One of the clearest memories I have from my teenage years is a moment of shame. Not embarrassment, not guilt, but shame. Unlike most recollections from that period, this one stands out vividly, a sharp barb on my psyche bringing a painful stab each time my mind tries to glide past it.
I’ve decided to face this moment head-on and figure out what happened. I want to understand why, of everything that happened at that time, this is the memory that sticks out the most.
The moment in question happened at a piano recital I gave when I was sixteen. The year before the recital, I’d started taking piano lessons from Mrs. Brigitta Steidl. Piano lessons were nothing new to me. Mrs. Hempenius, with the requisite hairy mole on her chin, was the neighborhood teacher I’d taken lessons from as a kid. I switched to the aptly named Mrs. Keyes, the pianist at our Baptist church, as a young teenager. But these ladies were no preparation for Mrs. Steidl. She herself had trained as a pianist in Poland and Berlin. I never learned the story, but somehow she ended up on the edge of the Southern California desert with her radiologist husband and their two spoiled poodles.
She immediately started me on scales, arpeggios, exercise books, and lots of literature. She threw me into the deep end. Not used to the pace or expectations, I did my best, but I often floundered. Her feedback could be rough and sometimes brought me to tears.
I’ve saved the notebooks where she wrote my assignments for each coming week. As I page through them, I see her liberal use of exclamation marks and underlines. “Too many mistakes! – careful!” “Back to Book, and work on all accents! –“ “Wrong Timing, accent only 1st count! –“ … always something to improve. The occasional compliments flicker like gold in a stream long abandoned by real prospectors.
She entered me and other advanced students into many local piano events. My practice time increased as I prepared more and more pieces for juried evaluations, festivals, recording competitions, and other programs. She swept me along in her plans, and I obliged.
The solo recital took place midway into my second year of lessons with her. She was preparing serious pianists, and serious pianists gave solo recitals. It was a new concept to me and my family. This was inland suburban Southern California in the 1970s, after all, not New York City. My sister remembers that I sewed myself a new dress for the occasion. I see the dress in the three photos taken at the recital, but I don’t remember anything about making it.
The other thing about serious pianists is that they play everything from memory. I was used to this. Mrs. Steidl had made me memorize everything all along. I’d played pieces from memory for all the events she’d signed me up for thus far.
The first piece on my solo program was Bach’s Two-Part Invention No. 15 in B minor. These inventions are easy, and many piano students play them. Only 22 measures long, the piece was a fine choice to start with.
Or so I thought. I walked onto the stage, looked at the small audience, took a bow, sat down, and started the Bach Invention. About four or five measures into the piece, my hands couldn’t remember where to go. They just stopped. I quickly started over, hoping no one had noticed. But when I got to the same place, my hands stopped again, and, for a second time, my brain was of no help. My face got hot. My hands trembled. I hadn’t prepared for this. Mrs. Steidl and I hadn’t talked about such a possibility. I started yet again, realizing now that I hadn’t actually memorized the notes or the modulations by name or by visualizing the score. I’d relied solely on muscle memory, which is great when it works, but it’s unreliable and can get short-circuited…by nerves, for example.
I started over at least four or five times before I somehow pushed through the valley of the shadow of death and finished the 22 measures. By the end, I was devastated, embarrassed, and bitterly disappointed in myself. I’m sure my flushed expression when I bowed afterwards showed how upset I was, but the audience clapped graciously.
It’s a mystery to me how, immediately after that debacle, I played another Bach piece, then Mozart, Beethoven, and, after intermission, Schumann, Mendelssohn, MacDowell, and Rachmaninoff. I have absolutely no memory of the rest of the recital or the reception afterwards.
I also have no memory of what Mrs. Steidl said to me then. The recital was on June 6. I had a lesson on June 8, the assignment book shows, but it’s the only lesson in the notebook with absolutely no notes written by her. I assume it was a bracing oral briefing.
It’s so easy now to dismiss the Two-Part Invention episode. So you goofed up? Everyone makes mistakes! No, it’s deeper than that. You’re a perfectionist! That’s why it bothers you. No, I’ve always been more of a “close enough” person. Who remembers or cares? Of course nobody does. It’s not about that.
Then why was this episode so shameful to me that it blocked out all other memories of the day? After thinking about this for a long time, I have a double-lightning-strike theory.
The first bolt, so goes my theory, was the extreme stress of being the center of attention. I think about my shy sixteen-year-old self. I don’t think I understood just how uncomfortable being the spotlight would be. I’d pushed through nervousness at festivals and other group recitals, but a whole recital where everyone came to listen to me alone was a very different matter. The stress must have kicked in just as the recital started.
The second major shock came when I proved so incompetent on the first piece. Failure to this degree was, frankly, a new experience. I’d been good at virtually everything I’d tried up to that point. School had always been easy. I’d learned new hobbies quickly. I wasn’t the absolute best at sports, but I’d made first string on the teams I’d gone out for. I must have thought there wasn’t much I couldn’t do. But I’d met my match with Mrs. Steidl’s expectations. I’d practiced so hard and I still failed. Too bad this lesson had to be learned right then.
So there it is, a classic moment of shame and my best guess as to why it made such a deep impression. Does this processing lessen its sting? I would say yes. At least now I can linger on it instead of wincing and looking away. I can feel sympathy for that devasted teenager. I can see now that Mrs. Steidl pushed me too far too fast. Not to mention she bullied me.
There will always be some scar tissue where the shameful moment jabbed my confidence in the past. But even back then, the sixteen-year-old didn’t let the experience defeat her. Right after the epic mistake, she picked herself up and finished the recital. She showed up for her next lesson and didn’t walk away from Mrs. Steidl or the piano. She doubled-down on musical study and made it a core part of her life and identity.
I got out the Bach Two-Part Inventions recently. Number 15 is more difficult than I remember. I’ll keep at it.