Posted by Daniel Rodricks
I am not a master of the stage. After performing piano for nearly 13 years, it still isn’t easy to walk up in front of an audience and perform naturally. Stage fright simply exists for me, manifesting itself as a mess of shaky limbs and sweaty palms. So why am I content when I perform? Three years ago, an old grand piano and a group of high school students helped show me the answer.
For many years, my performances revolved around the idea that I could not miss a single note. During practice I kept my door shut, not wanting my family to hear a version of a piece that I didn’t deem acceptable. My self-destructive image placed the blame on the audience, causing me to fear the days when I would need to perform. If they were scrutinizing my every move, there was no reason to appreciate them. This went on for many years; if I was asked to play something for someone else, I made the excuse that I wasn’t ready. Piano became my private world where only I was witness to my faults.
It was a church retreat, of all things, that altered my idea of what it meant to perform. A friend asked me to play for our group on a very unconventional stage, located in a dimly lit room. A few couches replaced the usual auditorium seats. The instrument was an old baby grand, full of broken strings and chipped keys. And, like always, my mind froze because I had nothing perfect to play. The eager faces in front of me told me something else though: they didn’t want a technical masterpiece.
I began to play the musical stories that I could share. Each piece was part of a story in my life. Mozart’s Rondo Alla Turca, for instance, turned me into a 7-year-old boy once again, pantomiming the sounds of the work from a digital keyboard. The broad, sweeping chords of Gershwin’s Rhapsody in Blue on the other hand brought back a story of growth; of big city dreams, and the dedication required to bring them to a level that others could recognize. At another moment, my performance of the Girl with the Flaxen Hair by Debussy turned into visions of happy patients listening to me playing in a hospital lobby.
As with every story, the performance had to draw to a close. The technical side of the piece, full of incorrect notes and missed phrases, was a failure from the perfectionist’s standpoint. The composer’s work and my emotional investment, however, came together to share my message with all those who had listened. The music had a language of its own, and I was happy to know that I could communicate it to other people.
Ever since, ordinary memories have become important musical moments. The beauty of spending so much time with a single instrument is that I consistently relive my experiences. A Night in Tunisia transforms an idle moment into a UTD Jazz Ensemble rehearsal, with the horns tuning to a given key. Rhapsody in Blue turns into practice sessions with a conductor, in pursuit of balancing such a grandiose piece with a powerful orchestra. While listening to radio songs in the car, I nostalgically reminisce on times when I accompanied my McDermott friends who love to sing.
Memories can be described by an infinite number of words, but a wooden box with 88 keys can extract what words cannot touch.
I have learned to consider my stage fright to be a benefit. It provides focus. It provides energy. And most importantly, it leads me to a feeling of fulfillment. I am most content when I perform because it not only unlocks my collection of memories, but also communicates them to the audience that is listening.
I do not have to be a master of the stage. I am comfortable being the master of my own story.