Sunday, January 22, 2012


Last month, Sam had the unique opportunity to do something not many five year olds do: he conducted a choir. As part of our fundraising auction for Choral Arts, we auction off the opportunity to conduct Choral Arts at our Christmas concert while we sing Silent Night. Mark bid on and won it, and we decided to see if Sam would be interested in doing it. He was beyond excited, and talked about it on and off for the last few months. We brought him to rehearsal the Wednesday before the concert so he could meet our conductor, Robert Bode, and have a go during practice. Seeing Robert, one of my mentors from college, carefully demonstrate a three-beat pattern while Sam observed and moved his arms the same way was a highlight of my year. Sam was deadly serious about the whole thing and took his duties to heart.

Afterward, Sam and I were standing next to Robert when Sam told me that he was starting to feel like he had a little stage fright. Robert smiled at him and said, "Oh, Sam, that's how you know it's going to be GOOD!"

Since then, Sam and I have had several conversations about nerves - why we get nervous before things, how our body responds, and what it means. One of the great joys about having a child, especially one around Sam's age, is answering questions like this and allowing myself to think about something a new way, or think about it for the first time. It got me thinking about why, after all these years, I still get nervous before performing.

I have such vivid memories of being a nervous performer as a child. My piano teacher always set the program for our piano recitals in order of ability - the most beginner students first, and the advanced ones at the end. For years, I'd request to be put at the very beginning. Getting it over with meant I could sit and enjoy listening to my friends instead of frantically reviewing my fingering on my thighs as I counted down the names left in the program before it was my turn. Of course, it got to the point where my teacher had to put me toward the end in order to be fair to everyone, and the powerful adrenaline cocktail I got myself worked into was almost unbearable. Why on earth was I so nervous, especially when I knew that as soon as I sat down at the familiar keys, everything would disappear and I would be just fine?

As I've mentioned before, I've always been pretty goal-oriented person, and that was the case as a child, too. I wanted so badly to do well, even though I wasn't really sure what that meant. At the time, it meant not making any mistakes, not forgetting my music, playing every note as written. If I could do that, then it was a successful performance and I could go home with my head held high.

I discovered singing when I was in high school. Suddenly, I had this strange, unwieldy instrument that didn't do what I told it when I just pressed a key. It shook when I was nervous, it was subject to any and every change in condition, it was frustratingly different and uncontrollable. It was so....human. And yet, it suddenly freed me. Somehow, facing an audience and exposing this to them was less nervewreaking than hiding behind the piano.

But of course, I still got nervous. I wrang my hands at recitals, waiting my turn, I hyperventilated before auditions for college and eventually grad school. I was still terrified of doing something wrong, of what people would think of me if I did. I have a vivid memory of singing on a group recital at Rice, just one aria. During the time I was singing, I had this strange, out-of-body experience, like I was observing myself sing from over my own shoulder. This recital was the debut of all of the new grad students to the entire music department and patrons, and I had worked myself up into such a lather over what it all meant that I managed to drive my own consciousness out of my body. What if I didn't really deserve to be here? What if I made a mistake? What if I forgot the aria? It was quite an experience, and one that would be repeated with varying levels of intensity throughout my grad school experience.

You know what all of this self talk had in common, though? ME. Me, me, me. It was all about me. How was I going to do? Would I make a mistake? Would I make a fool of myself? What would they all think of me?

Not surprisingly, I took a break from singing for a while. I was so burned out from all the pressure I was putting on myself. I needed to use other parts of my brain and being for a while. I did other things, I had a career for several years that had nothing to do with music, I sang here and there for fun but nothing really serious. I got married. Then, I slowly started to dip my toes into the water again. A piece at church here, an oratorio gig there. A few years ago, I did two things that really turned everything around for me: I started singing with Choral Arts, and I got a gig as a section leader at a church I love.

In Choral Arts and at my church job, I truly discovered the beauty of communal singing, and of singing meaningfully. It wasn't just about me anymore, it was about us. And even more importantly, once the pressure was off I really started to think about and feel another presence: THEM.

Suddenly, they were everywhere....the audience. Why had I never thought about them before? Well, I guess I had, but more in the "let's talk about you; what do YOU think of me?" sort of way. I was so scared of doing something wrong, I had forgotten to really think about who was listening and why. As I opened myself up more and more to the communal experience that is live music, I was more and more drawn into the beauty and partnership that exists there. A woman, listening to a Choral Arts Christmas concert, eyes closed and transported somewhere else by what we were doing. Singing "Come Unto Him" at Fatima's annual Messiah performance, and seeing a man with tears in his eyes nodding with recognition of the truth of the text. I myself am tearing up now picturing all of these people so clearly, and thinking about what that music gave them in that moment. The more I look, the more I see. People sharing, people united, people healed by music.

I still get nervous. But it's not for the old reasons. I'm recognizing now that it's because I have come to care deeply about what the audience will get out of the performance, making sure that I get out of the way so the music can use me and my colleagues as a conduit to something timeless and healing. There are so many people out in the world starving for beauty right now, and we musicians are an honored group to get to provide it in some small way.

So yeah, I still get nervous.

But, that's how I know it's going to be GOOD.

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