I started playing the piano when I was about 4. My dad had wanted me to play because his mom, my Grandma Fengel, had played. He and my mom bought a player piano, which I thought was THE coolest thing ever (and still do), and I started lessons. Every year, I had a spring recital, and even though I was only 5 by that time, I remember my first one. It was at the YWCA in Canton in the big rec room upstairs. I wore a light blue, ruffled, 1970s, long dress which I remember begging my dad to buy several months before. My dad didn’t get to see that recital because he died at work right before it happened, but my story isn’t about that. My story is about my recital 8 or 10 years later, when I was about Mattie’s or Owen’s age.
By then, I was playing for Mrs. Tarr, and our recital was scheduled to happen in the tiny studio at the back of her house. Every year, Mrs. Tarr, had us spend months on end preparing and memorizing and perfecting. I had at least two solos to perform that year and probably at least one duet with Krista or Jane. There had been endless individual lessons and plenty of large group session with other piano students to practice our pieces.
I remember that the room was packed on that day with moms, dads, grandparents, and siblings. As a parent now myself, I realize that all those adults in the room wanted to see each of us kids do well. I think I probably knew that at the time, but I was still nervous and terrified. I was always nervous when I performed. I can bring down the house when I play by myself, but there’s just something that prevents me from doing that in front of an audience. Regardless, it was finally my turn to perform. I walked up to the piano, sat down, and started to play my piece, Sondheim’s Send in the Clowns. If you’ve never heard the piece, it’s a hauntingly beautiful tale about things that are beyond our control and how sometimes the worst things that happen to us actually turn out to be the best things to happen to us. As a 12- or 14-year-old, I had put no thought into the meaning behind the song.
I started out fine, but as I continued I started to panic a little, and, then it happened. I goofed. Big. Time. So big that I couldn’t easily recover. My hands were shaking, and I was on the verge of tears. I remember stopping and thinking to myself, “Now what?”. I sighed audibly, and I did the only thing I knew to do. I started over. From the beginning. And, this time I finished. I stood up and nodded at my audience, which Mrs. Tarr had taught us to do – no bowing for her students. I went back to my seat with the other students, and I cried out of embarrassment and relief. After the recital, one of the moms came up to my mom and I and complimented my poise and said that her child would have never been able to do what I had done – just start over and finish. I didn’t feel particularly proud of my accomplishment at that moment.
Over the last few months and years, that memory has come back to me time and again. Every time I think about it I cringe and, undoubtedly, blush. However, I’m a huge believer in “signs” and I think, for a long time, someone has been putting that memory in my mind to remind me of something. Sometimes in life you have to do exactly what my teenage self instinctively knew to do. You keep your eyes on the finish line and you do what it takes to get there. That’s just the way life works. None of it’s fair. Really awful things happen to really decent and good people. Sometimes, in life, you goof. Big. Time. But, the mistake isn’t what’s important. It’s not even important if it stops you dead in your tracks or causes you to freeze. What is important is what you do to recover from it. Sometimes, the best thing you can do is to take a deep breath and start over. Reinvent yourself and finish. There’s always time later on to cry.