Lost, humbled, and found

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December 20, 2019

The big day has arrived: tonight, I will perform at my piano teacher’s Christmas recital. My two pieces include the second movement of Beethoven’s Pathétique Sonata, the “Adagio Cantabile,” along with an early 20th century romantic piece, “A Hermit Thrush at Eve,” by the American woman composer Amy Beach. To introduce the pieces, I have chosen two poems to speak: Yehuda Amichai’s A Quiet Joy for the Adagio, and a snippet from Mary Oliver’s The Leaf and The Cloud for the Hermit Thrush.

My teacher Marlene, Professor of Piano at our local Conservatoire de Musique, follows the protocol that, with rare exceptions, students should perform from memory. Although I’m pretty confident about the Adagio, I still encounter some memory slips with the Hermit Thrush.

Vaguely, I recall Marlene cautioning never to practise on the day of the performance, but rather, to play the pieces through once or twice, slowly, with the music. Today, however, I’m stubbornly intent on eradicating those sneaky memory slips. I practise for a couple of hours, but still find some difficulty in playing the Hermit Thrush all the way through without a mistake. Oh well, the slips are minor. I have already performed these pieces in public several times – at a retirement home, for my knitting group, and for my amateur piano group. Muscle memory will pull me through any glitches, I reassure myself.

Of the nine students performing tonight, I am the oldest – by at least 50 years. The youngest is an eight-year old boy; there’s one other young boy, and the rest are teenage girls. With a nod to my age, Marlene has placed me last on the programme.

We are playing at the Conservatoire, in the performance hall. The long black Steinway concert grand, its lid raised, waits majestically on the stage. Parents and friends in the small audience smile encouragingly at the students. My husband John and three good friends give me the thumbs-up.

The recital opens with eight-year-old Vincent, resplendent in grey pants, red suspenders, white shirt and blue bow tie. He is clearly delighted to be on stage. Perched on the piano bench, feet swinging above the pedals, he plays his two short pieces with gusto and beams mightily as he takes his bow. In turn, the other students bravely climb the stairs to the stage, bow to the audience, play their pieces and bow again before scuttling off the stage. They all play well, with no memory slips whatsoever.

My turn arrives. I feel confident and calm. I introduce the Beethoven, pairing it with a recitation of “A Quiet Joy”. The teenage girls sit clustered together, like sparrows on a line. They gawk at me and I can imagine them thinking: She’s so old! She’s so at ease!

As I am, at least for now. I take my time with the Adagio, and the music flows, steady and warm.

Now the Hermit Thrush. After introducing it, and reciting from “The Leaf and The Cloud,” I sit down on the bench. A niggle of doubt crosses my mind: should I play with the score? Pride intervenes. I shake my head and lay my hands on the keys.

I begin well enough, but the niggle of doubt quickly mushrooms. Less than half a minute in, I stumble and lose my place. As I struggle to recover, the notes fall around me like unconnected pieces of a jigsaw puzzle. Stopping, I turn to the audience. “I’m going to start again,” I tell them with a smile. “I’ve lost my way.” They nod back good-naturedly.

I start over, but once more, falter and stop. Oh dear. To hell with the memory protocol. “I need my music,” I say aloud, and scurry off the stage to where John is scrambling in my bag.

The music. My lack of common sense truly astounds me. I have brought the score, but in separate pages, and honestly, cannot fathom why I never taped the pages together, or thought to put them neatly in a three-ringed folder. False confidence? Blind ego? Just plain dumb? Probably all three.

Back on stage, I try to arrange the six separate pages on the music rack, which is designed to hold four pages at most. A scene akin to a Buster Keaton comedy unfolds. To make everything fit, I have to overlap the pages of music with the result that half the music is now hidden underneath one sheet or another. The last page keeps slipping off the far end of the rack, and finally dives into the piano to rest on top of the strings. “My goodness,” I mutter sheepishly to the audience. “I’m having quite a time up here.” The teenage girls stare at me, horrified: I am demonstrating their worst nightmare.

I retrieve the errant page and stab it back onto the rack, then sit down and attempt to play. But the overlapped sheets make it impossible to read the music and once again, my faulty memory trips me up. I turn to locate Marlene in the audience. “Marlene!” I practically yell. “I need your help.”

Coming alongside, she deftly places the first two pages on the rack and kindly whispers, “We’ll put up one sheet at a time.”

At last, I make it through the whole piece. Despite some raw croaks from wrong notes, the melody manages to sing. As I finish and bow to the audience, I can’t help but giggle: what a mess!

People are kind. They congratulate me on the poems, reassure me that the playing was fine, and praise my aplomb. Marlene has seen it all. “Did you practise today?” she asks, laughingly wagging her finger.

But here’s the most amazing thing. In the not-so-distant past, I would have been mortified with shame on making such a fool of myself. The actual experience was a revelation. Yes, it was embarrassing. Yes, it was humbling. At the same time, much to my surprise, I discovered an internal reservoir of light-hearted acceptance. Even more: love for the perfectly imperfect being that I am.

Now that’s a New Year’s gift worth celebrating.

Image by Steve Buissinne from Pixabay

While this poem by David Ignatow is not about music, its wry humour pretty much mirrors my experience.

The Bagel

I stopped to pick up the bagel
rolling away in the wind,
annoyed with myself
for having dropped it
as if it were a portent.
Faster and faster it rolled,
with me running after it
bent low, gritting my teeth,
and I found myself doubled over
and rolling down the street
head over heels, one complete somersault
after another like a bagel
and strangely happy with myself.

~ David Ignatow



  1. Maureen McGahey

    December 31, 2019

    Thank you Mary Lou.
    You were open to learning too which makes all the difference!

  2. Janice

    January 1, 2020

    Oh I too love your perfectly imperfect being Mary Lou. What a gorgeous role model for us all, to be humbled by our mistakes while at the same time accepting them as part of who we are. That is indeed worth celebrating!!! love you xoxox

    • Mary Lou van Schaik

      January 2, 2020

      Thanks, Jan. Feels like powerful liberation to be free (for the moment, anyhow) of negative self-judgement. xoxo ML

  3. Wendy G Sarno

    January 1, 2020

    Oh, dear friend, what a telling! And didn’t you model indeed what it means to be a true Elder, how to come thru the fumbling with dignity and humor and self-acceptance. I know how very important the music and the playing are to you. What a gift Mystery gave you to receive this Grace of being in a world where “stumbling always leads home” . One that you would not have received had it all gone smoothly. And what a gift you give the rest of us to share the experience. Thank you, from my fumbling, stumbling self.

    • Mary Lou van Schaik

      January 2, 2020

      Dear Wendy – Thank you for reminding me of William Stafford’s wise lines “stumbling always leads home”, and for underlining the gift of fumbling, the gift of being human. xoxo ML

  4. Lindy Ranger

    January 2, 2020

    Oh dear Mary Lou, what a wonderful telling of your experience . In the end a happy tale. Congratulations on your magnificent performance.And I heard that the pieces you played were truly beautiful too.

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