Every few months, at the end of a term, we gather together, all dressed-up, having practiced as much as we're going to practice, and give a recital for each other. It's experience-building, performing in front of each other. We play as a big group, in smaller groups, and alone with the piano. Everybody gets a chance to show what they've been working on, to bow, to hear applause for their work.
Everybody there, I think, knows how they would like things to go. Or maybe it’s just me, forever the idealist, who sees it all beforehand in its shiny, dreamy perfection.
When I was a student, especially all those many years before I got serious about practicing, the image beforehand was probably a little hazy. I think it involved a flawless performance, an astounded audience, the realization that I was not simply a quiet little girl—I was a rock star. Of the violin, but still. And, naturally, a cute boy would fall in love with me because of how I played. After I got serious about practicing, the dream stayed pretty much the same, only with clearer details: a flawless up-bow staccato with a perfectly-relaxed arm, effortless vibrato, getting through That One Passage without messing up or losing my place. And after the whole thing is over—yes, to feel loved. Even after you know you are not doing this to be loved, does the desire for it ever really go away?
As a parent, I have a pretty clear image of how I’d like things to go: my child is clean and neat, we have practiced adequately, she will get through without memory slips or major mishaps.
As a teacher, I have an even clearer image: I’ve taught each student everything he or she needs to know. I haven’t moved too quickly or slowly. I’ve convinced them all to practice/play in tune/pay attention/make beautiful sounds/not be afraid.
And in reality it’s always something different.
Sometimes you realize, mid-piece, that you really did not practice as much as you should have, and that this really isn’t going well.
Sometimes you have practiced. A lot. And still That One Passage gets you, the memory slip so bad that even your accompanist has to stop and wait for you to collect yourself and start again.
Sometimes you can’t even get your daughter on stage to play—she stands on the edge and cries and cries, and you have no idea if you should urge her to conquer her fear or take her in your arms and carry her away.
Sometimes you realize that while you spent all that time teaching your students how to hold their instruments, you never mentioned not running with them. And every child, upon finishing their solo piece, jumps off the stage and runs back to their seat, each one narrowly averting disaster, each one driving home the point that you forgot one of the earliest, most basic steps.
Sometimes you watch a friend playing, and he is so nervous, so shaky, that you feel sick for him. You would rather be up there yourself, experiencing your own stage fright, than watch what he is going through.
I’ve seen all those things and more happen through the years. You wonder, sometimes, why we have this ritual of performing for each other every few months.
And then, sometimes, you realize that that’s the thing—we try to perform for each other, and in one way or another we lay bare our humanity, instead. The real ideal is that we learn from that laying-bare: how to deal with the discomfort and messiness, how to love each other through it, how to resolve to try again next time, even though we know better than ever that things will fall short of our expectations.
Because it turns out that you can survive all sorts of stuff and still play, and that counts for a lot.
It turns out that seeing somebody else going through the same struggle as you can both open your heart wide and strengthen it.
It turns out you would rather have the love of people who are in the audience because of who you are than of the ones who love you for what you can do.
Best of all, it turns out everybody already knows you are a rock star of the violin. Your parents have always known, even when they wondered if they were wrong. All the younger students who look at you and see everything they hope to be some day—they know. So do all your peers who’ve watched you struggle with standing still or paying attention, who know that last time you would not even get on stage you were so scared, who know that you work extra-hard because you have Down Syndrome. They know what you did up there on stage, even if it wasn’t perfection. They know it was a triumph.
That is why they’re clapping.