816 Diversions

Emily Parnell — Lessons from a child on recital day: Who needs nerves? ‘They’ll still like it’

Preparing for piano recitals is by far one of my most torturous childhood memories, so naturally, news that my daughter would have her first lesson sent me straight into a tizzy.

Residual anxiety from my own recital experiences returned. Once again, I felt the fear that I would forget the hard parts — or worse, the easy parts. What if I placed my hands in the wrong starting position? Would I forget to bow? Would I trip walking across the stage? What if my clothes suddenly fell off of me, leaving me sitting there stark naked in front of the audience?

I remember the sweaty palms, the twisting and gurgling in my stomach, the excitement mixed with nervousness that made me feel like was about to jump out of my skin.

One particularly awful recital sticks out in my memory. It was held quite conspicuously in the middle of the enormous, loud, echoing and very busy Bannister Mall. The day before the recital, I managed to get sun-burnt to a red, itchy crisp. I wore a royal blue dress with a gathered bodice, the entirety of which was quite rough. The effect was that of a blue, lacy dress lined with nails constantly scratching my tender, burnt skin.

Hoping to usher my daughter smoothly through her first public performance, I entered hyperdrive piano-mommy mode. We discussed wardrobe options (red velvet), shoe choice (silver), hairstyles (she chose the ever popular “clean, brushed hair” style).

While I could help her get ready, the performance itself was up to her. I couldn’t go up there and play it for her. “Practice makes perfect” is no wives tale. My own teacher always advised me that if I could play something perfectly seven times in a row, I was ready. She reminded me that I was one of her star students. Expectations were clear. I played and played, desperately trying to achieve the level of perfection expected for my performances.

My daughter loves to practice and needed little more than a few reminders to spend ample time at the piano. Still, I was worried. Her success rate with each of her pieces was hit and miss. Sometimes she’d nail it, delivering beautifully, but other times, it was as if she’d never played the song before. The notes would go sour, the timing off. This did not seem to bother her. I remembered the sinking feeling I felt each time I flubbed up during a recital. How I blushed and how disappointed I was in myself. I wanted her to be as prepared as possible.

It was hard to determine the proper amount of pressure to place on her. On one hand, learning to play the music is pretty much the goal of piano lessons and getting it right for the performance is part of the game. But I also didn’t want to stress her out.

One evening, soon before the recital, I asked her, “Sweetie, do you think you should practice some more? Maybe you should slow down those songs a little so you hit the right notes every time.”

“Nah, I’ve got it,” she said, after a less than stellar run through her songs.

“The more you practice, the less likely you are to make mistakes at the recital,” I said.

She shrugged. “I’m just a little kid. If I make a mistake, nobody’s going to be mad at me. They’ll still like it.”

I marveled at her attitude. Her confidence to be less than perfect and just get up there and play and enjoy herself amazed me. It seemed like a lesson I should be telling her, not one she would be telling me.

She skipped through the day of her recital; the nerves that day were all mine. When it came her turn to play, she popped up to the piano. One of the youngest students, her songs were some of the simplest arrangements, but she played them with confidence and expression. Her mishaps were slight, and she finished with pride.

When it was over, I asked if she had fun. “Yes!” she exclaimed. Then I knew, that was really the important thing.