had no actors. No sets. No lighting director. I had my dad’s 8mm camera, two rolls of unused Kodak film, fishing line, my Sears Silvertone Chord Organ, and Tippy, the family cat. I began storyboarding my concept with a genius-level idea of taking coat hangers and constructing a flying harness for Tippy. I attached the fishing line to the harness; affixed the harness to the clothesline; set up the home movie camera on a stack of my mom’s cookbooks; and then, at the last minute, I slipped Tippy into the harness. I then carefully pulled the harness with the fishing line. (Spielberg will tell you that fishing line is mostly invisible while using 8mm film stock.) My special effects setup made it look like Tippy was flying through outer space.
When I’d completed principal photography (“filming” in Hollywood-speak), I sent off the exposed film for processing and waited for what felt like a lifetime for its return. When it finally arrived, I secretly screened my masterpiece in the privacy of my bedroom and then set out to complete what I would later learn is called postproduction. Sitting in my room, playing my Sears Silverton Chord Organ, and making some creepy sounds with my mouth, I fired up my dad’s reel-to-reel recorder and microphone and recorded the film’s soundtrack. It was, to my young mind, a cinematic tour de force. It was incredible. And very scary.
A few days later, I screened the finished product—Tippy Goes to Mars—for my mom and dad. Knowing how much work I had put into the project, my mom watched the screening with great reverence. Dad, however, roared the way he laughed when he was watching The Three Stooges. I was mortified. I had considered myself a serious filmmaker, so I thought he was diminishing all my hard work by laughing at it like it was a slapstick comedy. It was one of those moments that, I now realize as an adult, has the potential to derail the dreams and define the trajectory, at least in part, of any child. It certainly did for me. As a sensitive, empathic boy, I did not have the tools to persist through that kind of parental negativity. I didn’t know what I wanted to do and be yet. I didn’t know how to let that kind of stuff roll off my back. I was seven. Mom tried to whisper encouragement when we were alone, which helped for a little while, but when Dad discovered I had used his vacation film, he made me pull weeds all weekend to pay for it. That was the end of that. Looking back now, though, I appreciate my dad’s review. The film was pretty darn hilarious.
My moviemaking career had ended, but my interest in production and performance had only just begun. When I was nine, I fancied myself a producer of live theater. Our home included a built-in intercom system. One Halloween, I ripped out one of the intercom speakers, because of course that is something I would do, and I placed it in a hollowed-out pumpkin on our front porch. I positioned myself by the remaining speaker in the kitchen, and when the young trick-or-treaters approached the house, I drove them away in tears with evil howlings that emanated directly from Mr. Pumpkin.
It wasn’t long before I graduated from public broadcasts to clandestine recordings of my sisters. Whenever one of their boyfriends came over, my parents would order me into another room, giving my sister a little privacy, while my parents went to their bedroom. (The suitor was told he had to keep both feet on the floor while on the couch.) I had already figured out a way to connect an external microphone to the intercom wiring, so I placed the microphone under a pillow on the couch. Then I connected my dad’s reel-to-reel tape recorder to the other end of the intercom and recorded the lovebirds’ conversations while I listened through the intercom. I still have those tapes somewhere, and I’ve gotten great mileage over the years holding those recordings for ransom.
All of these shenanigans and flights of curiosity were great fun. That was the upside of my undirected impulsivity: it was never boring. The downside was that it was ultimately purposeless. And when I lacked purpose, I found mischief. The surreptitious recordings of my sisters, fright night with Mr. Pumpkin, even rigging up Tippy with fishing line—all of that had some degree of mischief driving it. It would have persisted well into my teen years, and probably my twenties, had not two mentor-type figures interceded to show me the potential consequences—and probable accomplishments—if I could just channel it toward something purposeful.
I learned about consequences from my father’s father, Grandpa Percy Tesh, son of Romulus (no wonder I ended up with a Klingon cameo on Star Trek), taker of no guff whatsoever. He and Grandma Tesh lived outside of Rural Hall, North Carolina, on a huge farm less than fifteen miles north of Winston-Salem.
Each summer, our family drove down from Long Island to visit. The trip was two full days of driving, split in half by a night at a Howard Johnson’s along the way (honk if you ever had a HoJo Cola!). I would catch up on the latest issues of The Amazing Spider-Man, Uncanny X-Men, and Sgt. Fury and His Howling Commandos before jumping in the motel pool and bobbing up and down, doing my patented “find a friend” dance, slowly approaching other kids until one of them got creeped out enough to exclaim, “Hey! Who are you?” Boom . . . friends! (It must be innate because I’ve also seen my daughter and granddaughters do it.)
The Howard Johnson’s layover was our last bit of lighthearted fun before we got to the farm, where my grandparents raised chickens and pigs; grew beans, sweet potatoes, and lettuce; and generously doled out chores to yours truly. Among my daily chores were collecting the eggs from the henhouse, slopping the hogs (if you haven’t had the pleasure of working on a farm, slopping hogs means flinging a mess of leftover food to giant animals steeped in mud), and hiking down to the well to pump enough water for the day. This was among the simplest yet more important tasks delegated to me because Grandma and Grandpa had no electricity. When Grandma washed clothes, she did it in a cauldron-like container that held the water I’d hauled from the well. She dried the clothes by running them through a hand crank and hanging them on a clothesline. When she wasn’t doing the cleaning, she was getting her hands dirty, teaching me salt-of-the-earth stuff like how to kill and clean chickens, and how to kill, clean, and cure hogs. Needless to say, life on the farm was backbreaking work, the kind that can sap the energy and even the mischief out of impulsive young boys—almost.
Exhausted near the end of my chores one day when I was eleven years old, I was leaning up against the barn with my Red Ryder BB gun and, for nothing but grins, I sighted and shot a chicken in the backside. I figured the velocity of a BB was unlikely to kill anything, and I was right, but what I had not accounted for was that the chicken would go berserk and start squawking bloody murder. It jumped straight up in the air, sending the whole henhouse into a frenzy. The commotion quickly registered on Grandpa’s radar, and it didn’t take long for him to discover the cause of the hens’ hysteria.
Let’s start with how Grandpa Tesh did not handle the situation. He didn’t say, “You’re a cute kid, Johnny, but you made a mistake by shooting the hen with your BB gun. I’m not happy right now. Please don’t let it happen again.”
Grandpa wasn’t interested in applying some touchy-feely, liberal-hippy, preschool technique to the situation or working any sort of clinical child psychology exercise. I had screwed up. Grandpa Tesh was going to provide me with a lesson and memory that I would take with me forever.
“Johnny, I want you to go into the woods, cut a switch, and bring it back to me,” he said. I was from Long Island. To me, a switch was that thing on the wall that turned on the lights. I had no idea what he was talking about. Grandpa was happy to explain that picking a switch meant cutting a branch off a tree so it could be used to administer punishment.
Being a rookie switch-picker, I picked a small, thin branch off a young tree. (Wouldn’t you?) But Grandpa Tesh would have none of it.
“That’s not big enough. Go get another one.”
The next time I brought back a bigger branch, and for about two minutes, he beat me with it as he explained, between swats, that I had upset the henhouse and hysterical chickens don’t lay eggs for weeks.
“When you do stupid stuff like that,” he said, “you cost me money.”
I got the message. I had learned my lesson.
Growing up on that farm, my father had learned about discipline. Sun comes up, you go to work. Sun goes down, you have a hard day’s work to be proud of. Most every day that the sun set beyond the horizon in the west, it closed the curtains on a day of purpose. My dad was strict. Farmer strict. Southern strict. Baptist strict. And military strict.
Dad had been a navy man, serving in the Pacific Theater during World War II, and he was convinced that he could toughen me up using the only experience he had in that area: naval basic training. If you’ve ever seen Robert Duvall as Bull Meechum in Pat Conroy’s The Great Santini, then you get the idea.
Principal Dacus to Ben Meechum: All your dad is doing is loving you by trying to live his life over again through you. He makes bad mistakes but he makes them because he is part of an organization that does not tolerate substandard performance. He just sometimes forgets that there is a difference between a Marine and a son. Did he give you that shiner?1
After the war, my father had taken a job in the mailroom of the Hanes corporation in Winston-Salem, North Carolina. He soon climbed the ladder until he was promoted to vice president and moved my mom and two sisters to Garden City, Long Island. He was working in the Empire State Building when I was born on July 9, 1952.
A typical weekday had Dad arriving at the Garden City train station from work in Manhattan on the 6:20 p.m. train. Mom would pull up at the station in the family T-Bird holding two fingers of Johnnie Walker in a perfectly chilled lowball glass. She would hand Dad the glass as he took the driver’s seat, and he would sip from it in his left hand as he drove home using his right.
While my dad worked tirelessly at Hanes, and at administering his brand of basic training to his only son, my mom’s role defaulted to managing other people’s perceptions of our family. Fearing discovery of Dad’s out-of-control drinking and late-night wars with my sisters, Bonnie and Mary Ellen, Mom worked to create a fiction that our family was not at all unlike Wally and Beaver’s Cleaver clan. She and Dad were professional socializers. Dad was often decked out in a yellow or pastel red sport coat with a white belt, and he always wore an entertainer’s personality. People loved him for it.
Our family attended Westbury Methodist Church on Long Island twice a week, every week, no excuses. I dutifully memorized scripture, learned all the kids’ Bible stories, and attended church camp every summer. My dad was one of the church’s leaders, if not the strongest leader beneath the pastor. Yet I remember at least once a month that same pastor would answer Mom’s desperate call and arrive at our house to try “Christian counseling” when Dad drank too much whiskey and initiated loud, contemptuous arguments with my sisters that sometimes put them on the receiving end of his physical abuse.
My mother had been a surgical nurse before she’d met my dad, and she brought her natural tendencies to nurture and encourage to our home. But she also was a taskmaster about my studies and music, which partnered well with my music teacher at Stewart Avenue Elementary School, Dr. Tom Wagner. He had been named New York State Teacher of the Year, and under his leadership, Stewart’s programs were recognized nationally as they were easily on par with what you would find in a conservatory, Ivy League preparatory school, or a performing arts academy.
Dr. Wagner directed two choirs, an orchestra, a marching band, a dance band, and a jazz ensemble, as well as a theater program. He worked his own unique, meticulous process each day, without fail, to help his students improve. Parents never heard him say, “If your child doesn’t ‘feel’ like studying music, that’s just fine.” In Dr. Wagner’s world, music was serious business, and every student took one of his classes. If we didn’t select the choir, then our other choices were band or orchestra. His procedure for placement was equally inflexible: we listed our top three preferred instruments and then took what we got.
Hoping for an instrument that Chuck Berry might have in his band, my list was drums, drums, and guitar. I ended up with a trumpet. I was presented a beautiful 1959 Conn Director B-flat trumpet, a 10C mouthpiece, valve oil, and a leather case along with a document to sign, declaring that I would care for, and travel on the bus with, my instrument or I would face detention. I was a skinny seven-year-old, so my instrument and case were just shy of one-third my body weight. This was a recipe for bullying and back problems, but none of that mattered once I actually started to play.
There was something indescribable about that first day, sitting in a room with my classmates, almost making music. Dr. Wagner moved through our ranks like a whirling dervish as he demonstrated fingerings, explained dotted eighth notes, and showed us proper embouchure.
Three months later, my fellow bandmates and I found ourselves somehow wondrously transported to the school auditorium where we performed songs from Aaron Copland’s Our Town in front of our parents and grandparents for the first time. Their stunned expressions told us we weren’t half-bad. It must have seemed like magic to those in attendance.
What is clear to me now, though, is that Dr. Wagner’s magic was not magic at all. His process was consistent and dependable; he never departed from his mission and purpose. Our ensemble would snap to attention with the baton tap-tap-tapping on his giant, wooden music stand. Then he would announce “posture,” followed by “hand position,” and then “articulation!” We’d learn a phrase. Then a full measure. He’d yell, “Tempo” and “Try vibrato!” Often, without warning, he would flash his signature grin and give us an extra dose of loving guidance and encouragement.
He fostered a safe environment that cheered on risk. He’d shout, “Risk! Take a chance, ladies and gentlemen,” and “C’mon, let’s make some mistakes!” Even when we made an absolute mess of a beautiful piece of orchestral music, he wouldn’t leave us as long as we were following his process, persisted in our attempts to create the music, and took his direction.
No one laughed at blown notes or flat solos because Dr. Wagner fostered a camaraderie among us that no one beyond the walls of our rehearsal space could understand. He lifted all of us up as a musical family, all of us connected by vibrato and crescendos. We were learning a foreign language, and he was our translator. Back then, and without the opportunity of clairvoyance, I had no way of knowing that Dr. Wagner was coaching us through more than music. He had created for us a communal experience buoyed by our teamwork. It was the quintessential mix of groupthink and individuality. Even more than that, it was a proving ground for what was possible when you focused the efforts of curious, excitable, impulsive little kids.
Often, after one of my shows, a mom, dad, or grandparent will ask me, “Mr. Tesh, when should I start my child on piano?” My answer is always the same: “As soon as they can find their nose with their index finger.” But then I qualify my answer, channeling Dr. Wagner as I speak: “Solo instruments are wonderful, but there is nothing like the life experience your child or grandchild will receive playing in a band or orchestra. Find a place for them to plug in . . . and please, please don’t ever let them quit. Because it’s never about just the music when you are playing in a group.” I emphasize that it’s about the work. More specifically, it’s about respecting the process and staying disciplined as you relentlessly work that process.
Dr. Wagner provided me with my first true exposure to deep work and focused, intense practice, and I take it with me today. He showed me what was possible with persistent effort toward a specific goal, whether that was perfecting a piece of music or mastering an instrument. If my directionless impulsivity had cost my grandpa chickens who wouldn’t lay eggs, consistent, directed effort was clearly—according to Dr. Wagner—the goose who laid the golden eggs.
And although Dr. Wagner did not have the benefit of the proliferation of today’s books devoted to strategies for “hacking” ourselves into mastery and greatness—The 5 Second Rule, The Obstacle Is the Way, The Power of Your Subconscious Mind, The War of Art, Deep Work, and thousands more—I take some solace in knowing that he had beaten them all to market. It just so happens that his market was an elementary school music room through which multiple generations of children passed, and his bestseller was an almost Paleo-esque process that was extraordinarily unsophisticated in design: “Practice, practice, risk! Make some mistakes, people! We are working the process!”
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