A shaky flutist

Monday, October 28, 2019 - 10:38am

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Design by Jonathan Walsh

Though I write “flutist” on my resume, “professional scaredy-cat” might be more accurate.

I’m sure any musician remembers their first performance vividly. My memory, however, is a bit too vivid and not in a good way. After weeks of hesitation, I mustered up my courage and asked my teacher for a performance opportunity at a local church. As the director of music there, he happily put my name down on the Sunday program and I received the music score right away. I was self-conscious about my lack of performance experience, so I practiced endlessly (Apologies to the girl who lived right above the music room — she was definitely sick of the melody).  Beginning Saturday night after dinner, I started to feel a bit uneasy. But somehow, I managed to calm myself and slip into a good night’s sleep. I hoped everything would be just dandy the next morning.

“I got this!” I said to my reflection in the mirror before wrapping myself with the blanket.

Sadly, as soon as I woke up the next morning, the Freudian unconsciousness revealed its ugliness. I wasn’t thinking about the performance while chewing my breakfast eggs and toast, but my heart was beating at an unusual pace. As 10 o’clock approached, its rhythm increased. Linearly.

Oh boy.

I decided to make myself look pretty first. I put on my favorite dress from Free People and gave myself a final mirror-check. Strangely, the phoenix pattern on the dress seemed a bit less glorious than it was two days ago on the hanger. I did not have the choice to back out and be a coward, so I grunted and headed toward the church. The uphill route did not help. If I had graphed my heart rate, the function would have transformed from a linear one to an exponential one.

The choir was already there in their robes, chatting and giggling. I quietly assembled my flute and sat at the bench. I was hoping to blend into the background, which may have been possible if I weren’t wearing a colorful phoenix dress.

“There you are, Ivy!”

With the whole choir staring at me, my teacher asked me to play the note “A” to tune with the piano. To anyone who plays an orchestral instrument, the “A” note must be familiar — this tuning note signifies the start of a performance or a rehearsal. I, however, did not know such a thing as the “tuning note.” So my first reaction was to produce a frowning, confused face.

Fair enough. But I was surely capable of playing a single note, wasn’t I?

No. And here’s why. On the piano, you can produce a sound, maybe even a good one by simply pressing down a key. However, the flute requires mastery of breathing. A slight change in the air stream may result in a catastrophic sound. Learning how to properly breathe was already difficult enough during practice. How did I think my delicate breath would react when it was being chased by the giant, spooky monster of nervousness?

Shake was all I did. I had a shaky brain, 10 shaky fingers, two shaky lips and a shaky stream of air. I played that A note (sort of) in a pitiful way. The flowy melody that I was capable of producing during practice sessions fell into pieces. Oh, if only I could’ve hid behind the piano! I shook so violently that the slur became staccato. The 20 seconds of my solo felt like an eternity. Thankfully, the choir sang so loud and enthusiastic that their voice drowned my fragmented notes. I have never felt so grateful for a singing voice before.

Anyone would guess after that experience, I’d avoid public performance whenever possible. Wrong. I forgot about my pain too quickly. Only after a few weeks, I signed up for my high school graduation performance to play “Variations For Flute and Piano”, a challenging piece by Chopin. I was determined I would conquer my adrenaline this time. Chopin may have liked my courage, but he definitely would have yelled at me: “Girl, not my piece. Play something simpler!” 

As if my last performance wasn’t traumatic enough, this time, I took my shakiness to a stage with an audience of 400. All of them were students, faculty and parents of the graduating class, and they were all watching the girl who stood under the brightest spotlight. But instead of rocking the stage, she went completely catatonic and lost her rhythm. Chopin and I left an eternal mark in the program pamphlet. I sincerely hope he won’t be angry at me. It was far beyond embarrassing.

I, the so-called performance musician, am utterly crippled by stage fright.

But I am not alone. The famed tenor, Luciano Pavarotti, threw up backstage before his performances. Ozzy Osbourne wrote in his biography: “to say that I suffer from pre-show nerves is like saying that when you get hit by an atom bomb it hurts a bit.” I suppose that's why stage fright is kind of a cliché. Knowing how these masters suffered does offer me a little relief. Unfortunately, understanding that fear is common isn’t exactly a remedy for fear itself. I can’t help but wonder if it was magic, or maybe performance-enhancement drugs, that allowed them to ultimately put on such magnificent shows.

The answer, I believe, is neither. How these introverted artists pushed themselves onstage, despite shaky muscles, ice-cold hands, and racing hearts, is miraculous. It’s also the most human thing I can imagine. They set their finger to the keys, or the fretboard, and draw a deep breath. It’s terrifying, but they push through. The notes will only linger for a moment, but the music will outlive them for hundreds of years. That is the paradox of creativity  — despite great fear, something fragile within us demands to be created. That desire is strong enough to conquer adrenaline. That's why, despite the judgmental eyes of the audience, and despite my ice-cold fingertips, I continue to perform. That's why I raise my flute in the spotlight — to imitate so many scaredy-cats before me, each of whom chose to be brave, for one moment, and leave beautiful music behind.