Performing Under Pressure: After months of preparation, pianist struggles to deliver her best

By Willa Simmet 2008

An audition. Otherwise known as one form of complete and utter hell. I don’t know about you, but for me they can be as scary as falling into a pit of fuzzy rodents, naked.

I’m sure you have all experienced one in one form or another. You are about to read about my experience with the Allah, the God and Jehovah of all auditions, the IMTA piano audition.

It’s three hours before my scheduled audition time. I run through my songs over and over. I play them perfectly, but I worry that that they will fall into the nervous abyss where standing still isn’t an option, as soon as I enter that great hall.

I’ll have to whisper to the judge (I’m sure my voice will be gone) that I forgot it all. She will glance at me with a sympathetic, embarrassed face and tell me not to worry about it. I’ll have to walk out of there, or perhaps crawl, and as the doors slam shut everyone in the room will only be happy it didn’t happen to them.

I will grab my mother and stagger out of the building, chucking the judge’s copy of the music into the trash on the way out. Mom will try to tell me that it happens to the best of us, who cares about everyone else and that she loves me, but I’ll be so agog that I just wasted every minute spent practicing those songs, that most likely I’ll go into complete and utter shock.

I can see myself staring out the window refusing or perhaps forgetting how to move.

I tell myself not to worry so much but realize that that is entirely impossible. I have driven these four songs into my mind with a hammer and nails, but I worry that I will forget a chord and completely throw my whole performance off. Everything I had worked so hard for, for these five months would be nonchalantly dropped into the can.

I can see myself now, dropping from the sky into the large rubbish bin with a label reading “Those Who Tend to Fail.”

What if I cry? Oh my. I consider getting in the car and driving as far away as humanly possible from that burly, scary piano.

It’s time. The previous performer flies out of the double doors fretting because she forgot a chord. The judges’ assistant asks me if I am ready. I tell her the truth. She smiles and tells me to come. All I really want to do is interrupt the newspaper reading of the man with the white beard guarding the door of the performance hall, grab his hand and run. I just glance at the next girl who looks just as nervous as I do, and reluctantly enter the really, really big room.

The grand piano sits in the middle of the vast hall. My shoes clap the hardwood floor, and I nervously make my way over to the piano. I imagine Mozart and Beethoven sitting on top of the piano, threatening me with expectant eyes.

The judge tells me to take 30 seconds to warm up. My basket-case self can hardly comprehend what she means by that. I sit on the bench wasting about five seconds of what seems like an eternity, making sense of it all. My hands sweat and shake as I gravely place them onto the keys. I am almost 100 percent sure that I have completely forgotten what keys my songs are in. The musical alphabet paces from one side of my brain to the other.

I shiver. I tell myself not to think about how the songs begin. I’m sure they have been completely erased from my memory. I start planning what to say to the judge when I can’t remember where middle C is.

I play my first two songs, neither of which I ever like much. I do remember how to play them, but I stumble through a few parts. This is partly because I never felt these songs. My fingers had pranced from passage to passage hundreds of times before, but never had they made it to cloud nine, and that wasn’t going to change now.

As I finish my second song and wait for the judge to stop writing, I repeat just about every swear word known to man inside my head. I think about how much fun it would be to kick the piano really hard.

As my fingers, in their 10 little steel straightjackets, embark into the last half of the audition, everything changes. My body, heavy with nerves, completely lightens up. I begin the trek through euphoria.

It’s like my body was picked up off the bench and floated into an enchanting cage of everything good. I felt like I could do anything and everything. I could probably fly to the moon. The happiness is practically erupting out of every pore. As the high-pitched notes pour from the beautiful piano, the knots in my stomach become obsolete.

Those angry words I had been repeating three minutes earlier become words of beauty as I wait again for the judge to finish writing her notes.

Inside my head I tell the piano how much I love him. I tell him that we should run off to California after the audition. He agrees. Those first two songs matter no longer. I play my last piece, and I realize that this is happiness that every human searches for. As my fingers press as hard as they can on the keys creating a huge noise and then suddenly changing to a light flutter, I can feel myself becoming warm.

As I lift my fingers from the keys and make my way across the floor and through the doors, every single minute spent perfecting each note of music is worth it.

I look at the man with the beard and the nervous girl and smile. My mom gives me some chocolate and says all those nice mommy things. We walk out of the glass double doors into a world free of auditions for Willa — or at least until next year.

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