The annual Solo & Ensemble competition was always in the spring. For those of you who were never music nerds, this is a day-long competition of judged performances. For me, the weeks leading up to competition were stressful because I was usually involved in more than a few events, including several as accompanist. Even as a teenager, I secretly love(d) the pressure of it and the release that comes with performing. To me, a good score was simply an afterthought.
My first year in choir, our teacher split us into two smaller ensembles. I was put in the one singing William Dawson’s ubiquitous high school setting of the Negro Spiritual, “Every time I feel the Spirit”. Even though I now cringe whenever upper-middle-class white people sing spirituals, our director gave me the solo. I can assure you, my voice is more suited for Puccini or Byrd than it is for spirituals!
I practiced those lines about the “chilly and cold” Jordan river so many times, absolutely terrified of making a public mistake. When we’d rehearse, my eyes would be glued to the music, afraid that if I diverted my attention, a wrong note or word would inextricably slip out. Plus, I knew that some of the other guys wanted the solo and that was enough for me to be struck with paranoia, too.
I had this annoying tendency of wanting to be mistake-less wherever I went. If there were certain situations where my immediate ascendancy was not assured, I would simply avoid it. By doing this, I scripted my life as successful, and — in many ways — I was successful because I just avoided all the situations where I wasn’t. In these few places, I was never unsure of my own assured brilliance.
Example: I avoided the typical hormonal rites of passages (like dances) because I knew I would never be the much-fawned-over alpha male. But, if I did go, I’d simply make snarky observations about the meaninglessness of life. Seriously. I did this as in junior and senior high school: “Sure”, I’d think to myself, “You’re getting all the girls, but you’ll be on your second marriage with two kids when the factory gives you a pink slip in a few years.” A snarky wit and a vivid imagination were my finely-honed defenses against failure.
In the dark gymnasium of suppressed hormonal urges, erratically illuminating strobes and reverberating pop ballads, I imagine myself as a successful twentysomething in a loft, doing Yoga, being intellectual. Or, perhaps, I imagine myself a conductor who just finished a trying performance of a difficult piece who wanted to spend the evening at the club. Usually, though, as I strode across the floor with pride, navigating my way between the barely-dancing and the awkwardly-dancing, I always imagine they spoke of me in reverently hushed tones. “That brilliant eccentric”, they’d say! Then, sometimes I laugh at myself for even imagining that. “Please, Andy, like they know what ‘brilliant eccentric’ even means!”
For much of my life, I needed only to be worshiped from a polite distance, admired and respected. So, my failure would only reveal that I am, in fact, a misanthropic loner with sad grandeur delusions. My pitiful life would be evident to all. The whispers would turn malicious. I would get that pink slip from the factory if I didn’t hit all the right notes. Perhaps I would even cease to exist.
I need to look at the music. I sing about “fire and smoke” with half-conviction because half-conviction was better than full failure. After all, courage is for war movies — this is high school! I must stay in the world where I am a success and where I am technically correct. I must tighten my shoulders. I must hold the line.
I dam life’s teeming, surging, cascading, impermeant unsuredness so that it surfaces as a trickle, a murmuring well-orchestrated fountain, never enough to drink from but a pleasant addition to any scene. I control, channel and critique it so that I never experience it; I only observe it. I am a bitchy audience and a shameful performer all rolled into one.
My assured brilliance slowly kills me. The real and imagined admiration of others asks for my soul to be payed out in tenacious trickles, infinitesimal drops and polite coffee spoons. That gentle murmuring patiently withers away into a stymied, stagnant green pond full of filth, mosquito eggs and death. I must let it all surge from within if I’m going to survive.
But, I don’t want to. In music and in life, I don’t want to go off script. I want to remain resolute; maybe I even want to die the slow death of mistake-less comfort. Whatever it is, I do not want to look up from the music. And, I do all these things until our choir director tell us one day that that it is time to put the books down.