You’re asked to perform in front of an audience. What do you do?
A) Put a bag over your head in order to hide your freaked-out face
B) Laugh uncontrollably while fleeing the room
C) Grab a mic and run on stage, eager to perform your heart out
According to the polls, only a minority of you said “C.” Indeed, it’s reported that people are more afraid of public speaking than death.
Although, if you think about it, this doesn’t really make sense.
Imagine you’re standing on the wings of a stage, and someone tells you that if you don’t go out and speak, they’re going to kill you. How many people would choose death?
When I was a kid, I might have picked the death option.
I was terrified of performing in front of an audience. Actually, it’s more specific than that. I was terrified of playing the piano in front of an audience. I acted in a few plays and I was fine. But displaying my fine-motor musical-skills in front of a crowd? No thanks!!
Some of you know about the worst thing that ever happened to me on stage. Or my jaunts to piano prison. Or the stage trick I learned from Steve Young. But when I was a kid, none of these things had happened yet.
There was just me. And my terror.
Luckily, I only had to play once a year. It was the annual recital for the students of my piano teacher, Carol Nott. In spite of my utter fear, I always managed to make it through my four minutes of Public Torture. Then I had a whole year before I had to do it again.
My senior year of high school, my teacher thought it would be a good idea for me and a fellow student, Ken Wong, to do a senior recital.
I’m not sure why I agreed to this.
My friend Ken didn’t mind playing in front of a crowd. In fact, his mother informed me that he played better when he had people watching.
Needless to say, this was not the case for me.
The recital consisted of a variety of classical pieces. Looking back on it,
I think the whole thing didn’t work for me because I don’t particularly care for classical music. Sure, it’s beautiful, and soothing, and cultured.
But I get a lot more excited about Gospel, or Funk, or R&B.
Indeed, my favorite piece of the concert was by Ravel. I always liked the Romantics – Chopin, Debussy, Ravel – because they were the closest thing to a contemporary sound.
The particular Ravel piece I was preparing for our recital was Pavane pour une infant défunte. For those of you who haven’t brushed up on your French lately, that means Pavane for a Dead Princess.
While this might not sound like the most uplifting of topics, it was an amazing piece: beautiful, haunting, hypnotic. I would practice it again and again, and every time it would make my heart ache. In a good way.
And then there were all the other pieces I had to play.
There was one Mozart composition that my fingers could barely wrap themselves around. Every time I played that piece, it was like I was wearing oven mitts. If Mozart had been in the room, he would have been plugging his ears.
Okay, maybe it wasn’t that bad. But it wasn’t good.
Finally it came, the day of the recital.
To be honest, I barely remember anything about it. I remember that there were lots of people there. I remember that I was terrified, as usual. I remember that the Mozart didn’t go so well. But that’s about it.
Well, except for The Thing That Happened.
It happened, not surprisingly, when I played the Ravel. I sat down on the piano bench to play my favorite piece, and something came over me.
I was suddenly completely calm.
It was uncanny. I was used to being terrified. I was used to shaking and sweating and racing to be finished.
This was the exact opposite.
Time was a fluid, languid thing. And I was sitting in the middle of this calm, smooth space, enjoying every minute.
Not only that, I wasn’t alone. There was – what was it?
It was as though there was a Presence in and all around me. The Presence was dictating the whole event. And yet it wasn’t dictating, exactly, because it was so calm and relaxed and spacious.
Then I started to play. Or was it the Presence that was playing?
I felt so tranquil, so clear. Usually I only felt relaxed when I was playing alone. In this case, I felt more focused and alive because there were others there.
It was as though the Presence included everyone – me, the audience, the piece itself. Every note I played was an articulation of the space, and the calm, and the beauty.
I had never experienced anything like it.
When I was finished, I stood up and walked away from the piano bench. As soon as I did, the Presence started to recede.
I had no idea what had come over me. I was seventeen. I didn’t believe in God, or angels or spirits. Not yet.
But I knew something magical had happened.
A few days after the recital, my mom ran into a man who had
He said he had been blown away by the Ravel. He said something extraordinary had happened when the piece was played. He said he couldn’t sleep that night.
The minute I heard this, I knew what he meant.
And I knew it had nothing to do with me.
Something had happened when I played that piece. But it was so much bigger than me, I knew I couldn’t take the credit.
Many years have gone by since that event, but I can step back into that memory in an instant. Is it because the Presence is still with me? Even when I don’t feel it? I suspect so.
I learned something that day.
I learned that I’m not alone. That I always have Help. And that I can’t always control where and when It shows up.
I also learned that the place of my greatest fear can be the place of my greatest gift.
So the next time you’re asked to do something big, something scary, remember this:
1. You’re not alone.
2. You have Help.
3. Grace happens, just because.
When have you been helped by Something bigger than you? When did your greatest fear turn into a place of Grace?