Author, Journalist

Excerpt from Playing Scared: A Memoir and History of Stage Fright

Opening Quotation Marks

Chapter 1: The Agony of My Ecstasy

At the annual music festival in Port Colborne, the small Ontario town where I grew up, my fellow competitors knew me as the one who could be counted on to crash and burn. My piano teacher, Mrs. Wolfenden, was convinced otherwise. Each spring, starting when I was ten, she plotted which Bach invention or Mozart sonata I should perform, promising that I was sure to get over my nerves now that I was a whole year older. My mother, for her part, didn’t need any convincing. According to her, all I needed to do was practice more.

It never occurred to me that I could refuse, even when I was fourteen and Mrs. Wolfenden declared that I was ready for a more serious competition, requiring a forty-minute drive to the neighboring city of St. Catharines. This time, I told myself, it was going to be different. My fingers knew the music so cold, it wouldn’t matter what I thought about or if I thought at all. Waiting my turn in the front row—that no-man’s-land between performer and audience—I affected interest in the pianist onstage, closed my eyes, and tapped out the opening bars of the Mozart Sonata no. 8 in A Minor. But as the simple triad shifted to a four-note chord, I grew aware that the bottoms of my thighs had gone clammy and my palms were already getting wet. I rubbed them into my jumper, but—just my luck—I was wearing wool, a natural water repellent. Now the audience was clapping and, looking up, I saw the girl taking her bow, moving confidently toward the stairs. I knew her, or, more accurately, I knew her piano playing. Her name was Nancy, and she never missed a note. But she played woodenly—like a cold brick, my mother said , though I suspected she admired the girl’s cool demeanor. I glanced behind me, trying to search out my mother in the crowd. There was a blur of faces, all aimed in my direction.

Pushing myself out of my chair, I felt my thighs cling to the wood. I brushed past Nancy on the stairs and tried to smile, but my mouth was dry. And now, I realized, my hands were sopping wet. When I sat on the piano bench, I became aware that my knees were knocking and my feet were shaking.

I waited for the shaking to die, and when it didn’t, I closed my eyes and tried to conjure up what my piano teacher once suggested: an image of myself playing for a barnyard full of animals. The room had grown silent. I looked down at my hands, which, for a fourteen-year-old, were unusually muscular, the result of years of practicing scales, Hanon and Czerny exercises, and Bach inventions. But the hands were small, too small for many of the larger chords in the music I was starting to play, and sometimes I hated them the way other girls my age hated their small breasts. They were peasant hands, short-fingered, like those of my father and everyone on his side of the family. It didn’t help that I regularly bit my fingernails down to the quick. I also gnawed at my cuticles and chewed on the ends of pencils, a habit that earned me the school-yard epithet Eager Beaver. Lately, I had been picking away at the skin around the fourth finger of my left hand. It had gotten infected and a throbbing abscess developed, so that every time I touched a key the pain sounded an alarm, warning me to stay away. Just a few days earlier, my mother had sent me to our family doctor, who lanced the boil, releasing a spray of mustard-yellow pus.

My last thought, as I lifted my hands, was that the finger had almost fully healed. And then I leaned in and, with a grace note slur from D sharp to E, jumped into what I liked to think of as a horserace. Some music waits to unfold and let you slowly wrap your mind around it, but not this piece. As my left hand played the triad like a steady canter, I let myself hum along to the melody—a low drone just loud enough to quell the shaking. My brain was jumping as fast as my fingers and my hands knew the rules and miraculously obeyed. It sounded good, I realized, maybe better than good. If I could keep playing at this speed, the air might even dry my hands.

But as I came to the end of the first theme—a series of fast octave jumps, Cs to Gs to Cs—my wet fingers went sliding. I stopped for an instant, but a discernible instant. I was never one of those pianists who could glide past mistakes and make them invisible to all but the most knowledgeable listeners. I halted, then resumed, and for a while I was once again able to forget everything but the music, my fingers plunging into the densest passages of the piece. This was the part I loved, and for a few moments I was able to enter Mozart’s world. Sometimes I thought these passages were the only thing that could explain myself to me, but as I moved through the music, or the music moved through me, some almost imperceptible signal registered in my brain, and I remembered where I was, remembered the adjudicator who was sitting alone in a gray suit at a table in the aisle, scratching silently with his pencil. My mother was there, too, hidden somewhere in the audience. She was listening attentively, critically, while, just where I could see them from the corner of my eye, my competitors hovered expectantly in the front row like—and now it dawned on me exactly whom they reminded me of—Madame Defarge and her fellow tricoteusesfrom A Tale of Two Cities, sitting back with their needles and yarn, knitting and watching greedily as the guillotine did its job.

That image precipitated another slip, but now I was close to the end and I pushed on to the place where my fingers dashed through a long run of notes like a sparkler going off. The lanced finger was tolling its own internal alarm bell: Boil, boil, toil and trouble.The final chords were here now, demanding their due, and then the piece was over.

I gave a hurried bow and rushed off the stage, searching out my mother as I headed toward my seat. The audience rushed by like trees along the highway when my father drove fast, passing every car just for the hell of it and yelling at me to get my arm inside unless I wanted to lose it. I wondered if it was because I was walking so fast, or were there tears in my eyes? I groped for my seat, and though I knew it was childish, that she would hate it, I couldn’t help myself: I turned back and sought out my mother’s face. When at last I lit on it, she refused to look at me. She sat erect, her posture as always ramrod straight, staring ahead in the middle of a crowded row. I asked her with my eyes the only thing I cared about—Are you mad at me?—but she looked determinedly away, watching the boy who was next up onstage.

He was unknown to me, with a foreign-looking name, Kiran or something similar, and he was wonderful. Finally, here was someone who, even under pressure, played with the love I felt when I played by myself. I was so moved that, for once, I didn’t feel envy. What I thought was that I would happily gain fifty pounds if I could just make the piano sing like that. At that moment,it was the most valuable thing I could imagine for trade. A few months earlier, I had entered puberty and blossomed from a gawky kid with braids into a pudgy teenager with breasts. These days, when I came down to breakfast in a flannel nightgown, my parents almost in one breath urged me to go upstairs and “cover up.” The extra pounds clearly bothered my svelte mother, who referred to them as “big ones.” As in, “It looks like you’ve gained a few big ones.” The fantasy that I might trade fifty pounds to play like that—and without stage fright—seemed a good exchange.

Kiran was the last person to play, and for a long time after he finished, the adjudicator continued making notes. Now that the music was over, the scratch of his pencil filled the hall. At last, he approached and stood in front of us, a slight man who, with his thin hair and sharpened features, looked like Fred Astaire. He talked about the importance of performing and playing, but I knew it had nothing to do with me, and when he mentioned Kiran’s name and everyone applauded, I clapped along. The adjudicator talked some more, and then I thought I heard my name. I couldn’t be sure, though. I had had a similar experience many times in school, where I habitually sat with a book open on my lap, just under the desktop, so immersed in the story and the characters that the teacher would sometimes call my name two or three times before I responded, not looking up until the sound of laughter broke the spell. It was like being underwater.

Now, looking up, I realized with surprise that I had been named second-place winner. Apparently, the audience also was surprised. A noise like a collective gasp moved through the room, and the adjudicator raised a hand as if to stem a political revolt.Yes, he said, his voice loud now, she made mistakes. That is why she didn’t get first place. But she played the most musically of anyone here. It matters little if a musician plays perfectly but without feeling. And with that pronouncement, he beckoned me forward and presented me with a silver medal.

I was not nearly as gratified as my mother. She saw the prize—and more important, the adjudicator’s remarks—as vindication of everything that she had long been claiming for me. Her delight knew no bounds after she discovered that the adjudicator, Harold Weiss, was a member of the faculty of Eastman School of Music in Rochester, where her older sister, Madeline—my aunty Maddy—had once trained as a concert pianist. He had declared that I was “really musical,” and who recognized talent better than an Eastman professor? I was of course glad that I had made my mother so proud, but it didn’t seem like such a big deal. I might even have forgotten the whole episode if it had ended there. But its real significance would become clear only in retrospect.

Two years after the competition in St. Catharines, when I was sixteen, my family—me, my brother, sister, and mother—moved into my aunt’s house in Hornell, a dreary town tucked in the Allegheny Mountains of western New York, about seventy-five miles from Rochester. Only my father stayed behind in Ontario, with the vague promise that he would follow as soon as he sold his furniture store. Though the town was bleak, the house was a country in and of itself, a mansion with a personality that seemed to shape our relationships. Stepping into its vestibule was, to us, who had never seen Europe, as good as entering Versailles. We immediately removed our shoes because the floors of every room, except for the kitchen and bathrooms, were covered with beautiful Oriental rugs. The library was filled with leather-bound volumes of classic literature and out-of-date business tomes, and the top ledges of the bookshelves were lined with ivory busts of Greek gods and goddesses.

The parlor was so large that Aunty Maddy’sSteinway grand took up what seemed like a mere nook, and there were clocks everywhere: a porcelain clock from eighteenth-century France, hand-painted with fleurs-de-lis, that kept silent time and an enormous grandfather clock that ticked loudly and boomed the quarter hour, following you up the heavy staircase, past the landing with its stained-glass windows of the rising sun and looming moon, into the Queen’s Room, as we called it, where Aunty Maddy slept alone, ever since the death of Uncle Benny five years earlier, and the Princess Room, where my mother also now slept alone in a canopied bed.

When the sisters were together, everyone else was excluded. The two of them would disappear upstairs and sit on Maddy’s bed, poring over her treasures of gold anddiamonds that she kept locked away in a brown leather traveler’s bag inside her closet. With the doors closed and the curtains drawn, the two sisters sealed off the world. They had grown up poor; their father had lost everything in the Depression, and my mother had combed the hills when she was a young girl, gathering dandelion greens for dinner. But Maddy, who was the oldest, had always had a penchant for making money. Whenever she babysat her little sister, she made a game of searching out pennies and nickels below the curbs and trapped beneath the street grates. Maddy had luck, and she was generous with it. My mother, Polly, revered her. Though the move to Hornell clearly fulfilled her deepest wish, to be with her sister, it also suited her musical ambitions for me. ForMaddy announced that she intended to send me to Eastman’s preparatory department. I was to be given opportunities I would never have had if we stayed in Port Colborne.

Before the beginning of the school year, my mother called Eastman and asked to speak to Mr. Weiss, reminding him of my performance a couple of years earlier in St. Catharines. Yes, he said, he did in fact remember it. He remembered me. And he agreed to take me on as a student. Which meant that every Saturday morning, I would leave Aunty Maddy’s house at seven o’clock, catch the bus in front of the little Greyhound storefront a block away, change buses in Dansville twenty miles away, and arrive in Rochester by ten. My lesson began at eleven, and when I knocked on Mr. Weiss’s studio door, he greeted me in his neat gray suit with a polite wave of the hand.

One of the first things he said when I walked into his studio, swinging the stiff calfskin “music case” that my aunt had bought me, was that my days of competition were over. For the next two years, until I turned eighteen and went off to college, I would spend Saturdays taking lessons, studying music history, theory, counterpoint, and harmony, participating in school recitals, playing in Eastman’s grand concert hall, and giving the occasional demonstration to visiting piano teachers in his studio.

Mr. Weiss emphasized technique. He could easily devote half the lesson to drilling me on scales, arpeggios, and diminished sevenths, and I practiced them at home at least an hour every day. My fingers flew. His ban on competition had eased some of my anxiety. There were annual evaluations before the head of the preparatory department and recitals in the grand concert hall, but these were low-key affairs compared with the frenzied competitions of my childhood. I liked to wander through the conservatory’s basement, listening to the din of scales, fugues, sonatas, and études that filtered out of the practice rooms and into the hallway. I could usually find an empty room where I, too, could practice or, more likely, crack open Dombey and Son or whatever Dickens novel I was reading at the time.

The last performance I ever gave was at my graduation recital in May 1971. It was a program of all the preparatory students, each of us required to play just one piece. Mine was Brahms’s Intermezzo in AMajor,a dark and introspective work. From Brahms to Dickens, I loved everything to do with the nineteenth century, and I played well. When it was over, I relaxed in my seat. A violinist was now onstage, someone I recognized from my music appreciation class. She was playing a Mozart violin sonata, and I knew at once that her playing—her tone, her phrasing, her passion—was on a different order of magnitude from mine. I was reminded of Kiran, the pianist who had made such an enormous impression four years earlier. I knew in an instant that I could never play like this girl, no matter how much I practiced or how flawlessly I executed. That instant of comprehension was both transformative and distressing.

I had played well enough to reignite the two sisters’ ambitions, however. For as soon as I left the recital hall, I saw them in a huddle with Mr. Weiss in the middle of the lobby. My mother motioned me over. “Would you like to go to Eastman’s instead of university?” she asked. “Mr. Weiss thinks—”

I didn’t wait to hear the rest. “Absolutely not,” I said. I had my own plans. I was going to become a writer. At that moment, I didn’t care if I ever played the piano again. It felt final—like leaving the church, turning away from the faith, and becoming a lapsed Catholic ornonobservant Jew. It was years before I understood how deeply music had permeated my identity, years before I recognized that the word practice had a wider meaning than time spent at the piano. It was almost an epiphany when, as an adult, I realized that the word was commonly used in connection with religion. But now I was eighteen and could worship—or not—wherever and whatever I chose.

Closing Quotation Marks


This was an excerpt from:

Playing Scared:
A Memoir and History of Stage Fright

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