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Catalin Sandru — Unsplash

Powerful memories create a resonance in our lives. Like the effect of a pebble tossed into a pond, whose ripples expand outward and then fade, such memories transfer their energy before seemingly disappearing. But the energy of such memories does not actually disappear, but instead becomes incorporated into who we become — or choose to become. Such powerful memories are what I term to be self-expanding experiences, and it is such a memory that I share, here.

I attended an all-girls college preparatory Catholic high school run by nuns, and they ran a tight ship. But I was no stranger to discipline, wanted to go to college, and had the opportunity at this school to meet and interact with both local and international students, because of both the quality of education as well as the history of the school. In 1889, it had been a finishing school for girls, and in its modern college prep curriculum included music and art classes as requirements for graduation.

Thus, I found myself, in my Freshman year as a resident student, in the unpleasant and unanticipated predicament of having to participate in a school musical recital. My classes that semester included piano, and while participation on the musical recital was considered to be voluntary, my teacher made it clear that if I did not participate, the best grade I could hope for in her class would be a “C”. While this was clearly bribery, in my estimation, nevertheless, I was maintaining a high grade point average in all my classes, and a C-grade in piano would reduce my grade point average and therefore impact adversely on my college applications.

And so, looming before me was the knowledge that, in a couple of weeks, I would have to stand on stage before a full auditorium, present a short speech I had prepared, and then sit and play before them the musical selection my teacher had assigned me: Claude Debussy’s Reverie. (https://www.youtube.com/watch?v=QRjllL-MP0U ). As everyone knows, public speaking is considered a paramount fear, and I can attest to the fact that public musical performance eclipses that fear. And so, for those two weeks, I added to my full school studies every spare minute necessary to master playing Reverie, until I could almost literally play it in my sleep, by the day of the recital.

On the day of that musical recital, there were the usual feverish activities and preparations, and all my fellow students who were likewise scheduled to participate shared the same state of nervousness and sense of inevitability. By the time we all found ourselves waiting in the stage wings backstage, our excitement and nervousness were palpable. We could hear the auditorium filled with the voices and the sounds of anticipation from our waiting audience, as we quietly each waited for our turn on stage. Then the audience suddenly quieted as the nun who ran the Music Department stepped up to the podium to welcome our guests and announce the first performer. And so it began…

I watched with the other students from the wings, as each girl walked out to the podium, gave a short speech on an assigned topic, and then walked across the stage to the grand piano, basking in its bright circle of light. I remember feeling a sense of unreality — like this could not be happening to me — when, too soon, I was told it was my turn.

With no other option, I proceeded to the podium, and somehow managed to present my carefully composed short speech on my assigned topic, rhythm. The ocean of faces before me, all completely focused on me, was both terrifying and yet horribly inescapable. And so, having completed my speech — the easy part of this ordeal — I proceeded across the stage to sit at that big, black grand piano. I sat myself carefully and oh-so-self-aware, upon the piano bench, brought my hands up to the keyboard, and … suddenly realized I could not, for the life of me, remember the piece that just hours before I could have played in my sleep.

This realization — now in the dead and deadly silence of the auditorium, and captured in the prison of bright light on stage — was crushingly terrifying. I felt like I was burning up. Desperately holding onto an appearance of calm, I lifted my hands above the keyboard, and prayed that “body memory” would enable my hands to correctly play the opening chords. But, horror of horrors, only dissonance emerged. Now, truly feeling the flames of utter mortification devouring me, right there on stage, I tried two more chords, both also deadly wrong, and realized I could not save myself. I quietly stood up, walked around the piano bench, and took the seemingly eternal walk across the stage and back to the welcoming safety of the wings. I could not help but notice the stricken look on the face of the student who was assigned to follow my performance, and felt the extra remorse of having caused her additional nervousness. Nevertheless, I was now on a mission, and the remaining students made way as I walked past them to the connecting hallway behind the auditorium. I remember hearing the audience loudly murmuring among themselves in the wake of my departure, as the the next student was announced from the podium.

I walked quickly down the hall to the second story stairway, and headed to my dorm room on the far side of the building, where I quickly retrieved the music sheets for Reverie and, with only one thought, headed back to the auditorium.

I caused a stir among the remaining students in the back of the stage, as I threaded my way past them and announced to the next student in line that I would be going back onstage, before her. This plan was completely unexpected, and this element of surprise as well as my determination, neutralized any objections. As soon as the prior performer returned back stage following her performance, and before the next student could be announced, I quietly walked back onto the stage, driven by my determination.

Looking straight ahead at the piano, I walked up to it and sat, once again, upon that piano bench, this time placing the music sheets (forbidden for the performance) on the stand. I took one glance at the music sheets, and began to play, ignoring the music sheets for the remainder of the performance. I waited the proper time for the last notes to fade, and then quickly retrieved the music sheets, and without even glancing at the audience, quickly headed for the wings.

I only made it halfway across the stage before stopping, in shock, to acknowledge the standing ovation that the whole audience had suddenly, and completely unexpectedly, erupted into. I remember somehow managing to bow my head, smile, and say “thank you”, before completing my exit off the stage, followed by the applause that, to this day, so many years later, I will never forget.

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