Ah, High School … For most of us, it is one of life’s biggest oxymoron. It’s our best years—our best selves, glossy with youth, solid in identity and outlook, and is often our peak performing years in our chosen set of skills. And yet, that gloss was a little duller than what it could have been, our confidence not as strong as we supposed, because those years contained too, the many doubts about who we were, how we fit in a world that we are blissfully innocent about, and if we were really good at anything at all.
As I drift farther (and farther) from those years myself, and as my identity has had to expand to include responsible adult, spouse and parent, I had often wondered if my old talents could be resurrected.
In the days when nothing really pulled at me to be other versions of myself, when I had the luxury to immerse myself in anything of my choosing, I chose music. Certainly I had a knack for it, but even now I question how talented I really was, and how much of it was simply a reputation for it.
Whatever my level of real talent, I can tell you, it was my life. My sole identity. It meant everything. Not only because when I played, it tapped into a part of me that allowed me vision beyond myself, but because every note played, represented hours of unseen work in solitude.
Scrutiny over every element of my music from how I wanted to shape my phrasing, to the countless ways to interpret what the composer was trying to say, exhausted me in my pursuit of perfection. Add in the other hours when I was in an ensemble setting with others, and it was a whole new layer to my music. I loved every minute of it.
For all my passion for it, at some point, that identity and dream slipped quietly away from me. Nothing dramatic happened. I suppose a combination of things called life got in the way. One of them being the realization that there are a million talented people in the world, that talent itself is not particularly special, but the drive to keep going at all costs with accepting this fact, this is what makes a true artist special.
Flash forward several decades when I long to find my “old self” again, or even just a short visit with her. When my life seemed nothing except other versions of myself, which left me feeling tired and uninspired. The day to day drudgery of my everyday life didn’t seem as studded with new stars to wish upon anymore.
I decided music is what was missing! Yes! I was ready to start working at it again, I had been away too long. With a full heart, I eagerly anticipated a reconnection with an old love I was sure I would still find attractive, and who would once again adorn me with those ethereal gems that use to make me shine, no matter how long the years had been.
I auditioned at MacPhail in downtown Minneapolis for an adult chamber ensemble, and was lucky enough to get partnered with some amazing fellow musicians, with an even more amazing coach. Their talent alarmed me a little, but I was determined I could prepare myself to reach a respectable level of playing.
What I wasn’t prepared for, was the nearly debilitating performance anxiety I started to have. After years of being away from music and a stage, I am utterly petrified. It looks something like this; my guts turn to water, my heart cannot be contained in my ribcage, my fingers shake and alternate between being stiff with cold, and sweaty with heat that make them slip off the keys. I have problems breathing normally, which interferes with my phrasing. In performance, I feel no joy in it all. Only stress. I can’t wait for the music to end.
I am horrified. How did this happen? What became of the enthused, confident performer I use to be in my Glory Days? I think back. I was nervous, certainly. But it was the kind of nerves that when combined with youth, gave you that extra edge. Made you feel invincible. Not watered down guts with such an acute sense of dread you can’t eat all day.
This feeling is worse than being disappointed if I had never tried to pick it up again in the first place. If I had been content to not reach for something more than my present self, if I hadn’t risked tarnishing my luminosity of what used to be, I would have still had my past victories firmly intact as part of me. Those past victories would have probably even improved some, as they pass through that mysterious land, called Memory.
There were times in my early performances of “getting back in the saddle” that the only thing preventing me from quitting was because I knew there were other people counting on me to make their music (it’s very difficult to play a trio with only two people). But my fear was uncontrollable.
My friends never believe me when I tell them about my stage fright. I am not what you call “shy." I like to grab things with both hands, and I not only do I thrive on new opportunities; I seek them out with energy. Admittedly, I am the kind of friend that when you share feelings of vulnerability or doubt about life challenges, I will annoyingly trill out some cliché about “you can do it, if you try!” (My friends, who are reading this, are nodding their heads in agreement).
As I dissect why I can’t feel the joy in my music anymore but only the agony, what has changed between the then and the now, I have come up with a multi-part answer. Partly, it is the ironic component about all the performing arts; that the ultimate goal is, well, that you perform. For as much time as you spend in alone honing your craft, it is the act of sharing your work with others, which gives it purpose.
Partly, it is the knowledge that you can have great rehearsals and practice sessions, but if you don’t get it right, that one time in performance, it doesn’t matter if you played it beautifully 100 times in private. This is what sets performing arts apart from all other art forms, and the reason why it only calls to the courageous of heart.
And partly, because it is eternally easier to reveal what is comfortable for me. All these things are true if I’m honest with myself, and it doesn’t seem right. It seems helplessly self-absorbed.
The difference between the then and the now for me, was that I use to be willing to take a chance, to be vulnerable and make mistakes in front of others, that the joy came not on focusing on myself and my own limitations, but by becoming something more than me—that singular beauty of sound put together in the soulful and intricate arrangement, that make it music. By not only understanding, but celebrating that perfection in music can never be achieved, but that it was the pursuit of perfection that made me worthy.
These lessons in my music are things I can use across the board, if I allow it. It has taken me nearly three years to come to this conclusion, to make it relevant to my now.
One of the things that have been helpful for me, is the realization that everyone is at some point, a performer in life. Whether it is giving that presentation at work, challenging your child’s teacher with concerns about their education, or speaking up to a person who is being rude at the grocery store, we’re all on stage sometimes.
I am currently working on a performance that will contain my most ambitious efforts to date in my musical “career”. I still have anxiety about it, for even when I recognize my faults in my approaches; it is hard to change them. But the anxiety is less; the joy is greater, as I slowly start walking.
I’ll take it though, a very good first step, to what I hope will continue to be, a lifetime of Music Lessons.