My son, seven at the time, froze at his first piano recital. I’m talking about the stuff of recurring nightmares some people would have for the rest of their lives froze.
It was the typical recital set up. Students sat in a row ranging from ages seven to 18. One by one, they faced the audience, stated the name of the piece they had prepared, then sat at the piano and played. The room was full of proud parents and grandparents ready to burst into applause.
Sam was the fifth student in line. He played the first 40 seconds of the song with no problem while I proudly recorded his performance from the first row. Then, in the middle of his rock and roll version of Old MacDonald, his hands stopped. They didn’t skip a note or simply pause for a second. They stopped. My muscles tensed as if preparing to get up and help. I knew it wasn’t my place though. His teacher was in the chair nearby anyway. Surely she would do something.
The teacher didn’t help. I looked at my husband. No, he whispered. This isn’t your show.
Sam started the song again, but froze at the same spot several more times. I put down my camera and glared at his teacher though there was nothing she could do. This was Sam’s performance, I tried convincing myself. Not hers. Not mine. This isn’t my show, I repeated silently. This isn’t my show.
Okay, fine, if it wasn’t my show, then why was I sweating so profusely you’d think I were the one sitting at the piano starting the same song for, yes, the sixth time now.
My parents were there. My husband’s parents were there. I couldn’t look at any of them because in my mind, I had failed. I didn’t make him practice enough, I thought. In my attempts to let him take some ownership over the whole practicing process and not be the helicopter mom that I sometimes can be, I trusted Sam when he said he was prepared. I should have pushed him more, I thought. I should have been more than a helicopter, I should have been a 747.
I felt sick, like I might faint, as Sam started the song yet again. That’s it, I thought. I will faint and take the attention away from Sam. It will be an act of heroism and motherly devotion that he will remember for the rest of his life.
From her chair, Sam’s teacher advised him to start again from the beginning. The beginning! What good was coming from starting at the beginning? Sure, she had been a piano teacher for three decades, but come on. My boy needed help. That I didn’t sit next to Sam and put my fingers over his to play the right notes should go up there with the greatest examples of self-restraint in all of motherhood.
Sam eventually made it through the rest of the song, bowed, and took his seat. We, his parents and grandparents, were extraordinarily proud that he had not run straight out of the room like I imagined I would have done in his place. And of course that was the issue right there. Sam had shown all the strength and fortitude any parent could wish for a child in that moment. But I was too busy projecting how I would have felt sitting on that piano bench. I couldn’t seem to separate myself from Sam—I was Sam, Sam was me.
Unfortunately, the next 45 minutes of the recital were excruciating, even worse than the performance itself—at least for me. Sam reclaimed his seat among his peers and stared ahead while other students took their turns. I was anxious to see Sam’s eyes, but he wouldn’t turn around. I wanted the warmth and love on my face to tell him that botching up the rock and roll version of Old MacDonald was okay. That his ability to stick with it until he got it right said more about his character than anything else possibly could. Why wouldn’t that rascal let me do my job?
I’m not proud to admit that I distracted myself from worrying about how Sam might be feeling by hoping somebody else’s child would make some kind of glaring mistake. I didn’t want Sam to be the only kid with an imperfect performance, I thought at the time. But I know now I also didn’t want to be the only mom with a child who had made a mistake. I was making the entire recital all about me.
“I messed up a little,” Sam said when he found us afterwards.
“But you stuck with it,” I reminded him. His grandparents said variations of the same thing. We all did the dance of trying to keep him from any shame and embarrassment. But Sam didn’t need our worrying and protection. He didn’t need our anxiety, our helicoptering, or our attempt to shield him from any discomfort. He certainly didn’t need me to imagine how I would have felt if I were him. Because I was not him. And that was a good thing. Because my little boy was a self-possessed person who was taking responsibility for his recital. It was his show.
“Can we still go out for ice cream?” he asked.
And off we went. I knew at that moment that the blessing of this botched piano recital was learning to have faith in my son and learning to have some faith in myself as a mother. I feel confident that given the chance, Sam will make it through many of life’s songs, no matter how many do-overs and false starts he has to endure along the way. I wish that same confidence for my other three children. I wish it for all of us.
Nina Badzin is a freelance writer living in Minneapolis with her husband and four children. “Blessings of a Botched Piano Recital” was the piece she performed as a cast member of Listen to Your Mother in the Twin Cities. You can read more of her work at http://ninabadzin.com and connect with her on Facebook and Twitter.