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How is it, anyway, that yellow--the domain of caution signs and cowardice--is also the color of smiley faces?
In the violinist part of my life, I am used to preparing. I get the music ahead of time, I mark fingerings and bowings, I practice, I rehearse, and even if I have a performance after only one rehearsal, I’ve got the music in front of me and years of experience behind me. It may not be perfect, but I feel pretty comfortable with the setup.
But there was this one gig in Chicago. I don’t remember how I got it, but I assumed I would be playing in a string quartet or some other small ensemble, and that the contractor had music for me at the very least. When I got to the restaurant at Navy Pier, though, it became clear that this was a strolling gig—two violins, playing in parts, from memory. That meant a whole repertoire of music I didn’t know, in a style of music I had never played. You know those stress dreams you have sometimes, when you are in college again and have to take a final exam in a class you never attended, or you are at the church for your wedding, everybody waiting for you, but you don’t have your dress, or you are on stage for a big solo performance with an orchestra and you suddenly realize you never learned the piece? This was like one of those dreams, but real.
We had no choice but to fake it. The other violinist told me to play things I knew, as much as I could remember of them, and he would harmonize whatever I came up with. He made lots of suggestions, and if I knew the melody I played it. We played the first page of the first movement of “Eine Kleine Nachtmusik.” We played bits of Brandenburg Concerto No. 3, portions of Vivaldi “Spring” and some Beatles tunes. Pachelbel Canon. Somehow we filled at least an hour with music and then I got out of there as quickly as I could.
Improvising scares me. I don’t think well on my feet. Give me some paper and let me write out whatever I’m going to say, or play, or do, and I feel much better. In the heat of the moment my brain wants to shut off, but whatever is on the page stays there, anchors me, guides me through. One of the problems with life, though, is that so very much of it is improvised, and most of what I get written down to help me through is after the fact. I find this both freeing and terrifying.
One of the biggest things I’ve learned about performing is that sometimes I just have to pretend. Pretend I’m not terrified, pretend I’m relaxed, pretend it’s easy, pretend I meant to do that, pretend that I am in fact a fabulous musician with music just flowing from my pores. Because something happens when I fake it. I play differently when I decide to ignore all my misgivings, my trembling hands, my queasy stomach. I get a lot closer to confidence when I pretend I’ve already got it than if I sit around and wait for it to come to me. Act first and trust the feelings will follow.
It turns out I’m afraid of many things, big and little. Sometimes I think the yellow streak down my back positively glows. But a lot of what this summer—maybe even the past year—has been about for me has been about acting in spite of my fear. Trying out a high ropes course, a zipline, a Tarzan swing while on vacation. Accepting opportunities to improvise on the violin. Going to the writing workshop in Minneapolis. Deciding I’d rather be the one who reached out than the one who said nothing. Saying the things that are burning inside me. Making changes. I would love to tell you that the results have been joyful and glorious, and sometimes they have been, but I’ve also spent a lot of time feeling awkward and clumsy and—to tell the truth—shaking. I am still a coward, but somehow I seem to breathe differently these days.
Yellow dances through the places I am afraid to walk. I’m trying to follow suit, faking it a little as I go.
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