I don’t remember how often we had piano recitals when I was growing up, but every single one of those recitals from my early days are all smashed together in the same memory. I would sit on the stairs connecting the two living rooms, with Megan Salmon and which ever other friends were there. I spent a lot of time contemplating the two baby grand pianos placed so that they nearly interlocked; one black, one white. I couldn’t wait till I was good enough that my duets required two pianos. (And when it happened I was no longer in Vernon and didn’t play the Tollestrup’s duelling pianos, but I got to play the Steinways at the Yukon Arts Center, so don’t feel badly for me.) With all the people crammed into that room, it was always warm, be it winter or summer.
I didn’t like introducing myself or my piece, but I could rush through that quickly enough and get myself on the bench, turning away from all those eyes on me. I did feel nervous when I played, but I was never overcome by my nerves because there was something nice about absorbing myself in the music. I was always happy to be done and to return to my place in the back with my friends, but the worst was yet to come. The worst part of performing was when the whole thing was over and people would talk to me and tell me I did well.
I didn’t like hearing them compliment me because I had always made at least one error and I thought they were just trying to be nice. I also didn’t like hearing them compliment me because it meant their attention was currently on me, and that their attention had previously been on me. (Yet, under all that insecurity, I did like hearing that I had played well. I wanted and needed the validation that all my hard work had been worth something.)
Even now, when asked to play in church, I make every attempt to play collaboratively with someone else. I am very comfortable in my role as accompanist. I am comfortable knowing that the eyes and ears are not all on me, and that when someone compliments me later I can divert the focus and praise to my partner. (“Yes, she sings beautifully,” or “oh, don’t you just love the tone she made with her cello? I think it’s my favourite instrument.” or “we had so much fun rehearsing!”) It is quite rare that I play a solo.
Yesterday morning at a lesson I gave my student the wrong answer to a question. At the recital I ammended my statement, and made sure the entire family heard me not only say that I was wrong, but hear what I really wanted to say. I didn’t want any misconceptions. I feel likewise compelled to restate my feelings here, as well.
I had been talking to one of my students about the upcoming recital. I knew she had decided not to participate although she had done beautifully in May. I wasn’t set on convincing her that she must participate, but I wanted to share with her some of the concerns I have had in the past about performing.
I shared with the children in that family how much I dislike attention being focused on me. I kept it lighthearted by saying things like, “why do you think I only cut my hair every two and a half years?” and “can you even remember the last time I played a solo in church?” I gave them anecdotes of how I convinced people to dust off instruments they hadn’t played in six years just so I wouldn’t have to play alone.
One of the children asked, “why don’t you just tell Sister Shanklin ‘no’?” Their mother and I both chuckled and said that you can’t tell Sister Shanklin no. She’s just too nice, too sweet, too …
The rest of the day I pondered my response and I knew I hadn’t been accurate. It doesn’t matter how much she flatters me or tells me that she needs me; that isn’t the reason I don’t tell her no. The reason I don’t tell her no is because I know that I need to go outside of my own comfort zone in order to grow.
I may not like playing by myself in church. I may worry that if I play poorly it will distract from the Spirit but if I play well people will think I’m showing off. I may hide when I’m done so people can’t tell me that I did well. But every time I do it a little piece of my shell comes off and I find that confidence is not self-absorption and that I am building myself to be untethered by my childhood angst.
I am a work in progress, and I always will be. I will always straddle between my self-imposed limitations and my desire to be the person I know I could be. I will continue to read, seeking more knowledge and ideas. I will continue to find quiet time for self-reflection because I know that most of what bothers me in other people are things that are also within myself. I’m learning to not take things so personally and to worry less about what other people think and more about what I think. I’m learning to say no and stand up for myself. I’m learning that while everyone says they hate it when people only show their “good” side no one actually wants to see or hear from your “other” side. I will always view the proverbial tomorrow as another chance to get things right. I’m learning to give myself a bit of a break when I act in a way I wish I hadn’t, and to use the guilt I feel to propel me to a better place, more in control so I don’t make that mistake again. I hope I live a very long life because I have so much improving to do. I refuse to wallow in a state I do not like, because I know that I am so much more than what I appear to be now, and that I won’t get there by allowing myself to remain here.