The sound of clanking coffee cups is quickly subdued by the roar of the espresso machine. Laptops are crammed onto tiny, rickety tables while hipsters raise their voices in an effort to be heard by their cohorts. Meanwhile, I sit nervously across the room. My heart pounds as I glance over the words on the page before me. So many names and so many songs; it is hard to know how much longer it will be. Then, in an instant, it comes to life. Shrill tones are produced haphazardly, but eventually I find a pattern to the sounds despite that damn espresso maker. How rude, I think. Can’t they see that he is performing? But still he presses on until there is no more, and then the coffee shop erupts into applause. Well, maybe it doesn’t erupt, but all of the parents are considerate of little Jimmy knowing that soon enough, their own child will be propped high on the bench in front of the large, wooden upright piano.
The first performance by my peer does little to slow the pounding of my heart within my ribcage. Thump-thump. Thump-thump… Maybe if I think about something else fun, I won’t be so nervous. Next, the siblings make their way to the piano. Gosh, I am so much bigger than them. But as they begin their performance, I realize that they aren’t nervous in the least bit. Whatever. At least I’m bigger than them. They play three songs together before hopping off the bench over to their parents with smiles on their faces. I glance at the page and see that my turn is quickly approaching. Thump-thump. Thump-thump… It’s not fair; I can’t believe I’m being forced to play the piano out in public in front of all the other students. I’m not even sure why I’m really here; I should be outside playing.
Minutes feel like hours and at last the teacher calls my name. My face feels flush and I can already feel a slight tremble in my fingers as I walk between the tables towards the piano. I feel the eyes of all the parents and even the hipsters on me as I attempt to keep my face from looking like I just sat on a tack. The teacher adjusts the bench and reminds me that if I make a mistake, it’s okay, I should just keep playing. This makes sense to me but is of little comfort as I unfold the sheet music. I’ve played the song dozens of times at home but never in front of anyone other than my teacher. I take a deep breath, focus my eyes on the black notes on the page, and begin to press my fingers to the keys. The piano echoes the thoughts in my mind, but it does so with protest. It is not singing the song; it is more of a forced confession under a bright light. The beating of my heart has not slowed a bit. Rather, my vision has begun to lose focus and the tremble in my fingers is enough to reach beyond their intended press of the correct keys.
I’m a page into the song and it all stops. Nothing. There is absolutely nothing I can do. I am literally frozen in place. The fear has culminated at this and it has won. The teacher leans over to me, “Pat, just keep playing. It’s okay.” I hear the words, but they can’t begin to effect what I am feeling. Or more appropriately, they have absolutely zero chance of unparalizing me. The eyes are still out there, and even without making contact, I know they are looking at me. Now, the coffee shop seems completely devoid of all sound. Except my heart of course with its relentless pounding. Thump-thump. Thump-thump. I tell myself that I can do this. Those other students aren’t much better than me. I don’t care what the teacher says, I’m starting over from the beginning and I’m going to play the whole song from start to finish. It seems like an appropriate time for a big gulp in the back of my throat, but there is no saliva in my mouth to accomplish such a quintessential task. I begin again and force myself note-by-note, line-by-line through the song. When it’s finished, the sound of polite applause fills the coffee shop yet again. As my parents taught me, I respond to the clapping with a slight bow and make my way back to my seat.
Many more songs are performed, each with more complexity than the previous. My face is still red and my heart rate is still elevated, but slowly I begin to appreciate the music and realize that it might be fun if I stick with it long enough to be able to play the songs that the older students play. An hour and a half has passed, and finally the recital has come to an end. As the event breaks up, several of the parents congratulate me on my performance, and the teacher tells me how proud she is of me for playing in my first recital. I consider this praise and begin to feel a bit of pride well up within me. Not everyone can play the piano. It’s not easy.
I gather my sheet music, the recital program, and my jacket and slowly make my way through the tightly spaced tables and chairs to the door. Outside, I feel the cool November air on my face and come to the realization that what I just did, what I just experienced was one of the scariest things of my life, but I faced it head-on and made it through. I contemplate what it means to take on challenges in life and how they define us as individuals.
I reach into my coat pocket, grab my car keys and unlock my 4Runner. As I sit in the seat and start the engine, I begin to remember the peer reviews that I need to coordinate for next week. The NASA engineers will be in town to criticize our design, but I don’t feel the least bit concerned. I am a grown man and I just played in the first piano recital of my life under the unnerving eyes of 8 year olds, their parents, and an occasional hipster. My confidence soars, and I realize that if I was able to make my way through that, I won’t have any problems with the NASA reviews next week.
This personal essay was written in response to a homework assignment #1, “I forgot who I was…” for the Life Writing class in which we were asked to think about times in our lives when we forgot our very essence. My response was inspired by my favorite quote which happens to be about forgetting who you are in life:
“There is an ecstasy that marks the summit of life, and beyond which life cannot rise. And such is the paradox of living, this ecstasy comes when one is most alive, and it comes as a complete forgetfulness that one is alive.”
-Jack London, The Call of the Wild