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The Fear of Being Heard

June 15, 2012

Last week I finally found the courage to get myself and my accordion out to the local jam session, something I’d been wanting to do for a while. I am, if not a good accordionist, at least a somewhat competent one, and have been practicing from the set of tunes that the jam plays from.  The folk music scene here is very friendly and very participatory, I already knew a bunch of the musicians, and I want to learn to play with people, so it really seemed like about time to give it a try, all my introvert reservations aside.

We got there early, my three carpool-mates and I.  Folding chairs and music stands were set up in a circle on an old, faded oriental rug in the middle of the room.  The evening sun streamed through the windows as we set down our instruments (one fiddle, two flutes, one accordion) and trooped outside to play with the baby goats until more people showed up.

When the sounds of tuning and fiddling began to leak out of the weathered wall of the old workshop where the jam was held, we bade the goats farewell and went back inside.  There were a few good-natured jokes about the parade of young ladies (that would be us) finally deciding to show up.  I seated myself comfortably, emptied out my left pocket so my keys wouldn’t dig into my leg, settled my accordion on my lap and undid its bellows straps.

One of my flautist friends called for “The Wren,” a tune I know well.  The resulting music was like a wall rising to smack me in the face.

It wasn’t just that they were playing faster than I usually practiced, nor that their steady rhythm allowed no time for the correction of mistakes, though both those things were probably factors.  The tune swirled around me, shades of brown and red shot through with gold, and in the midst of it all I sat frozen.  I forgot how to read music, where my fingers were, how my keyboard was organized, how to make my reeds sound, almost the color of the sky.  The tune can’t have lasted more than a couple minutes but seemed like hours.  By the end of it I’d managed to free myself enough to find one or two of the right notes but I couldn’t move beyond that; I kept hitting D thinking it was F# and wondering why it sounded all wrong.

They played many songs that night that I knew: Maison de Glace, Pays de Haut, Angeline the Baker, Scollay’s Reel.  Thought I knew, I should say, for in every case the story was the same – my fingers couldn’t move anywhere close to fast enough and my mind had no idea where they needed to go anyway.  Such a change from the nights at home with just me and my accordion, when silence stretched out around me and the link between music, keyboard, and fingers was so clear it didn’t even bear thinking about.

Was it stage fright? I don’t think so.  I’ve had stage fright – I used to get it even when giving class presentations.  My stomach would churn, my heart rate soar, and my hands shake and fumble.  This was more like the daze the city throws me into when I get off the train after a semester away at college – all the right angles, shiny flat surfaces, bright rushing lights and noises and general lack of green combining to create a science-fiction world.

Aside from the sensory overload, I later realized, the other problem was that I couldn’t hear myself. I couldn’t hear myself because I wasn’t playing anywhere near loud enough, and I wasn’t playing loud enough because I was afraid of people hearing my mistakes, and I was making far more mistakes than usual because I couldn’t hear myself.  Perhaps it seems self-evident that playing an instrument relies on auditory feedback, but somehow that hadn’t occurred to me.  And so I fumbled quietly on, hitting all the wrong notes because without auditory feedback the buttons had no meaning. The cycle went on and on, with me unwilling to commit to any note because it might be wrong, and notes constantly being wrong because I wouldn’t commit.

I was afraid of being heard, of disrupting the shining cascade of music, and that fear overwhelmed everything else.

In the last hour we put away all the sheet music to practice playing from memory and by ear. In one sense this made everything harder, but in another it was freeing. Playing by ear has always involved lots of guesses and corrections for me, so I was on more familiar ground with my mistakes. And I’d relaxed a little as the night wore on, enough to be able to pick out the sound of my instrument among all the others as well as realize that nothing I could do would stop the music. Every time I messed up – and that was far more often than not – the tune just flowed around my flaw like a river around a rock.

The very last tune we played was the first I ever learned – a possibly medieval tune which survived in Scandinavia and is now frequently heard at contra dances in the region.  I know it by heart.  I played it with heart, and I could hear myself as one thread in the tapestry as we wove our music together.

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6 Comments leave one →
  1. June 23, 2012 9:38 pm

    Beautiful piece. Do you have synesthesia or were you just being poetic? Either way, your words described the music so well!

    I couldn’t hear myself because I wasn’t playing anywhere near loud enough, and I wasn’t playing loud enough because I was afraid of people hearing my mistakes, and I was making far more mistakes than usual because I couldn’t hear myself.

    That happened to me a lot when I played in H.S. band. By myself, I’d keep my own beat. In a larger group, I wouldn’t be able to hear myself and so follow someone else’s beat and as a result, always be just a teeny bit late.

    • June 24, 2012 12:19 am

      I seem to have very mild synesthesia – mostly associated with number sequences and music, and weak enough that sometimes it feels like I’m just making things up.

      In a larger group, I wouldn’t be able to hear myself and so follow someone else’s beat

      It’s been fairly reassuring to learn that this is a common problem. Like you I’ve also had problems with the beat – by myself I can slow it down if I need a little more time, but in a group it stays perfectly regular. Fortunately the solution, to make more music, is not exactly burdensome.

  2. June 24, 2012 5:47 pm

    This was lovely.

  3. April 6, 2013 3:57 am

    Might I ask what is the name of the tune you played last?

    • April 6, 2013 7:44 pm

      It has a lot of versions, and a lot of names! Most of them are some variation on “The Bear’s Dance.” I can’t remember where I heard its origin story, so I’m afraid I might have made it up, but it’s still a good tune – there’s some sheet music at http://thesession.org/tunes/4195 , though we play it more as a reel than a polka.

      • April 9, 2013 4:11 am

        Thank you, that link was a good read. It was the mention of Scandinavia that got me intrigued in the first place. A fun tune, reminded me of some an dro tunes for some reason. But what do I know, I don’t even have an accordion yet! Hope to read more of your accordion adventures 🙂

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