A Dress Rehearsal for a New Year’s Performance

Nancy M. Williams uses an upcoming performance as a reason to finally share classical piano music with friends, inviting them to a holiday dress rehearsal.
Formal dress with necklace laid over it
Photo by Nancy M. Williams.

Ten days before Christmas, my schedule arrived for a conference I was to attend over New Year’s weekend in Charleston. For the classical piano music event, “Two Celebrated Performers,” one of the pianists would be Berenika Z, a dazzlingly named professional concert pianist who had graduated from Juilliard. Then I noticed, with shock clipping my breath, that the other performer would be I.

I stared at the Charleston schedule with a mixture of elation and fear.

The event called for us to deliver a lecture and to perform. During my six years taking adult piano lessons, I had played in amateur concerts and had delivered talks, but never had imagined that in my person, the twain would meet. I stared at the Charleston schedule with a mixture of elation and fear.

After 24 hours of morose paralysis in which I imagined myself flubbing while I performed in my sapphire-blue dress, I cracked open With Your Own Two Hands. To prepare for a performance, Seymour Bernstein recommended inviting friends to a try-out, which should be “conducted as seriously and formally as possible.” I thought about how when David and I hosted dinner parties, I felt too shy to ask my friends whether I might play for them. As a result, most of my friends in town had never heard my classical piano music.

The following morning, I fired off an Evite invitation for a Dress Rehearsal and Holiday Tea to 20 women in my town. Should Evite ping me each time a guest responded? I clicked no, hoping this meant I was coolly mature. I would check back in a few days for the final count.

An hour later, heart pounding with anticipation, I logged back into Evite. I already had two green checkmarks, signifying yes. “This sounds like a special afternoon,” my friend Pat wrote. “Wouldn’t miss this,” my friend Tessie exclaimed.

After five days of obsessively checking Evite, I donned my blue dress, dark hose, and black patent leather pumps. The doorbell rang. Waiting outside on my front porch were three women from my writing group. A dramatic black shawl, a blouse with glitter: they looked dressed up for my Holiday Tea.

The guests gathered in chairs loosely strung around my concert grand, which occupies, in its impressive bulk, the place of honor in my writing study. My short talk on Chopin—especially his advice to his students to be bold in their feelings—was easier than I expected. My writing buddy, Dionne, nodded with encouragement.

I launched into the sweetly heralding opening melody of Chopin’s Nocturne in E-flat Major. Less than five feet away, close enough to detect the slight trembling in my hands, Pat listened in my desk chair. There was nowhere to look without meeting someone’s eyes. If I could survive an audience so closely observing my playing, one of my most private acts of communion, the Charleston concert would be a cinch.

Bowing, I beamed at each of my friends in turn. I had not understood how much I longed to share my music.

Towards the Nocturne’s end, I flubbed the grand octaves cascading down the piano but managed to recover with a memorized reentry point. With a sense of gratitude I struck the opening F of Chopin’s Raindrop Prelude: it was my habit to play most of this music with my eyes closed. After my fingers sunk into the Raindrop Prelude’s final chord, my audience broke into applause. A feeling of utter happiness bloomed inside of me. Bowing, I beamed at each of my friends in turn. I had not understood how much I longed to share my music.

At Charleston, despite a palpable nervousness, I carried off the lecture and then coursed through my music with only a smattering of mistakes. Berenika Z thundered a stirring version of Chopin’s Revolutionary Étude. After the concert, we struck up a friendship.

Without a doubt, I would not have been as prepared for this new challenge without the benefits of the dress rehearsal. What took me by surprise was how much the rehearsal meant to me. In some ways, that opportunity to play for a gathering of friends turned out to be the real performance.


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