I stand in the darkened anteroom, behind a curtain that shelters me from what is to come. My hands are damp, my mind is in tatters, though I try to rein it in. Focus on the first five bars, I coach myself. If only I can remember those first five, I’ll be okay. But my mind won’t stay where I try to put it. My mind creeps on fingers of it’s own, out from behind the curtain and into the room that stretches before us. My mind peers into the dark room where I can already hear the rustle of people waiting. Out there, in that immense dark room, my audience sits—trapped by their presence. There is no polite escape for them should my performance crash, as I so fervently hope it won’t. If I step out from these protective curtains and into that brilliant circle of light that awaits me and cannot launch myself into those first five bars, those people out there—my audience—will squirm uncomfortably in those plush, velour seats. My friends and family will clench their fists, the muscles across their shoulders will contract with the energy of willing me toward success. The critics in the crowd will relax into their seats and smile with the satisfaction of failure.
I notice the thump of my heart. Is that the opening tempo or is it merely the tempo of terror? Why am I here? Who am I trying to fool? I cannot do this. From the slit between the dark curtains, I can see my accompanist at the keyboard. He is there—poised and ready. I am here, behind the curtain, knee’s knocking, heart pounding, mind a jumble of incoherence. Every cell in my body screams, fleeeeee!
But I do not flee. Behind me a voice urges, it’s time—get going, now! My dress, is it to tight? Will my tummy pooch? Will the straps of my gown slide over my shoulders? Will my stage makeup—that seems to weigh my eyelids shut—melt into Dali surrealism? Go! Says the voice and a hand gently pushes me from behind. My head snaps up. I square my shoulders, I suck in what feels like the last breath of air I will ever inhale. My right foot breaches the curtains and somehow the rest of me comes along in it’s wake. I focus forward, my eyes glued to my reliable accompanist. I find my mark. Turn to face the room, the dark, now-silent room, and bow my head in silent recognition of what lies out there in the dark netherworld. My eyes are blinded by the stage lights and my mind has miraculously turned inward to the room inside where the staff of the first five bars are mimeographed in memory.
My left hand rises, the violin flies into position under my chin, my fingers already positioned above the strings. My right arm rises, hovers for the briefest moment, communing with the left hand—Are you there? In position? Ready to go? We’re off!
The first five bars emerge effortlessly. I have rehearsed them thousands of times. There is no way they could fail. During those five bars, the room and all its inhabitants vanish. It is only the broiling beam of light, Beethoven, the piano, and my violin. The notes fly past my eyes at warp speed. Halfway through the first movement my left hand over-reaches. Like a trained puppet, my right hand responds by skipping off the string for a micro beat, allowing the piano to erase my error. We continue, the piano, the accompanist, the violin and I. We perform, we reach, we stretch, we smile and we sigh. Beethoven has done all the work for us. All we need is a dark room full of people willing to suspend belief for 40 minutes.
The finale approaches. My mind coaches me, do not rush this! Take your time. Breath! And it is over. All that adrenaline, still engaged, rushes through me. I’d forgotten about my knocking knees, but now, as the lights come up on the room and a vast swarm of colorfully clad bodies before me, I find that my knees are knocking again.