Performing impromptu in front of friends and family has never been one of those things I enjoyed. Like a lot of FilAm kids (and likely kids from all parts of the world) my parents and relatives expected me to be able to perform at the drop of a hat. There was a certain prestige to having a child who could knock out Fur Elise perfectly at age 9 or be able to sing and sway to the old standards as well as put on the attitude for the newer songs. "Pressure to perform" took on a whole new meaning as child after child was called forward to do their best act for visitors.

My cousins and I balked at the repeated requests to perform for our grandparents and soon, the requests ended all together. Around middle school, my cousin discovered stage magic and I watched in horror as my father picked apart the performance, guessing how things were done even before the tricks were complete. I don't remember my cousin performing for us ever again even though I know he loved to juggle and do close tricks. I do remember being at my father's brother's house and being prodded to play something on the piano. Even though we didn't know each other well, I knew instinctively that my latest memorization of a Bach piece wasn't going to go over well with my hip-cool cousins and when they tried to sing one of the top hits of the time together, we felt embarrassment for each other.

The worst moment was trying to cajole my cousins on my mother's side to sing "Rainbow Connection" at our grandparent's 50th anniversary. We didn't want to be on display, didn't choose the song, or hated that we were never asked if we wanted to perform, it was just assumed we would. Didn't matter. It had to be done and we did it. A few cousins threw in songs of their own and we were a hit. We vowed never to do it again. We've all resisted at one point or another, and oddly, we've all volunteered to play or sing at family events. Well, most of us... actually, not me.

I freeze up in front of my family of origin. I feel the iciness of reproach on my shoulders, hear every wrong note played or sung, and most of all, I feel judged before I can even attempt to play. Performance anxiety doesn't even come close to describing the feeling. It's a combination of being on display, vulnerable to the insecurities of others who must criticize in order to feel important, vulnerable to other's fears that they didn't raise me right=bright=prodigy, and ultimately that I would, once again fail to meet the expectations and worst of all hear "Well, it was okay. Really. Good try," delivered with a distant look betraying a desire to high-tail it out of the hall before anyone else noticed all the flaws and trumpeted their children's triumphs instead.

Bitter? Not really. It's what it was. It still hurts and I flinch at the thought of performing in front of family. When the potential for stage time opens, I have to remind myself that I can choose to perform or not at any given moment, that I can give into the urge to unreel a tale for anyone willing to listen and it will be okay. Storytelling - that's easy. Singing, a little bit more difficult, but after singing show tunes two hours straight at the RWW residency last August after not singing for .... a couple of decades... I can say that it's easier than it was, but still harder than Telling.

But playing the piano, with all that piano playing straight-A-Asian-girl garbage and the fact I haven't touched keys, really practiced since before I stopped singing in church choirs. Just a little on my mom's piano... when I knew everyone was watching TV and I just had to feel the smoothness of the ivory, the resonance of the notes through the wood, the softening of tones with the press of a pedal... but nothing much more.

Until last night. My husband and daughters were there. My friends were there. The piano was there. And like we say in Improv, the moment became "Yes, and..."

I didn't plan it, which is good because then I didn't stress about it. The moment flowed from all beautiful music and stories Swil Kanim shared with my friends and family. My husband and daughters had each taken a turn playing tunes on their instruments, spur of the moment performances they chose because they wanted to share their gifts too. And the piano was open, keys white and smooth, and I thought, why not? SK had told us the story of the watershed moment in his life when he realized that he needed to play his own music to feel fulfilled. And I have this one song I wrote a long time ago...

So I started. I almost didn't. But I wanted him to hear my song, wanted to give back a little of the gift he'd given me. My hands shook and I couldn't remember where to put my hands. I stumbled within five or six notes. I rubbed my hands on my jeans and thought "Again!" - that Improv permission to start over. Again, I placed my hands on the keys and I got a little farther in the song. Again I faltered. I thought I should stop and give an apologetic shake of my head. Too rusty, I'd explain. It had been too long. But I didn't want to. I asked myself, do you want to do this? Keep going? Yes, I said, and I rubbed my palms on my jeans, put my hands back up and started again. Got a little farther. Shifted the song to account for the unexpected key change, shook my head when I hit a wrong note, muttered an apology and then kept on going.

There's a point in every performance, no matter how long or short that a performer realizes it's not going to get any better, but it's not going to get any worse. Swil Kanim came and sat next to me. I stifled a flinch, my reactions of yesteryear, but then I allowed his curiosity and openness to create a positive space, because I knew that was what he wanted to do. I breathed and chose Yes, Again. And again, and again, until the very last chord.

When I finished, I realized I played the best I could, didn't give up, and existed in a space where I was totally safe even though I trembled at the core of myself. I was repatterning my past, choosing a new future.

I don't know if I could play the piano again in front of others, but I give myself a better than good chance I might. Ultimately, though, I brought choice into something that was so painful before and that's started a change and healing within me.

All for the feel of the keys, for the song needing to be shared, and wonderfulness that is friends and family gathered in unconditional love.


Swil Kanim said...

Really though, what was at risk? The only loss could have been the denial of the moment.

Rebecca Mabanglo-Mayor said...


The risk was what was lost, or perhaps better said, what was given up - the old pattern/belief, and also the fear that what was being repatterned could not be sustained and evolved.

Denying the moment would have meant denying the gift of the moment and that's ultimately what helped me make a different choice. I didn't want that sort moment to be denied yet again, even if it /felt/ more familiar to do so.

Karen said...

It's amazing the patterns we allow ourselves to take on from our families of origin. Performance, at least of a certain level, was implied in my family and I, too (for years!) denied myself moment after moment so I wouldn't have to suffer the (I thought) humiliation of failure. Better not to try than to fail, was the message, beginning with the time I walked off the track, sure to win a 3rd place ribbon, but trailing far behind #1 and #2 and too filled with defeat to accept a "good try."

I loved your description of letting go of such patterns in a single moment. Lovely!