By Camille Gasser
The room was courteously silent as my nine-year-old brother skittered to the front of the restaurant. His head was bowed, his eyes glancing nervously at the floor as he weaved through the chairs and tables. With a final, youthful leap, he arrived behind a large, black and white keyboard.
Around me, I could hear the audience erupt in quiet whispers as they watched the young boy prepare for his musical debut. If they expected some cute rendition of Mary Had A Little Lamb, they were in for a pleasant surprise.
My brother looked towards me and mumbled the title of a song into the microphone: Let It Be by The Beatles. I’d heard him play the rock n’ roll classic far too many times to count; I’d grown accustomed to the erratic swinging of his legs against the piano seat, the serious yet hilarious way his head swayed to the music, and his utterly determined expression.
There I was—a member of my brother’s first, live audience—sitting at a table with a pile of my unfinished homework, a half-eaten Panini, and ten years of piano experience.
When my parents first told me about the upcoming open-mic night, I again refused to participate. I would go to the Aqus café in Petaluma to watch my sibling. I made my decision to fade into the background.
It was only during the initial moments of my brother’s performance that a shadow of doubt darkened my mind: why wasn’t I up there?
I watched in a brooding fog as other talented musicians journeyed up to the makeshift stage. I envied them as they radiated a musical glow.
There were songwriters: young men who, with nothing but guitars and voices, created lyrical melodies that deserved to be on the radio. There were men and women of an older generation: people who had chosen a career that lacked music, but remained faithful to it.
I tried to make up reasons for why I wasn’t among them: I had too much homework; I wasn’t good enough; I’d forgotten all the pieces worth sharing. Truthfully, I was scared.
I could perfect a song, practicing until my hands tightened with exhaustion and the tips of my fingers grew red. But when keys of black and white hovered below my fingers, my body shook as if I were in hypothermic shock. I could try to tell myself I wasn’t nervous, or I could attempt to lock my muscles to stop their spastic movement, but to no avail.
When our night at Aqus danced to a close, I overheard my dad speaking to an audience member about my brother. He said, “You can always tell that somebody is a true performer when they play their absolute best on stage.”
That, I decided, was my curse. Every time I was on stage, I grew so distracted by my anxiety that I forgot to lose myself in the music I adored. I had never played my best on stage; I played my best when I was completely alone. I was not a true performer.
Several weeks later, I was home by myself at the piano, smiling because I’d perfected an original arrangement of my favorite song: it had sounded so much better on a majestic grand piano than through the headphones of my own small keyboard.
Surely, those few minutes of playing had to be more than just another practice; I wasn’t struggling to hit the right notes or keep a consistent rhythm. I was just playing. Then, as if I had finally struck the perfect chord, it clicked.
My stage was my living room. My audience was my lazy dog that loved to hear the piano.
I did play my best when I was performing—performing for me.
I don’t believe there are true performers. It’s simply a matter of adjusting and growing until that living room becomes a real stage. I’m still figuring out how to overcome my fear, and eventually, I’ll get there. Until then, my dog simply has to deal with my laughable excitement and repetitive practices. One day he’ll know that he’s attended private shows of the best performances of my life.