I went to a Christmas piano recital in the States recently. This is not something I do regularly anymore, though between the years of eight and thirteen I struggled through more than a lifetime’s share of my own. I was there because a couple of kids I know are taking lessons, and their mother asked me to come. All told, seventeen youngsters take lessons from Ms. Cheryl in Shelburne Falls, Mass., and recently sixty proud family members and friends showed up in a little New England church on a rainy Sunday to watch the little ones experience what could possibly be – trust me on this one – the most traumatic moment of their young lives.
I had no sooner plopped down in a pew than the flashbacks started. Instantly, I’m stuck inside Mrs. Tiffin’s dark parlor with the two pianos and the clock that rings with the Westminster chimes. Tiny plaster busts of composers scowl at me from the mantel, accusing: “When we were your age, we’d written symphonies.” Mrs. Tiffin’s fingers are shiny, swollen with arthritis. Mr. Tiffin snuffles around the kitchen. I play as if to convince her I’d practiced my pieces every day – several times a day – but darn it, they’re just too hard. Unfazed, she hands me a brand-new piece – in five flats and three different time signatures usually reserved for her fifth-year students – and says, “The recital is Sunday; I think you can memorize this by then…”
Immediately it’s Sunday; I’m wearing a jacket, tie, and wool pants so scratchy they could scour saucepans; I’m quivering on the piano bench, sweat gushing from my fingers; I aim to hit one note and five clang down together; the kids behind me are rocking the pews with laughter; I’m nine years old and trembling like a small animal cornered by Dobermans.
Fortunately, at just that instant, the first little performer walked up front to Ms. Cheryl’s piano and began attempting one of the four The First Noels we would be treated to that evening. Others would add three Silent Nights, three Joy to the Worlds, and five Good King Wenceslases.
Most of Ms. Cheryl’s young recital participants were unfortunates who’ll use these two or three years of forced lessons only as examples to a spouse – decades hence – of just how little their parents understood who they were, really. They raced through their assigned carols with fingers uncontrollable as spiders. They played Away in a Manger and Jingle Bells like they were striking the keys with their heels. They stuttered and stumbled during Up on the Housetop and We Three Kings; if notes were words, we’d have heard “field and fountain, moor and moun..mou…mo-mo…mountain..tain…” I loved it enormously. My fingers did not sweat once.
Then, as the older kids came on with musical selections people could listen to without actually flinching, I had another flashback – kinder, goofier, altogether more spiritual. This time I’m singing in the high school choir at the Second Presbyterian Church. It’s Christmas Eve, midnight vespers. In ten minutes we’ll be outside in the new-fallen snow, exclaiming over the miracle of the season. For the past forty-five minutes, I’ve been entranced by the music, by the dim blue light throughout the sanctuary, by the lovely hair and necks of numerous sopranos and altos.
The recessional is Silent Night. The choir begins to exit the chancel, lit now only by candles bordering the center aisle. A baritone, I exit nearly last, and therefore have more time than most to fall spellbound by the conjury of music, candlelight, and beautiful teenage girls. Four steps lead down, out of the chancel; I have walked them probably two hundred times. Tonight, though, I am enraptured, and miscount the steps – three. I am singing the last chorus of Silent Night as my foot drops and extra eight inches and lands… “Silent night, … holy n-uhhhh!!!”… like I was hit by a linebacker. Heads whip up in the first seven pews; no one knows what happened, but most eyes fall on me as a likely candidate. Even so, I do not flinch; I am dauntless in body and spirit; by now my musical confidence has been tempered countless times in the unforgiving crucible of Mrs. Tiffin’s piano recitals. I do not betray my position, but continue resolutely up the aisle toward the dissolving knots of choir girls, toward the fresh snow, toward Christmas morning…
“All is calm, …all is bright…”
The author’s most recent collection of poetry, Little Stories by Michael Chrisman, is available here.