The Journey

Stage Fright
By Chelsea Kwast

I never thought the day would come when I could sit in front of six college music professors, clarinet in hand, about to be critiqued, and not even feel nervous. Apparently, today's the day. In fact, I feel almost calm. Almost. It's a miracle, considering Mr. Carr and Mr. Smith aren't even here.

Rewind a few years. When I was 6, I took my first dance class. The year ended in a huge performance with the rest of the academy. Everyone else was excited but all I remember is begging my mother to let me opt out. The prospect of being onstage in front of hundreds of people terrified me. Fear won, and I ended up not doing the performance.

I started playing the clarinet when I was in fourth grade, and when I was 13 I began playing in the band at Eastmont Junior High School, in East Wenatchee, Wash. My family had just moved to East Wenatchee, so I knew no one. On top of that, I was homeschooled, self-conscious, and shy. I didn't necessarily want to be in band, but my teacher, Mr. Smith, saw my potential and encouraged me to develop my talent. At his urging, I signed up for lessons with a private instructor, Mr. Carr.

In the seven years since that dance class, my stage fright had not gotten any better. In fact, it got worse. I was fine as long as I was performing in a group, but even the thought of being in front of any number of people by myself made me physically sick. Unfortunately, private lessons meant solos in recitals and competition. If I had known that at the beginning, I probably never would have signed up. I did the performances only because deep down I wanted to get over my fright, even if I fainted in the process.

I do not remember any details of the first time I played a solo at a recital for Mr. Carr. However, I remember perfectly how I felt before, during, and after my performance. That's because I felt the same way for every performance: I was shaking, scared, and nauseous. Even if I could remember that particular performance, I would not be able to tell you how I did. All I could think of afterwards were all the things I did wrong and what could have been better. Back then, I had no idea how to give myself credit for the things I did correctly, let alone the things I did well.

You would think that school band, where I did not have to deal with solos, would be somewhat easier, right? Wrong. Mr. Smith challenged me in everything I did. I admire him now because he knew how to encourage students in a way that would be most effective for them.

While he was one of the best teachers I have ever had, he came with his own set of challenges. He was bipolar, and he had more bad days than good. I even came home crying at times because of some things he said, like the occasion he told us that we would never be good enough so we might as well not try. I took most of these comments personally, even though I knew I better.

I had more confidence issues between the ages of 13 and 15 than during any other time in my life. Because I was homeschooled, I spent most of my day at home with my sister. While I was at the junior high for band, I folded so far into myself that I seemed unapproachable. That was easier than talking to anyone.

As my freshman year progressed, and I began to assist Mr. Smith with the eighth grade band, my confidence started to bloom. I finally had a purpose and a task to accomplish. Some days it was simply to get music copied. Other days, if Mr. Smith was out sick, I directed the younger kids in rehearsal. Somehow, maybe without even trying, Mr. Smith was giving me a reason to be at school and self-assurance to get the job done.

I moved on from the junior high to Eastmont High School when I was 15. While my band life was changing, Mr. Carr remained a constant. He completely overhauled my clarinet skills, and helped me teach myself to play the alto saxophone. He also taught me more life lessons than almost any other person, barring my parents. He became like a grandfather to me. If I made a comment in lessons about being afraid, or nervous, or anxious, or any other similar emotion, he always enquired as to why I was feeling that way. My Mom once commented that I was always smiling when I came out of my lesson. By the time I graduated, I could not imagine facing a performance without him. He taught me that I did not have to be perfect. I just had to be proud of the effort I put forth.

I had roughly 15 solo performances under my belt when I graduated. I even made it to the state solo competition my junior year. My senior year I was vice president of the band, band member of the year, and won the outstanding instrumentalist award. I could stand in front of a group of people and play without feeling as if I was going to faint. The shaky, scared, nauseous feeling did not show up until five minutes before a performance, instead of five weeks before. The greatest evidence of this transformation came when I was finally able to walk away from a performance smiling.

I have not seen Mr. Smith or Mr. Carr in a while, but I know I am not done with either of them. They both taught me necessary lessons, sometimes in what seemed to be the hardest way possible. They helped me identify the problem holding me back and how to overcome it. My dilemma all along was that I did not think I was good enough. I did not want to risk putting my best effort forward because I was afraid that it would not be good enough for someone. Mr. Carr and Mr. Smith showed me, in their own unique ways, that the problem is not with everyone else. The problem, and the solution, lay inside me the entire time.

I have not seen Mr. Smith or Mr. Carr in a while, but I know I am not done with either of them. They helped me identify the problem holding me back and how to overcome it, showing me that my dilemma all along was that I did not think I was good enough. The problem, I learned, was not those initially terrifying audiences – the problem, and the solution, lay inside me the entire time.