The Presence of Others by Joe Mills

In last month’s column I mentioned how I first encountered classical music on a high school field trip. We were taken to a ballet company’s production of The Nutcracker, in part, because a classmate had the role of the Sugar Plum Fairy. I know now what that means, but back then I didn’t. I was exactly like a kid in our neighborhood recently, who, when he heard a ninth grader had made “varsity first string,” asked, “Is that good?” Being the Sugar Plum Fairy? Was that good? I knew nothing about Tchaikovsky’s seasonal juggernaut or about the rigors and competitiveness of dance.

Natalie Böck in The Nutcracker, Ballett Augsburg 1988 via Wikimedia Commons
Natalie Böck in The Nutcracker, Ballett Augsburg 1988 via Wikimedia Commons

Our classmate was sweet, smart, and quiet. She and I grew up blocks from one another, and even now, thirty-five years later, I remember the name of her cat. I suspect that at that age I thought it was funny she was in a Christmas play, or whatever it was, but I was glad to get away from school. I kept waiting for her to appear, and then suddenly I realized that she already was on stage. She was that woman dancing. But she was so … different. Taller. Self-possessed. Elegant. Not at all like the girl who once when I asked her, “What time is it?” had answered, “Thursday,” and then giggled and giggled. Not at all like someone from our neighborhood. That person on stage was in control, in charge, and not mature as much as … mythic.

I’ve seen these stage metamorphoses many times since. In graduate school, I had a shy friend who rarely spoke in class, but who wrote songs on her guitar. She started playing at coffeehouses, and, in front of an audience, she would become a mesmerizing extrovert. At one show, I overheard someone, who had known her for a couple years, say with wonder, “She’s beautiful.”

Performing in the presence of others can have a transforming effect. It happens to me. When I give readings or teach, I often crackle with energy. I’ve been told that I sometimes seem like a talk show host on speed. People who see me like this are shocked that I consider myself an introvert, and that I prefer to hang out in corners at parties, avoiding eye contact and nervously snagging cookies, or that I prefer not to go at all.

As a writer and teacher, I’m energized by others, and I’ve been doing it for so long that I’m rarely caught off guard. Most recently it happened at an event when a woman in the audience spoke up after I had read a poem, saying, “That reminds me of one of my poems.” She then took out a notebook and read it. I said something polite after she had finished and then went on. Or tried to. After my next poem, she said, “Oh, I have one about that too,” which she proceeded to share. Then, not even waiting her turn, she said, “And my husband likes this one” and recited a piece from memory. I wasn’t sure if I was being pranked, or if I should start making requests like “Do you have one about dogs?” But, although it was surprising, the interaction amused rather than rattled me.

My composure, however, deserts me at the piano. It’s easy to get me to mess up there. Just sitting next to me will do it. When my wife does this, I stumble and eventually stop, too self-conscious to keep going. In fact, she doesn’t even have to sit or come close. I just have to become aware that she’s listening. Immediately I will begin to fumble and flail around.

Why, when in many ways I’m an experienced performer, does this happen?

For one, I lack confidence at the keyboard. I know that I don’t really know what I’m doing, and I know that other people know that I don’t know what I’m doing. So, although I play when the family is in the house, I don’t want anyone to actually pay attention. For another I haven’t put in enough time to be fluid and to move past mistakes. At readings, if I mess up, I keep going, even rewriting sentences orally as I continue, but I wasn’t always able to do that. It took years. And I’m far more flexible linguistically than I am musically. Once, because I wanted to “challenge” myself, I made a resolution to play guitar in public, something I had never done. A friend and his daughter let me back them at an open mike. I made a mistake in the middle of a song, got lost, couldn’t regroup, and felt like a spider shriveling in a flame. I turned my back on everyone – at least I think I did; it’s a blur – and waited for the song to finish. It was definitely a performance transformation. Someone said afterwards: “What happened? I have never seen you like that.”

It can be difficult to stay composed when someone is watching. Most of us become self-conscious in front of a camera. As soon as we sense a lens or gaze or microphone, our faces and voices and posture changes. We tense. We mug. We become altered. In fact, scientists have long recognized that the act of measuring something can change what is being measured. It’s called the observer effect. For example, checking tire pressure releases air from the tire and thus changes the pressure, and people can have an elevated blood pressure at the doctor’s office because they’re nervous about being at the doctor’s getting their blood pressure checked.

When we know people are actually listening and watching, we feel more accountable. This is why piano teachers like to insist on recitals; it ensures students practice and prepare. I revise and polish writing more thoroughly when I know it will be read. So, perhaps one of my resolutions for 2017 should be to play for others. After all, it would be nice to be able to get through a song with my wife listening. However, after considering this for a while, I’ve decided to not have it be an explicit goal. (One key aspect of resolutions is knowing which ones not to make.)

I have been trying to teach myself piano as a form of meditative practice, as an experiment to see what I can learn, as a hobby, as a “divertissement.” For now, that is enough. I want to concentrate on the pleasures of playing, not the pressures of performing. Of course, it helps in making this non-resolution that I have no fantasies about seeing a piano at a party, putting my brownie down, sitting and wowing people with a rendition of “Coffeehouse Boogie” or Tchaikovsky’s “Sleeping Beauty Waltz (arranged).” Besides, I don’t go to parties much anyway.


Joe Mills
Joe Mills

A professor at the University of North Carolina School of the Arts, Joseph Mills holds an endowed chair, the Susan Burress Wall Distinguished Professorship in the Humanities. He has published six collections of poetry, including This Miraculous Turning and Angels, Thieves, and Winemakers (2nd edition), and most recently Exit, Pursued By a Bear. Although he has achieved awards and acclaim for his work, no one, not even the most sympathetic and pitying, would praise the way he blunders through “Amazing Grace” or rudimentary piano pieces. Nonetheless, in his middle age, he has decided to learn piano, and he suspects that it has begun to change his life in unanticipated ways.

Read Previous Columns by Joe Mills

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