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December 11, 2005


Becky's violin teacher has been nagging her for a year or so to play in a recital. Becky finally broke down and agreed. And so we drove up the hill this afternoon to the Pinole Senior Village, an assisted-living complex on the other side of the freeway. We walked into a clean, pleasant dining room, with a couple dozen older folks sitting around, chatting, drinking coffee and eating canned peaches.

It was a nice crowd of people, friendly and most of them realtively animated - though a couple old duffers looked as though they might fall, dozing, into their peach bowls. Aside from the residents, some of whom looked as though this might be the best thing to happen to them in weeks, there were the performers, their family members, and two music teachers. The playbill included a dozen gradeschool students, three highschool students, and Becky.

We watched a few vocalists, all girls, doing laudable jobs of staying in tune and tempo, and projecting to the audience. One was notably more skilled than the rest, enough so to perk up my ears until I remembered that being 13, she was four years older than her cohorts. Then came the pianists and violinists, and the music was about what you might expect: straightforward renditions of popular and "top-40" classical pieces, played with varying measures of verve and stumbling, and occasional flashes of smooth, astonishing inspiration.

One of the high-school students, playing Liszt's Hungarian Rhapsody number two in a four-hand duet with her teacher, stumbled slightly over a few phrasings. I could tell when she was approaching a passage that worried her: her eybrows would lift slightly, then furrow, and then a misstep, almost too slight to hear, and then the threshold was passed and she relaxed, and almost closed her eyes and leaned into a passage that was every bit as complex as the one over which she stumbled, and landed each sublime note with a desultory grace. I was sitting almost directly in her line of sight, on the side of the room behind the piano: after one such effortless phrase she caught me watching her face, and we smiled.

Becky who stares down 30 uncooperative eight year olds for six hours every day, was nervous. I knew my credibility in reassuring her that it went fine depended on my remembering every single mistake she made - otherwise, how could I tell her they were hardly noticeable? - so I kept track. A few wavering notes, one bow screech and recovery, one measure misplayed and then played properly, on the beat, in a save smooth enough that I think no one noticed save me and her teacher. She played a gavotte by Bach solo and without sheet music, and then a duet with her teacher on piano: a passage from Winter, from Vivaldi's Four Seasons. Despite my having heard her play each one perhaps a thousand times at this point, it sounded new.

As devoted a husband as I am, I cannot say that Becky's performance was not the best of the afternoon. Oh, she played well, and strong, and with such apparent self-confidence that it surprised me when she later told me the reason she'd lost the bowing was that her hands were crazy trembling. And the musician who gave the best performance lost her way at the piano at one point, and stared blankly at the sheet music until her teacher whispered in her ear.

But that performer's focus was palpable, and her stage presence impressive and poised. She tuned out the murmuring crowd, her parents and her brothers and the older ladies twittering happily about her pink dress. Her timing - except for the part where she drew a blank and stared for ten seconds - was flawless, as if she and her teacher were connected at the midbrain. She had been playing, her teacher informed us, for a third of her life. She was six years old and seemed to melt into the piano.

On our way out we saw her standing near some flowers, posing for a photo with her brothers. She made eye contact as we passed. "You," I said, pointing at her, "sounded so good." "It was so nice to hear you play," said Becky. "You are really a good pianist." She beamed at us. She smiled for the camera.

Posted by Chris Clarke at December 11, 2005 08:10 PM TrackBack URL for this entry:

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Gorgeous posting. Congratulate Becky for me.

I've been in that space and it is harrowing....I did a couple piano recitals when I want to Buff State (I started in '82, so you'd already moved). I thought I'd major in music for a little while, and the final exams for the "practical" courses were recitals in front of the staff. I recall my first one: I figured out how to get my hands to stop shaking by forcing the fear down into my legs. As a result, my knees were shaking too hard to use the pedals.

I've been playing violin again for almost a year now. I decided that I couldn't stand not getting a good sound, and so I've been taking classical lessons and learning the actual mechanics. I suspect that recitals will be in my future again.

Anyhow, I can tell that I've improved from when I first started, since Senga no longer slinks out of the room when I pick up the bow ("I hate that cat's guts!"). She used to run back in and jump on me when I put the bow down again, clearly relieved that I was safe again from whatever horrible things had been done in my presence.

Thanks for linking to me, btw..... 8-)

Posted by: Elissa Feit at December 11, 2005 09:49 PM
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Good for Becky! I'm not a fan of performing for even the smallest of crowds. I'm no stranger to the crazy trembling hands.

My kids have a violin recital coming up this Saturday. I can't believe they have the courage to play but they will and I'll cry a little bit when they do.

Posted by: eRobin at December 11, 2005 09:50 PM
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I have been in countless recitals, piano, voice and flute, and never once do I recall performing with enough confidence to stop the various parts of me from shaking. That Becky found the courage to perform, and did it well, speaks volumes. Congrats to her!

And deepest envy to the 6 year old. *SIGH* If only I had an iota of her talent!

Posted by: Nikki at December 12, 2005 04:49 AM
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I am always impressed by anyone who can stand before a crowd and perform, especially when their hands are trembling. I don't play an instrument, but I've had to stand and speak before groups of people. I have tried to find some comfort by staring at my notes that suddenly start to float on the page, while my voice cracked and wavered on the verge of crying. And all I was asked to do was report to colleagues about the status of my department at the university. Hardly classifies as a performance-- so big congrats to those who actually do perform.

Posted by: Rexroth's Daughter at December 12, 2005 08:49 AM
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Oh, the horrible trembly hands. The only instrument I've performed in public -- recorder -- is unforgiving of both trembly hands and anxious breathing, so by the time I finished, I'd usually be a shivering wreck from having to suppress the nerves the entire time.

HUGE congrats to Becky!!!

Posted by: Rana at December 12, 2005 11:35 AM
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When I was a kid I recall my piano teacher telling me that getting nervous is the body's way of prepping one to do a good job. I found that hard to believe as I tried to play recitals with trembling hands. And I am all too familiar with blanking out on a piece of music during a recital. I can still hear the silence in the room as I tried vainly to recall what I had played five hundred times before. Anyway, congratulations to Becky, because I really admire people who take up musical instruments as adults.

Posted by: Charles at December 13, 2005 08:49 AM
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I used to play piano and guitar. I played in venues large and small, but mostly at small parties. And I did a lot of karaoke!

No trembling at all. I thrive on the crowds. I used to try to make someone in the audience cry every time, and it often worked.

Posted by: coturnix at December 13, 2005 02:38 PM
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