Stage Delight

"You're so calm. I wish I could be that way."

I had just presented a quick, concentrated lesson to other music teachers at Orff 101, the annual introductory workshop put on by the Portland Orff Schulwerk Association, of which I am now vice president. Every member of the board presents at this event, and from what I saw of the others, we were all confident, prepared, and at ease.

Except apparently we weren't. Though I should qualify that statement: I was, in fact, at ease, but one of my colleagues was not. I'm sure she's fine in a classroom, and her lesson was masterfully presented; but from what she told me, she was inwardly extremely nervous, probably from delivering her lesson to adults, rather than children.

I'm an introvert. Introverts are supposed to shy from microphones, stages, podia, lecterns. We don't like to raise our voices, because we don't like to hear our voices. Public speaking, teaching, performing should tie us in knots of nervousness and fear. If we appear calm doing these things, it should be an act.

Except it wasn't: I was every bit as calm and centered as I appeared. That's the exact opposite of my extraverted colleague, who, for all her apparent confidence, was a bundle of nerves when she presented.

"How do you do it?" you're asking yourself. "What magic pill are you taking? And where can I get some?"

I wish I could bottle up this answer and offer it to you. It might prove lucrative. But in fact, it's too simple to keep secret, and too difficult to be popular. In fact, it's already been trademarked by someone else. It's a three-word truism: Just do it. Though when it comes to performing, I have to take it a step further: don't just do it. Be it. Just be it.

I started just doing it when I was in junior high, and my father put me behind a microphone to lead litanies and read scripture lessons in the Methodist church he pastored. I knew I was a good reader--I'd been reading to my little brothers since I was 5--and this just seemed a logical extension of that. Why would I not be confident doing something I'd never had anything but praise for?

And then it was time to go off book. I took one quarter of drama in high school, playing the role of a king in a children's play that we staged twice. I also joined DeMolay, the Masonic youth organization which stresses public speaking in the same way Scouting stresses outdoor skills, and had to learn and perform from memory long portions of the DeMolay ritual, including a dramatization of the martyrdom of our namesake, Jacques DeMolay. (I was cast as the Master Inquisitor, and got to chew the scenery.) From these experiences, I learned to click into a performance set, setting aside my nerves and just being in the part. Had I been dramatically inclined, I probably could have made a life of this, because there was something really wonderful about not just doing a part, but being that part.

Instead, I majored in music, with the trumpet as my major instrument. And this is where I belly flopped into the stage fright pool.

The trumpet is not a shy instrument. Play it like a shy person, and you will suck, almost literally: You might as well be sucking the mildewed petroleum vapors that inhabit a brass instrument as blowing through it. Shy trumpet playing is painful to listen to: missed pitches, weak, flabby tone, no snap, no shine, no excitement. You can't even play sweetly unless you play with confidence. Trumpets are the loudest instruments in any ensemble, and they are meant to be played that way. They're not just called brass because of their metallurgic properties.

I was a shy trumpeter for my first decade. I lacked the confidence to shine, lacked the ego to take command, had a far too pessimistic sense of my abilities. And yet I was frequently section leader, mostly because, with my classical piano training, I could read and understand music better than anyone else in the band. This did not last into college, though: leadership there was based on ability, not knowledge, and even if it had been, I was surrounded by other music majors, no longer the smartest fish in the music pond.

I was also handicapped with a student instrument, the Bundy that had so delighted me when my parents bought it for me in 1972. By the time I was in college, the lacquer finish had begun to wear off, dents were proliferating, and the limitations of the instrument were holding me back. In 1981, after two years of college, I finally traded up to a Bach Stradivarius, a professional quality instrument I still play. My playing took off, but something was still lacking.

In the fall of 1981, I played a solo at a music convocation, a weekly concert all music majors were required to attend. I had worked on the piece for weeks, nailed it consistently in the practice room, but when I raised my trumpet to my lips and played the first note, I clammed. Clamming is like a 14-year-old with a changing voice going for a high note and dropping into baritone instead, and it's the nightmare of every brass player, but especially trumpeters. The rest of the performance was a slog: after missing that first note, I just couldn't find the sweet center of the part. When it was finally over, I felt like throwing my shiny new trumpet out a window.

What brought it on? Stage fright. However confident I'd been for all those years of public speaking, and even of playing my trumpet in church, this was the first time I'd soloed in front of my peers, and I was just plain frightened. The stress of the performance manifested itself physically in a tight throat, which kept me from nailing the relatively high notes of the piece I was playing. I wasn't making music. I was doing something hard and physical, and the effort of doing it was making me miserable.

Of course, I did not abandon the trumpet. Quite the contrary: the following spring, I passed my instrumental proficiency, and could have quite studying entirely, but continued for another year, performed a senior recital, and took a year of graduate lessons while I worked on my MS in music education. That year of graduate lessons, in turn, laid the groundwork for everything I've done since as a speaker and teacher.

His name was Ray Sasaki, and he didn't just teach technique: he tough philosophy. He believed the trumpet was a conduit, that the music started in the gut and passed through the instrument out to the audience. The sound should be a continuous wave from my lungs to the back wall of the performance hall. And as I was playing, I was to set my thoughts aside, be utterly present in the music, becoming the art. Performing on the trumpet, I learned, was exactly like that lesson I'd picked up in drama class: don't do it. Be it.

It changed my playing, but more importantly, it changed my life. I didn't stay with music education for long, going to seminary after just a year of teaching. Once there, though, I channeled my newfound performance persona into the most visible thing any pastor does: preaching. From the very beginning, I decided I would preach without notes or podium, making myself liturgically naked, with nothing between me and my congregation. I was blessed in my first student pastorate with a patient congregation who were happy to be my guinea pigs as I learned this style. A year of that and I was off to England, where I didn't clam once.

I continued preaching until 2000, when I left ministry. I went on preaching occasional sermons, but by 2003 my focus had shifted entirely to teaching, and it has now been at least two years since I preached a sermon. All my lessons are now delivered to students, and I'm utterly at ease with them. Doing the occasional model lesson for adults doesn't bother me at all: I just click into performance mode, and become the lesson.

There has been one exception to this: a few years ago, I tried my hand at open mike standup comedy. My first set, which was utterly improvised, was deceptively well-received--I was among friends who were, I think, just delighted to discover how comfortable I was at a microphone--enough so that I began working on material. But that material didn't bring laughter. I pared it down, threw in more jokes, more clever word play, went blue, but it was futile. I just wasn't funny in the way one has to be to do standup. My final performance as a standup was, perhaps ironically, at an Orff music education course, where I performed in the talent show. Many of my fellow students were non-native English speakers, but that doesn't completely account for the stony reception I received. The next day, a fellow student said, "You should just tell stories. Without the jokes. The story part was wonderful." During the performance, I felt like I was clamming just as badly as I had at that first music convocation. After it, I was kicking myself for doing something that really didn't fit. Music teachers love humor, but they're not so big on jokes.

Which is fine with me, because honestly, my favorite kind of humor is that which naturally emerges from a well-told story. It doesn't have to a Bible story (though I do love to tell them), nor does it have to be an excruciatingly personal story (though I do find those cathartic). Just so long as it's coming from inside me in a steady flow to an audience, whether that audience is kindergartners, teachers, or improvisers, I'm comfortable stepping out of my head, into my heart, and letting myself become the art I'm making.

Comments

  1. I *love* this post. "Don't do it. Be it." Thank you for that.

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