When I was twelve years old and in the 7th grade, Santa brought me a piano. How he fit it down the chimney, I’ll never know, but my parents swear they had nothing to do with it. I had always been a musical kid. We lived on a ranch and I could be heard from miles away, singing to the cows at the top of my lungs. So, of course, it made sense for me to learn to play the piano. When I think of my piano, I always think of my first piano recital.
Having started learning how to play the piano later in life than most kids, I was one of the oldest students in my teacher’s studio. The recitals were always structured the same way. The youngest and newest students would go first, plunking out Twinkle, Twinkle Little Star while their parents beamed from their folding chairs in our teacher’s living room audience, capturing the proud moment with dozens of flash photos. Then the more intermediate students and then the grand finale with her prize pupil, Debi White, who would leave us all spellbound in her wake. Debi was a year older than me and her reputation reached far beyond the 8th grade. Every pianist’s dream was to be like Debi.
Being the enigma that I was, my teacher didn’t know where to place me in the recital line-up. She didn’t want to put me at the beginning of the concert, with all of the other new students who were five years old. I was older than most of her advanced students, but definitely not as skilled. In her quest to figure out what to do with me, she decided to stick with chronological order, putting right before…Debi White.
Oh, the horror!
Sitting next to my parents, waiting for the dozens of younger children to finish their moment in the spotlight, I could feel my stomach churn. The students got progressively better as the hours ticked by. Better than me. Better than me. Better than me. One by one, the seven-year-olds, eight-year-olds, nine-year-olds, and ten-year-olds would play their little hearts out, each one more experienced than I was. Each one more practiced and calm, with years of recitals in their rear-view mirror. Then it was my turn.
I didn’t know it at the time, but apparently, I was hyperventilating.
My memory of that recital plays back like an old warped VHS tape in slow motion. I don’t remember walking up to the piano and sitting down, but I must have. I remember sitting there, my fingers sweating, poised above the keys. My breathing grew more and more shallow. Beethoven’s Für Elise….dee, dee, dee, dee, dee, dee, dee…I played on the piano, my breathing getting faster and faster. My mind went blank. I couldn’t remember the next part. I started again…dee, dee, dee, dee, dee, dee, dee…I still couldn’t remember. My breathing got faster and faster… I didn’t know it at the time, but apparently, I was hyperventilating. I remember, in slow motion, looking out at my parents’ crestfallen faces in the audience, at the other parents staring uncomfortably with their kids fidgeting next to them, at my teacher, sitting at the side of the room, her lips pursed disapprovingly, and at Debi White, sitting in the back of the room, shining in the beam of light that peeked out from behind the closed curtains.
I don’t remember if I finished the piece. I don’t remember my walk of shame back to the cold metal folding chair next to my parents. But I do remember the glory that was Debi White. Debi White the thirteen-year-old child piano prodigy whose talent made us all forget about looking fear in the face for the first time.
Since that day, I’ve had many turns in the spotlight. To Santa’s dismay, the piano never stuck, but it served its purpose. It gave me a chance to fail and survive.
There’s a part of me that thinks back to that recital every time I take the stage. I feel that flutter in my stomach. I remember that things don’t always go as planned, but then I remember Debi. Debi shining.
There are people in our lives who inspire us. Who show us what’s possible. Who remind us that, even in the face of our darkest moments, that there is still light in the world.
Hold on to your beacons of possibility. Let them light your way.
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