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It was one of those things to check off the list. I was sure sleeping with Charlize Theron wasn't ever going to happen, nor was climbing Mount Everest due to my paralyzing fear of Tibetans. But the one item I had a shot at was playing Carnegie Hall. While I wouldn't consider myself an accomplished pianist, nor would I place myself in the camp of "musician", I know my way around the ivories enough to get by. So when my friend Mitch asked me to help him write and perform a song at Carnegie Hall, I figured it would be my one and only chance to say I'd played that hallowed hall.

And this was my first mistake.

The concert was in early June and we began writing and practicing mid-January. Planning accordingly, with five months to write and master one song, we'd be absolutely amazing. Men would have tears in their eyes, and the women would throw themselves at my feet as I picked up the roses thrown on the stage. We'd be worshipped.

I'd forgotten to take into account one small fact. I absolutely hate performing. I'd rather have an ear removed without anesthetic. You see, when I get on stage, I become totally and unabashedly clumsy. All my extremities decide to flail in odd directions, which make it appear that I'm having an epileptic seizure and stage managers come running out with spoons to make sure I don't swallow my tongue. The last time I stood on stage, during a performance of Iolanthe with me playing the tortured and optimistically redemptive character of Chorus Man #4, I was asked by the director to stand in back of a plant for most of the operetta's dance numbers. What's worse is my mouth and brain become totally disconnected while on stage as well. For example:

I was elected (or forcibly volunteered) to give the "roast" speech at the end of my rowing team's year-end dinner. The speech usually makes fun of individual people, followed by the handing out of a cheap gift or trophy. And so, I found myself standing in front of my team mates, some of their parents, our coaches, the head of the Athletic Department, and several other high-ranking officials at the University and decided to give, what I thought, was a humorous and lengthy speech about a certain teammate's severe alcoholism. So bad was this speech that I used the term "I didn't know you could re-eat vomit." At the end, as I stared into the unblinking eyes of every single person I cared about and looked up to, and the past four minutes caught up to me in microseconds, I muttered the word "fuck" and walked away from the podium without applause or laughter.

Luckily, I wouldn't be speaking, much less singing at this concert. But what if my fingers collectively decided to hammer out the opening chords to "Back in Black"? I would have absolutely no control. Yet Mitch remained convinced I was the man for the job.

He'd written the lyrics a few months earlier, and titled the song "Mi Amor Estrañada" which was Spanish for "My Missing Love." Odd, being that neither he nor I are of Spanish descent, and don't have the barest knowledge of that beautiful language, but the idea of writing a Spanish flavored song was intriguing, if not intimidating. Making matters worse, we decided to stay away from the three chord structure of most songs. We had four chords in the opening verse alone, and those changed from verse to verse. The chords were so strange that we had to look them up to figure out how to write them out on the tablature for our guitarist. This was like running a marathon backward with weights on your back.

A week before the concert, Mitch got us into the hall in order to test the acoustics and run through the song several times. As I sat down at the grand piano and pulled the bench out, I slammed my head into the keys creating a loud and terribly horrific chord, though not unlike the ones we'd "created" for the song, with my forehead. Making a mistake like this now only increased my fear of what would happen once the seats of the hall were filled with people judging our every movement.

The concert was created by Mitch's vocal coach; a short woman who Mitch claimed was a renowned opera singer in Japan. It consisted of most of her students singing several songs throughout the program, with the proceeds going to the Red Cross. I'd assumed that the people I'd be sharing the stage with were high caliber musicians, and they'd see me for the fake I was. In our dressing room, the event organizer took us aside and told us how one of tonight's participants was also a jewelry designer and wanted us to wear several of his pieces while we performed. We were hesitant to change anything up just before game time, but thought we should at least placate the man and see his crafts.

Now, imagine taking a stone you've found on the beach or riverbed, hot gluing it to a twisted wire hanger, covering it with spray adhesive and finally pouring glitter on top of it. This is the closest approximation to the look of the jewelry he was asking us to wear. Putting this art project anywhere on my tuxedo would look like I stapled a pie-tin to my lapel. There was absolutely no way I'd put it on, as each time I struck a key, I would either slap my arm with the accessory or blind the audience should the light catch it right. We graciously accepted the jewelry, he left smiling, and we placed our chosen items on a shelf.

It occurred to me as I heard the audience filing into their seats that not only were my parents and their friends in the room, but my new girlfriend was too. And because of horrible planning on my part, they'd be meeting each other for the first time while I paced the halls back stage, wondering if I were going to puke or pass out. What if my parents told her embarrassing stories from my childhood? What if she told them that sometimes I put on a dress and make her call me Elizabeth? My stress was reaching the outer limits of my tolerance threshold.

I should have taken up smoking.

I should have asked for that prescription of Xanax.

I looked at Mitch and blamed him - silently - for everything that was currently wrong in my life. I was about to embarrass myself in front of some of the best musicians in New York City, my friends would shake their heads in horror as I defecated all over the piano bench, and my new girlfriend would discover my parents kept me in the Special Ed class until High School because I'd failed to understand tangrams and proper vowel pronunciation. All that I'd worked for throughout my entire life was about to come crashing down in a heap of sweat, blood, and piano wires.

52770014.jpgThe order of the program was pasted outside the stage door. We were fourth, preceded by several singers and one piano soloist. The piano soloist was Peng Peng, a 12 year old slightly rotund Asian boy who'd been breastfeed at the piano and hadn't left. His name, a repeated monosyllabic shout out to the instrument he'd hold so dear throughout his life, appeared just as "Cher" or "Madonna" or "Liberace" would in the program. There was no need to add to this kid's name; doing so would take away from what really mattered ... his talent. I'll admit there are times I wish my parents had taken the stereotypical Asian approach and forced me from a young age to master something - anything. Instead, I was encouraged to climb trees, explore the beach, and play soccer. Thus my hope at one day being an Oboe virtuoso was cut short by my parent's intense desire for me to learn how to make friends. I've regretted them ever since. Peng Peng, with his intimidating skill, would be opening the concert.

We had a television in our dressing room which had a closed circuit feed to the stage. We could see and hear each performance live. After a quick introduction by the organizer, Peng Peng was brought on stage to play his song. The kid was good. So good, that as his fingers worked their way over the keys, I swore I saw him lean in close and play part of the song with his tongue. Halfway through the song, I'd had enough and turned off the television. I didn't want to be the biggest disappointment of the night, but I was sure we would be. There was no way we'd be able to compete with these people. You've got the 12 year-old Stephen Hawking of the piano opening the show, and the rest of the night populated with folks who'd been trained by one of the greatest opera singers in the world. There was no room for a 26 year-old whose last public piano performance resulted in tears when he couldn't remember the opening chords to "Michael Row the Boat Ashore".

I remember the stage manager calling us to the stage. Walking out, I caught sight of my girlfriend, and thought she looked great in that dress, and I didn't want it to be the one she wore when she called me a failure and broke up with me, in front of my parents, later that night. I also remember my hand shaking over the first chord and it coming down correctly. That's it. The song finished, people clapped, and we walked off the stage.

No shitting of the pants.

No passing out.

No cracking my over-size head on the piano keys.

We'd made it. We'd played Carnegie Hall - to what level of success was to be determined. We never turned the stage television back on. We were happy we made it and walked around the block, slapping each other on the backs, overjoyed that it went well.

The concert ended and we made our way out into the audience. After formally introducing my girlfriend to my parents, a measure met with the ominous "oh, we've already met", I asked what they thought. My mom said, "We'll tell you later." This, in my book, meant that we were horrible. I never expected us to be mind-blowing, but upon reflection, I thought the performance was adequate if not reasonably good. But was it so bad that my parents couldn't find the right words to explain it? They needed time to properly craft their words? Had I missed something?

And I had. I'd missed a lot actually. We didn't see the other performances, save for Peng Peng's epic concoction of music and skill. According to those who witnessed it, and unfortunately paid good money to witness it, the other performances were absolutely awful. My mother claims to have thought about painful childhood memories to keep from laughing. My girlfriend, seated a row in front of my parents, stifled her laughter so much that she transferred it through forced coughing. At dinner afterward, they spoke animatedly about the horrors they'd just witnessed. One particular performer was so awful that he is, to this day, imitated at family functions and used as a measure of awful. As in, well you may have lost your job, but it's still not as bad as that one guy at Carnegie Hall. What's more, everyone praised our performance and said, without question, it was one of the best of the night.

We were asked to perform at the following year's event, an invitation we declined. Mitch, while still continuing his musical development, chose to put his efforts toward other facets of the industry. Me, I'd successfully crossed something off my list and didn't want to go through the stress hell that I'd experienced the previous year. Even Peng Peng had gone on a national tour and couldn't fit the small showcase into his schedule.

As the old adage goes, the way to get to Carnegie Hall is through practice ... and that isn't entirely true. Sometimes, all it takes is not shitting yourself while everyone you know is watching.

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9 Comments

Oh Echowood, you are too much ...

Great story!!

said CindylovesScara on February 4, 2009 2:08 PM.

On the other had, this submission is a literary masterpiece.

Encore, good buddy. Encore!

said Tim on February 4, 2009 2:34 PM.

errr, other hand. not other had.

... this is why I try to stick to quick commentary.

said Tim on February 4, 2009 2:36 PM.

I can't believe that you did not like my jewelery. The hours I spent getting each twist and speck of glitter with the correct placement. All I wanted was to impress you! I am a failure!

said Jonniewalker on February 4, 2009 3:11 PM.

Cindy, thanks as always.

Tim, I appreciate the praise and actually read the first statement as "hand" anyway.

Jonnie, yeah I've got nothing. Your jewelry was horrible and your design license should be removed.

said Echowood on February 4, 2009 3:45 PM.

bravo echo .. very well written .. you had me from "hello" .. author author !

said alex on February 4, 2009 7:00 PM.

Hhahahaha....that was a great story. Too funny. Thanks for sharing.

said Carrie on February 4, 2009 7:11 PM.

Awesome story echo. You got balls of steel man. I'd never be able to get on stage at Carnegie.

And this is from a man who used to get shot at for a living!

said Sheriff Pablo on February 4, 2009 7:42 PM.

Excuse me while I stand and applaud. Paul Dee is a fatty who only like the "roast" you can eat by the way.

said cleet on February 5, 2009 9:24 AM.
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