A personal narrative.
(I wrote this for a first-year university English course back in 2013. Because it happened around this time of the year and because the subject came up recently I decided to post it here.)
December 10th. No deadline loomed as large as this one. Educational. Professional. Financial. I’ve had some important and imperative things happen in my life but this one eclipsed them all for the sheer amount of energy I spent fretting about it.
“If you want to be good at something you need to set and work towards goals. Our first goal is to be ready for December 10th.” This was Helen, my music teacher, telling me matter of factly that I would be performing in a concert. It was a cold fall morning but we were warm in the back of the Conservatory, wrapped in the powdery dryness and acrid whiff of electric baseboard heaters. Helen was seated at a black baby grand piano. The room was austere save for a trim little bookshelf off to one side that held flowers and family photos. I stood off to the side leaning on my music stand, hands clasped around each side as one would grab a steering wheel, and one foot propped up on the stand’s heavy metal foot.
“I can’t sing in front of an audience! I get nervous enough just singing in front of you,” I said, taking a step away from the stand.
“You’ll be ready,” she reassured me, “you’re doing great! You’re wonderful!” For me her British accent lent her credibility as a musician. She took a swig of her coffee and casually tossed her long chestnut hair over her shoulder and gave me a kind of sincere, “I’m serious” look. I still thought it was a trick.
“But, you’re the teacher. You have to say that. I don’t think students would be inclined to stick around if you told them they were no good,” I rebutted. I placed my hands on my hips, bowed forward slightly, and stood on my toes momentarily to emphasize my point. I had called he on her ruse and now she had to admit that I wasn’t cut out for this singing business and let me out of doing the show.
“If my students aren’t ready I tell them that they won’t be performing this year and that we’ll aim for next.” Drat!
“You just need to loosen up. You’re so stiff! This ain’t the military, Sir! Pretend like we’re in a smokey club. It’s 2 AM and we’ve gathered around the piano to sing a few songs. Forget that it’s 7 AM on on a Saturday in the Conservatory. That’s not good for anybody’s mojo.” I relaxed and closed my eyes and put myself in that club. I heard the low murmur of the patrons punctuated with the clinkity-clink of ice cubes in glasses and the occasional shot of laughter. I could almost smell the smoke. We ran through “Georgia on my Mind” and I kept my eyes closed so I could keep the mood of the club. “Goood, goooood!” I would hear every so often when I would hit the notes and timing dead on. “See? You’re fine. Now let’s run through “Ritz.” Take it from the “Dressed up like a million dollar trouper” part and make it staccato. Don’t draw it out or tie the words together. Easy?”
“Uhh…” does she assume I have a clue because I’m old? I am an atypical music student. Male. Mid-thirties. Military. The kids always stared at me when I walked in for my lessons , no doubt wondering why someone’s dad was going into one of the practice rooms. The building housing the Conservatory wasn’t purpose built and hence was about as sound proof as a screen door is waterproof. I could picture them all sniggering at my off-key caterwauling. I had decided to get serious about music at the age of thirty-three and bought myself a piano and started taking lessons. The voice lessons were a germ of an idea I’d had in the auspices of professional development. I loathed public speaking. Knowing I had to speak in front of a group rattled me for days in advance. I thought that if I could train my voice a little that I would grow more comfortable with having to use it in an oratory capacity. The forced concert was an unanticipated bonus.
The night of the show arrived and it had already been occupying my thoughts for days. I paced the floor and wondered how I had been convinced to do this. I sized up the other singers: two teen-aged girls, two music teachers from the Conservatory, and the local radio personality. I did not fit into this group. Everyone was very supportive but I still harboured serious doubts as to whether I could pull this off. My nervousness was just continuing to build. I tried not to pay attention to the patrons that were now trickling into the venue. I didn’t even look around to see what it was like. The nervousness had completely taken over.
The lights were not as bright as I had hoped they would have been. I could still see the faces in the crowd. The silence began to blanket the room, slowly accumulating like a steady snowfall. It was my turn.
You can do it, man. Count ‘em in.
“One-and-a, two-and-a, three-and-a, four-and-a…”