Visualization for Carnegie Hall

Childhood, Faith, and a Piano Performance

Carnegie Hall
Photo by Frank Schramm.
F

or my performance at Carnegie Hall, I wanted to infuse my music with the same emotion I experienced at home. Of course, I was preoccupied with The Dress—what would I wear for such a momentous occasion?—and I was determined not to scar my performance with mistakes. Yet what most mattered to me was the ability to tamp down my nervousness so I could share with the audience the intense feelings the music aroused within me.

The opportunity to perform at Carnegie Hall had come packaged with a master class in performance I enrolled in during September of 2011 with Cosmo Buono, a pianist, and Barry Alexander, an opera singer. The other seminar participants were a mix of amateur adults, like me, and gifted teenagers, some who had placed in national competitions. Once a month we crowded into a practice room on Seventh Avenue to discuss performance strategies and play our music. A few blocks away awaited the majestic Carnegie Hall, where our group would perform in recital in February.

“You will be nervous and you will make mistakes,” Cosmo Buono told the class. “The question is, how will you handle your performance anxiety? How do you plan to recover from wrong notes?” While he spoke, bloopers from previous recitals paraded in my mind: skipping over big chunks of music, leaving off in the middle of a measure, and almost getting caught in an infinite loop while attempting to redo a botched passage. Now it seemed to me that by obsessing over errors, I had frayed the music’s emotional line.

Not long after the master class’s inaugural meeting, the annual holidays sprinted up and ran alongside me. I felt a sweet happiness when I decorated the front of the house with my son Cal and my daughter Mena—with Cal in middle school and Mena in fourth grade, they had opinions on where the lights should go—but the holidays also marked my strained relationships with my parents and sisters.

I needed some time alone to grow up. The piano, I hoped, would help guide me.

On a fireplace hook, I hung up the red felt stocking Mom had sewn during my childhood, and placed on the tree’s top branch an angel made from thick yarns glued onto cardboard—my three sisters, scattered around the globe, each had one too. The absence of my childhood family in my life gnawed at me. My parents and sisters each lived thousands of miles away, yet even worse was that I was barely in communication with any of them. I could not bring myself to speak with them—causing one sister to retort that she did not want to hear from me either—because our conversations surfaced painful memories of the past. I needed some time alone to grow up, to develop a sense of myself independent from my childhood family. The piano, I hoped, would help guide me.

By early January, however, I felt only exhaustion mixed in with a ballooning nervousness about my impending recital. On a Wednesday evening, when deep purple clouds made the night seem especially dark, I parked in front of my church, which was holding its weekly Labyrinth walk. Candles flickered in the windows. The Labyrinth, a meditative pathway that wound inwards towards a center, was something I had intended to try for a long time. . .

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Copyright © 2013 Nancy M. Williams. All Rights Reserved.

1 Comment

  1. Dear Nancy,
    I read your marvelous essay, and listened to your play Chopin, the steady beat of the rain with all that it conveys–nourishing, re-birthing the land, the spirit, the soul. It’s all there, the rumbling sometimes threatening sky mimicking anxiety, the edge of losing control through worry, and then back again, reassuring, the rain, the blessing of rain.

    Both essay and performance are stellar.

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