The first time I remember being terrified of performing in front of an audience was when I was 6 years old. My first grade teacher knew how much I loved to sing and thought I had a decent voice, so she recommended me for an audition for a local music school. My mother dressed me up in my Sunday best from the previous Easter, a puffy piece woven through with black velvet ribbon in the bodice and cuffs. But all that finery wasn’t enough to calm the terror of standing in front of my parents, my teacher and two strangers. When I opened my mouth, all that came out was a squeak that even I didn’t recognize as my own voice.
Flash forward to 6th Grade. I still loved music and singing, but what I really wanted was to play the piano. Every time I visited my grandmother’s house, I made a bee line to the old upright she kept perfectly tuned in the corner of the living room. While the grownups visited, I would sit, picking out tunes and imitating the motions of the piano players I saw on Ted Mack’s Amateur Hour and the Ed Sullivan Show. But my mother was clear: no piano. We couldn’t afford it. Instead, she suggested, why didn’t I give the trumpet a try? We had a friend who could lend an instrument and the school had a band program that included free lessons.
Reluctantly, I took it up, only to find I really enjoyed it. That is, until the band leader told me I was to be first trumpet, a position which included a solo in our spring concert. Again, though, my nerves got the better of me and every time I practiced my short solo in front of our instructor and the rest of the band, my cheeks froze up and my lips refused to blow. Eventually, the band leader assigned first trumpet to one of the other three players assuming, wrongly, that I just wasn’t practicing enough. He didn’t understand that it wasn’t a lack of practice. It was the surge of adrenaline that left me shaking every time I tried to perform any kind of music in front of an audience.
In 7th grade though, I finally found a place to perform where I wasn’t front and centre. I joined our Junior High School’s Glee Club and for the next two years, I was in my element, learning about harmonies and how chords worked, how to hold a harmonic line while listening to the melody, and how to read those mysterious marks on sheet music. And the best part was that during Christmas or Spring concerts, I was buried back among all the other junior high school kids, dressed in the same white blouse and black skirt. There, I could just sing and revel in the harmonies I heard all around me unencumbered by my terror of performance.
After junior high, though, a move to a new country and through several new schools in my high school years, made me ready to give up on the idea of more music learning, and for years, my love of music lay dormant. Oh, I still sang with my family as we often did at Christmas or just around the house. But it would be half a life time before I rediscovered my childhood passion.
By, that time, I had completed my education, had two grown children, had joined a church and was comfortably ensconced in the second of my two careers. Every Sunday, though, as I listened to the voices in the choir, the old desire to make music began to flicker. Maybe I should join I thought. Almost immediately, I began to talk myself out of it. I could barely recognize a G-clef, much less read music. Besides, I hadn’t sung with other people since Glee Club. I probably couldn’t even stay on pitch any more.
Still, when the yearly call for music ministers went out, I showed up, and while I waited in the vestibule with other potential choir members, I got talking to someone who would become my friend in music over the next 10 years. At that time, though, we just talked about how much we missed music in our lives, and how we wanted to sing in the choir even though we weren’t very good.
Over the next 12 years, I sang, often beside my friend, nearly every Sunday, sometime well, sometime badly, and I began to realize that I didn’t have to aim at “doing something more” with music. Rather, making music was a worthy goal in and of itself. Ironically, with that, I began to feel free to take voice lessons, whereas before, I’d always told myself it “wasn’t worth” the time and energy if I wasn’t going to be taking exams and getting certificates—“doing something” with it.
Once that happened, things began to snowball. If I can take voice lessons for love of it, why not piano lessons? So I signed up with a local teacher and at 50-something, began at the beginning with scales and chords, as at least some of my childhood instruction began to come back. And suddenly, I was motivated to take exams and even (gasp) perform short pieces in front of the examiner. And once COVID arrived and put a stop to the lessons, I even subscribed to an online piano skills program. It wasn’t like having a real teacher, but I was spending hours at the piano again, just “playing.”
But as I gained skills and increasingly enjoyed playing for myself, my music remained a secret. I bought a piano, but if a visitor asked if I played, I’d answer, “Not really”, to ensure no one would actually ask me to play. I’d given myself permission to enjoy playing and singing for its own sake, but I still couldn’t share music with others. I was still terrified of performing and I needed a way to overcome my fear if I was going to fully develop both playing and singing.
And then, my ears perked up when a friend who also started taking piano lessons as an adult talked about a group that was just forming, a group specifically designed to provide a supportive atmosphere for adults who were learning or retuning to learning music. She talked about adults who wanted to learn to perform in front of others, but didn’t want to be the only adult in an all-children recital. The penny dropped. Without knowing it, this was just what I had been looking for.
Since joining ALMSG, I can’t say I’m any less terrified of singing or (shiver!) playing in front of other people. But since joining i am motivated to practice even more to prepare for meetings when I will play. And more importantly, I have had the privilege of watching others perform imperfectly with no other motive but a love of music and a desire to encourage others in that love. And that makes me think that there may come a day when will be able to play and sing for others without losing my voice or my wits.