great neck high school
My brother’s mother in law recently got in touch with me. She is an enthusiastic, supportive person who loves art, follows this blog, and enjoys the rambling road of my artistic career. Peggy works at Great Neck high school, and asked me if I were at all interested in speaking to the students there. The moment I heard of the opportunity, I was on board. A quick conversation with the head of the art department confirmed the general theme behind their invitation: Come, speak to the students, and demonstrate to them that right brainers can do right brainy things- and afford food, too!
The art department was incredible. The students’ work was exhibited on every square inch of the walls, and the quality was stunning. The teachers were clearly doing a fantastic job, as the classroom had enthusiasm in the air. There was no question here of momentum- in fact, I found that my speech was only a matter of me catching up to what these teachers were already doing well.
And now, I pause this blog to bring you back to an event in my own high school experience. In tenth grade at Smithtown Christian School, I found myself, like most of humanity, to be terrified of speaking in public. I dreaded standing in front of an auditorium. I dreaded attention from groups. One day, in a dark auditorium, after hours at school, I set up my violin and began to play. The auditorium was empty, and so I played with force, allowing the deep dark notes to echo and reverberate off of the back walls of the auditorium. The soft, high notes stayed ringing in the air for many seconds after the bow finished drawing across the strings. As I played some tune by Dvorak, somebody called out “Wonderful! Now, you are going to play in the worship group with us.” The head of the worship music group had wandered in a back door, and she had been listening for a while. I instantly recoiled into my shell, a snail whose antennaes had been poked. She insisted that I play this coming Wednesday, in an evening service, in front of the whole church- several thousand members. I said no. She said yes. I said no. And on, and on. Finally, I said yes.
I lay awake at night, a trembling tenth grader, wondering what embarrassment lay ahead of me. I was going to play “We’ve a Song to Sing to the Nations.” I practiced it for hours and hours and hours, until I didn’t need the sheet music. I whistled the tune as I walked. I tapped the time while I leaned my head on the window of the bus. I was terrified. But then, it dawned on me that I would remain terrified of performing in public, until I did it enough times to overcome the fear. I had to do this.
I stood on the stage, and the director of worship walked up to me. “Oh yeah, Kevin, you’re going to have to begin the song when the spotlight comes on you. The room is going to be black, and then the spotlight will come, then you’ll play a few measures, all the other lights will slowly come on, and I’ll join in on the piano.” There I stood as the events of the performance unfolded, my legs wobbly, my hands sweating. Once cued, I took my spot, and set up the music. The lights went off, the room was black. I waited for the spotlight. And waited. And waited. It was absolutely silent. The women whispered from the piano “The spotlight must think you begin your solo, while it’s still dark. You’ll have to just start.” I responded with a trembling voice “But, I don’t know the first notes. I can’t see.” “PLAY!” she said.
I brought the tune to mind, and I began to play. Oh wonderful, divine muse, inspiration descending from Elysium, oh how my fingers became these young, nimble deer, leaping and jumping whithersoever they pleased. No, really, I was playing whatever came into my head. I played sharps here, now a few flats there, I trilled on the E string, the pulsing vibrato now accenting here, the spare open string there. Staccato in this spot, now spare trilling there. And as my fingers glided over the fingerboard, I reflected on the fact that I was playing absolute, utter nonsense. I was not even playing metered music, in time. I was lost, in the dark, and I was light years away from any melody resembling the hymn “We’ve a Song to Sing to the Nations.” If I had to name my improvised tune, it would be “We’ve a Stammering Squeak to Shriek to the Captive Peoples.” As I racked my mind for the melody to the hymn, my improvisation continued, and I cursed the spotlight guy, and I cursed the spotlight guy’s mother for birthing him, and I cursed Thomas Edison for inventing electric lights, and I cursed the inventor of the violin. After a minute or two of this agony, the spotlight came on. I could see my music. I played the first measures correctly, the piano boldly asserted the new melody, and the congregation sang forth in “And the darkness shall turn to dawning, and the dawning to noonday bright…” Relieved of carrying the primary melody, I now played harmony. The song ended, and I descended from the stage and melted into a puddle of shame. People came, patted me on the back, and said that it was kind of good, like, like in this one spot it sounded like a gypsy tune. I thanked them for their condolences, and headed out the back door.
As I stood in the warm night air, my face hot and flushed with adrenaline, I thought “The worst has happened. I could not have done any worse.” I was mortified.
The next day, people came up to me, and said “Kevin, you did really great last night. That was such a cool intro. It sounded like some type of Irish, gypsy tune. What a relief to have a break from the same, stale, Christian music intros. You really changed it up. You doing it again soon?” And the consensus was in- it actually pretty good. In my panic, I had reverted to the wandering, ambling dirges that I would play for hours on end in the solitude of my room. Though it wasn’t the hymn they requested, it wasn’t a catastrophe either. That same week, they had me join the music group as an official member, and I soon came to perform in front of several hundred students a week. After a while, I was invited to retreat centers upstate New York, to play a little hymn in front of several thousand. I joined an Irish ceili band on occasion, and played reels til my hand ached. Years later, I stood on top of a table in the middle of the Thanksgiving Feast at the Charles Cecil Studios, surrounded by a hundred Europeans who floated in our artist circle, and I played jigs and reels at full dancing speed.
I came to love performing the violin in front of crowds, and this led directly into me enjoying speaking in front of crowds.
As I stood in front of the Great Neck auditorium, I shared with the students about my art career, and the response was wonderful. Mark Twain said that speaking in public should be as fluid as speaking to your friends in the pub- I couldn’t agree more. I spoke about my paintings, my effort to receive classical painting instruction, my experiences in the art world, the time I spent teaching classical drawing to inmates in a jail- and the students responded. They laughed, they leaned forward, one student cried, the group seemed engaged. As I spoke, I reflected on how I once sat in their seats and was terrified of speaking in public. What’s more, I also had sat in their seats and had been terrified by the challenge of becoming an artist.