Tonight was the end of the year recital for my piano students and me. I include myself because I am at least as nervous as they are. I had some very negative experiences performing as a child. I played in some very competitive festivals where the teachers were all hoping for each others’ students to fail in a spectacular and humiliating way. This is not just my paranoid perception, we heard their snarky comments while we sat in the audience. Schadenfreude at it’s worst. I did not have any spectacular trauma that I can recall, but the lack of empathy for the student performers and the thirst for the failure of others left me with a deep dread of performing. I avoided it at all costs. I finally overcame it when I began teaching a parent and tot music class at the local community centre. I spent an hour twice a week trying to keep both toddlers and parents engaged singing, dancing and playing instruments. Once you’ve done the Hokey Pokey that many times with parents watching you pretty much lose your self-consciousness.
When I started teaching piano I was determined to give my students a much better experience performing than I had when I was young. My recital is very casual. There’s no big auditorium. We rent a room, set up a bunch of chairs and the moms, dads, siblings and occasional grandparents come to listen and bring treats for after. Treats are critical when planning events like these. No they’re not bribes, they’re something to focus on instead of when your turn is coming up. The students are friends from school or from other recitals. Some of them love it and thrive on the chance to perform for their friends and family. Many are healthily nervous, meaning that knowing the recital is coming up motivates them to practice a little more than usual and they breathe a sigh of relief when they’re done, whether it’s gone perfectly or not. Part of our preparation is always what to do if something goes wrong. Every year something goes wrong for someone. This is what I get nervous about. I always make sure they know ahead of time that performances are almost never perfect. That if something goes wrong they can keep playing as if nothing happened or they can start over. That everyone will love them just as much if they forget their whole song and fall off the piano bench. (I have not yet had the same student do both on the same night.) But I agonize over the possibility that something that happens at this recital will be the event that scars them for life, that makes them never want to get on stage again. I know it’s still mostly my own stage fright, but every year I wish I could cancel it, or that the power would go out, or something, but I know giving them the experience is important. So I make myself play too. I feel that if I’m asking them to do it I have to do it too. Tonight one of my daughter’s best friends played her first song perfectly. Part way through her second song she froze. She hadn’t played a wrong note, she just froze and before I could help her in any way she ran off the stage in tears. I smiled at her and everyone applauded. Her mom talked quietly with her. After the next student finished she said she’d like to give it another try because she really liked her song. She got back up there and knocked it out of the park. I wouldn’t have been half as proud if everyone had played perfectly. I know how hard it would have been to go back up in front of everyone and try again. How scared she would have been that it might happen again. But, she did it! She was beaming after and got an ovation. I felt like I’d succeeded in giving them the message that we were there to have fun and play for each other and that was it. I have one student who has been taking lessons for four years. She has come to most of the recitals, but has never managed to get up on stage even though she plays beautifully. Her mom and I have tried a few different approaches, but nothing has worked when it comes down to that moment of going up on stage. I don’t push. Maybe one day she’ll do it, maybe not, but she’ll keep having the option. If she regrets not performing she can always create an opportunity. If she gets forced up there and it’s terrible for her we can never take that back. She gets the treats anyway. After all, they’re not a bribe. BTW I played “Hedwig’s Theme” from Harry Potter. I didn’t fall off the bench and I asked if anyone had counted up all my mistakes. No one had.