I was eleven when I landed my first gig.
My piano teacher, a giant among piano teachers in our town, had somehow secured a slot for several of his advanced students to play at an international arts and music festival downtown. It didn’t seem to matter that I didn’t see myself as advanced enough to entertain a crowd who wasn’t there to see me, personally. I was given the date, time, and material for my performance, and told that I would be there. I was assured once and then again that even though my teacher himself wouldn’t be there, many people would love to hear me play.
And so it was that I found myself in my Sunday best in a dusty festival tent on a sunny fall afternoon. Art patrons, dressed in touristy shorts with cameras hanging from their necks and freshly-squeezed lemonade in their hands, wandered tent to tent; ethnic music floated above the din as other (perhaps less reluctant) performers did what they were trained to do on other stages nearby; the smells of curry and oregano and yeast made their way to the music arena from the many food vendors throughout the grounds. As appealing as the sights and sounds were, I did not want to be there. Not then. Not like that.
My only consolation was that the song I had prepared and memorized was a crowd-pleaser. It was just lengthy enough for listeners to envelop themselves in the melody, but short enough to leave them wanting more. It made its way up and down the keyboard, using every one of the eight-eight keys before the final chord was struck. Everyone loved it, and everyone always requested that I play it again. It had already become my specialty, of sorts, when I played for family and friends.
On that day, with that crowd, I knew that I would have to be particularly good – particularly loud – particularly entertaining to show that I belonged there. While I didn’t want to be there, I was fully aware that not only my reputation was on the line (as it was certain that friends from school would be passing by my central stage at some point), but also that of my image-conscious teacher hung in the balance. He was not there, but everyone knew we were his students. Everyone knew that we were there representing him.
When my turn came to step onstage, I did so carefully, my Sunday shoes clicking obnoxiously as I climbed the steps and walked to the piano bench. I took my seat and began to play.
I wish I could say I knew things were going to go wrong before they did, but that was sadly not the case. I didn’t realize that I wasn’t playing on a full keyboard until my right hand thunked painfully onto the frame of the keyboard instead of the higher keys. As I realized what was happening – that I was supposed to play a song for which I did not have an instrument – my heart dropped into my stomach. Beads of sweat ran down my back as the eyes of hundreds bore into me. My hands trembled. My mind raced. What was I supposed to do? The song required – required – the entire piano keyboard, but for all of his drilling and preparation and reminders, my piano teacher had failed to make sure that we, his students and representatives, would have a full-keyboard on which to play.
I did the best I could. I muddled through by playing essentially the same three lines of the song over and over, hoping beyond hope that no one could tell how abysmal the moment was for me.
My teacher – the one upon which I counted to lead me and teach me – had told me what to do: when and where I needed to be, and what song I would be playing. He hadn’t cared enough, though, to make sure I had what I needed, and I was left in the lurch in an extremely awkward and embarrassing way.
My version of the song finally ended, and I walked back down the steps, legs trembling as I made my way to my seat in the audience. I wanted to disappear. How stupid I must have looked. How bad I must have made my teacher look. What would people say? What would he say?
Honestly, I think it is that memory that haunts me today. Today, I frequently find myself stepping up onto a stage, my steps pounding obnoxiously as I make my way to the center of the stage. My heart pounds and sweat trails down my back and my throat is dry every time as the eyes of hundreds bore into me.
What I fail to remember, though, in those moments in the spotlight, is that my Teacher – the One who landed me the gig – who instructed me and called me and told me what to do – is there this time. He has not sent me somewhere that He will not be. He has not put me somewhere without the tools I need to do what He has asked.
This time, the One I represent is there onstage with me.
This time, the One who called me to do this is still speaking to me even as I do it.
This time, the One who got me there is there, and this time, He has supplied me with more than enough to do the job.
This time, He is my instrument. This time, He is my song.