What happened was: I realized I was no good at music.
In spite of years of training, the fact remained that my bow-arm shook when I played my violin in public. No matter how many hours of practice I put in on the Bach A-Minor Concerto, I couldn’t play it on stage. No matter how many years of intense, focused, daily work, I could not perform. I failed in key on-stage situations numerous times. I kept on because I love an audience, but no matter how much I loved being in front of a crowd, I stank at it.
Once, when my sister and I were doing music for a little church—she singing, me playing—yes, I did: I poked her in the head with my bow. How do you do that?
Once, in a college talent show, I forgot the duet half-way through. We started over. I forgot it again at the same place. We were contenders in classical music. We placed in comedy.
Once, for a different talent show, I begged God to keep my bow arm steady. He did. My legs shook like crazy, and I wondered through that piece (that blasted A-Minor again!) whether it was better to have an arm shake and stay standing-if-embarrassed, or to go ahead and fall down in a big pile of wobbly legs and shattered dreams.
Singing was a little better, because when you sing, it doesn’t matter if your hands shake. I did quite a lot of church music during my twenties. I was Anna The Orphanage Director in a children’s musical the name of which I can’t remember, but it’s about Jesus coming to town and has this memorable line: “Don’t take any wooden denarii!”
My singing days ended when I got to Greenville, because Special Music there has a doctorate in voice performance, and yes, I’m still a little bitter about that, but the fact remains that the people who do sing there do sing better than I. Plus they do that lifty thing with their eyebrows.
Now that I think of it, the aha moment could have been when I saw the concert master of the Elementary School orchestra rip into his music like he was Isaac Stern. I don’t know where Scott Moore is now with his music, but he was better at 11 or 12 than I ever was. He probably thinks the A-Minor is for babies. He probably thought so then.
Then my daughter went to high school at Interlochen Arts Academy, and everything I ever knew about music was wadded up in a little ball and set on fire. Those kids are freakishly talented and lots of them go to Juilliard. They go to Curtis. You can’t compare yourself to them. It’s like comparing your husband to George Washington: sure, he’s sweet, and he’s good with the kids, but he’ll never be on a quarter.
Still, there lingered the idea that I could have done something with my music. So I taught children a lot of music—to the extent that the teacher next door told me to knock it off with the piano playing and get on with the academics. I hear some kids still remember all the verses to “Goober Peas,” and I’m darned proud of that. I suppose that was my great contribution to music: Goober Peas has been preserved to another generation (all four verses), and let’s not forget the Presidents Song, which I’ve taught from when it ended “Ford and Carter and Reagan,” and I know people who still stop there, at least in principle.
I sang the National Anthem at a basketball game once. A capella. The trick with this is that you have to start really low, but if you’re too low, those bottom notes sort of get lost. But if you don’t start low enough, my friend, you are going to be in real trouble with the rockets’ red glare, ask anyone. Ask me.
Another (earlier) singing triumph was when our little college “music ministry” group sang Sunday service at the San Diego Marine Corp Recruiting Depot, otherwise known as Boot Camp. All the guys (women marines train in South Carolina) come to chapel. So there’s a thousand Marines out there and I have a solo that starts: “I will meet you in the moooooorning, just outside the Eastern Gate!” It’s about the Second Coming, but from the hoots and hollers, I’m thinking those boys weren’t clued in. “Keep your lamps all trimmed and buuuuuuuurning, lest for you it is too late!” I was eighteen, give me a break. One of them asked me for cigarettes after, but (go figure) I didn’t have any.
Condi said she gave up aspirations of concert piano-ing when she realized she knew the whole repertoire, but she couldn’t play it. To feel the music. To live in the music. To be at peace with the music and work with it, interpret it, express it. Heck, I couldn’t even figure it out half the time, and when I did figure it out and polish it up and get up on stage to perform it, my right arm fell apart, my brain turned off, the music I’d memorized refused to be recalled.
Darned, blasted, and heck in the same piece…maybe I’m still a little conflicted, huh? Crud. Shoot, I wanted to be a singer.
I turned to the typewriter. Or, rather. I continued typing stories and let the music go. I had always written stories, some good, some not so good. Some published, some sitting in a drawer. . . .one sitting in an envelope waiting for nerve and postage.
So, yes, I have a violin in the closet. The bridge is out and the strings are unstrung. My four younger children have never heard me play. But the joy I get when I hear my child laughing, and I go in there to see what’s so funny, and I see he is reading my book, well, can you beat that?