During one of my recent lessons, my piano teacher announced that she had a question for me. I'd just run through my latest piece without mistakes, and while she'd had some suggestions for improving fluidity and dynamics, she was happy. I really thought the question was going to be whether I wanted to sit for a practical exam sometime in the coming months.
I would have been up for that.
A practical exam consists of scales, chords, arpeggios, repertoire selections from different historical eras, ear and sight-reading tests and studies designed to test the student's speed and agility. They are attended by the student and a certified examiner and no one else (unless the student is a singer or studying an instrument other than piano, in which case the student provides an accompanist). The examiner assigns the student a numeric grade and a written evaluation. If the student receives a passing mark, he or she also gets a certificate. My goal is to successfully complete the grade eight exam before I turn 30. Anyway, back to the question.
"Do you want to play in a recital?"
I don't know whether I looked like a deer in headlights, but I felt like one. That had not been the question I was expecting.
"Sure?" I meant "Are you sure?" as much as I meant "sure." Possibly moreso.
"It's very informal," she went on, explaining that it would be about two dozen of her students marking the end of the term with a small concert for their families. It would be in about a month and she'd like me to play the piece I'd just played along with another one. And I had gone and said yes. Oh dear.
At first, I was proud of myself. It felt like a step towards being a little less reserved and a little more fearless. This was replaced with general unease by the time I'd gotten home from that day's lesson.
"She asked me to play in a recital," I told my husband. "I said sure. We are not telling my parents."
Unease became worry. I thought about cutting and running, telling her that I'd thought about it and wasn't sure I was up to it. I'd said before — on this very site, even — that I never harboured dreams of becoming a concert pianist. As a kid taking lessons, I was always being cajoled into playing for visiting relatives during family get-togethers and I hated it. When I took up lessons again, I did it for myself; if I didn't want to play for anyone else, I wasn't going to.
I headed into the following week's lesson prepared to tell her that I was having second thoughts.
"How are your concert pieces coming?" she asked. "I'm so glad you're doing it. One of my adult students said she didn't want to play in the recital because she's doing this for herself for fun and doesn't like playing in front of people, and some of the others have had to back out due to other commitments." All righty then.
I practiced obsessively for those three weeks. She gave me more notes during the next few lessons: faster, louder, brighter. "I think it had zip that way," she said after I played the first one for her at a livelier tempo. "Play it like that on Saturday." Great; I'm terrified enough as it is. Let's add speed to the equation.
And so on Saturday, I sat down in front of about 50 people (all of them strangers) and played. I did not tell my parents and I nicely asked my husband not to come; I felt it would be easier to block out the presence of strangers than of relatives. She organized the program well, starting with the national anthem followed by an advanced student playing a Beethoven sonata. Next came a parade of small children in their first or second years of piano lessons. Little kids in party dresses and pint-sized suits, who need to rest their feet on wooden blocks because they don't reach the floor, are adorable. I briefly forgot I was nervous.
Some older kids played next, some around my grade level and others above it. They were all really good, and I mentally kicked myself for not having stuck with lessons when I was younger.
I was going to be so bloody embarrassed if I wiped out musically in front of the children. (That, by the by, is the wrong thing to think right before you perform in front of people.) The good news is that I did not wipe out musically in front of the children, or their parents, or my teacher. I made one finger slip, but it was no worse than most other people's. But my memory of everything from the middle of the first piece onward is hazy.
I didn't know the human body could involuntarily shake like that, let alone somehow play two piano pieces with only one mistake while involuntarily shaking like that. I ran two half-marathons and felt excitedly nervous before I walked down the aisle at my wedding, but my knees have never shaken like they did when I was playing. And I thanked whatever powers that be profusely that I'd practiced so much and functioned more or less on auto-pilot when the only thought running through my brain was "Good God, I'm shaking a lot."
And then it was over, and people clapped, and I got up and bowed a little sheepishly (it's cute when the kids do it, and makes total sense when the advanced students do it, but I felt a little ridiculous) and sat down, and marvelled at how I'd shaken more than I thought my level of nervousness would have caused. I also felt strangely exhilarated, not unlike how I felt after a run but still different. Crossing a new once-impossible thing off the list will do that to you.
There was a little reception after the recital. I didn't stick around for long, just long enough to talk to her. She walked by where I was sitting and said I'd done well. I told her about the shaking, and a parent within earshot told me I didn't seem nervous at all. I'd guess that his daughter is between 12 and 14, and a couple of grade levels ahead of me. She was standing next to him, and I wanted to tell her that she'd done well but she wasn't paying attention.
"This lady is doing it just for fun," my teacher told the man. "And I asked her whether she'd play in the recital and she said 'Sure!'" I didn't remind her that I hadn't been quite that enthusiastic. It would have ruined the narrative.
But it's over. I did it. I might even do it again.