Friday, November 12, 2010

Finding the Gift in a Challenge

This article was published in the 2009 Fall issue of The Folk Harp Journal:

I know I am not alone when I say that I have experienced world class stage fright. At times it has been so bad that if I were playing my harp alone in a room with a mirror, and I saw my reflection, I'd make myself nervous.

Not being the type of person to give in to such a problem, I devised a way to help alleviate my distress. I decided to volunteer several times during the holiday season to raise funds for the Salvation Army by playing my harp at one of their red kettles. Towards that end, I chose a Salvation Army facility in a wealthy county, hoping that I could play in one of their up-scale malls with its beautiful decorations and wealthy patrons. However, I was told that the malls in that area would accept the Salvation Army volunteers only if they didn't make any noise. I then contacted the Salvation Army in the county where I live close to Detroit. The commandant searched until he found a mall that would welcome me. I was very familiar with it. It was an old mall with many vacant store-fronts and little traffic. Well, perhaps this was best, I thought.

The first time I played in the mall I was given a spot by a newer department store in an area which was nicely decorated. Traffic was sporadic and I began playing when no one was around. My hands were sweating and I stumbled a bit, but I kept playing. People began to walk up and drop change in the kettle. It was difficult to try and play and say "Thank you," or "Merry Christmas," and I would sometimes make mistakes. But guess what? The world did not end! No one told me I was a lousy harpist! Instead I received compliments as people actually stopped to listen.

People would wait for me to finish a piece and begin asking questions. This was a part of town where there were no orchestras, and no one had ever seen a harp. How much did it weigh? How could I play with all that weight on my shoulder? How long had I been playing? How much does a harp cost?

The most amazing experiences I had in the mall where with children. There was one toddler who broke away from her mother and charged me. Mom was terrified as she ran after the child, but the little one came to a stop next to me and stared - HARD. Her mouth open, she watched my hands as if in a trance through the entire piece, and when I finished she looked a me and giggled. I encouraged her to pluck a string, which she did gently and then looked at me and laughed with her whole body.

Another time a middle-aged woman was herding six children, ages approximately 5 through 10, through the mall. she told them to sit around me and listen, because this was a very special instrument that they may never see played again until they get to heaven. They all politely obeyed and listened intently until I played "Silent Night" all the way through. Then the woman in charge had them all thank me, and gave each of them coins to drop in the kettle as they left.

One little girl helped me with my stage fright more than anyone or anything else. I really messed up a song and had to start over. When I finally got through it, this 10 or 12 year old with thick glasses told me, "You play really pretty, when you don't make mistakes." It was so honest that I had to laugh. The angst I had been feeling about messing up disappeared into thin air.

At one point, after I told the Salvation Army commandant that I was getting over my stage fright, I was moved to a part of the mall that had much more traffic. It was in front of an old, run-down department store that had been replaced by a Value City. This was a bargain basement type store, and there were many people shopping there who were poorly dressed. There were just a few worn-out decorations and the lighting was dim. The amazing thing about this spot was that almost everyone dropped something in the kettle. It may only have been a coin, but more often it was a dollar bill. At times people had to wait their turn to drop their contributions in the kettle because there were so may people! I always received a wide smile and a kind word along with the contribution.

It occurred to me that the people who shopped in this mall understood what it felt like to be in need or close to it, and they were happy to contribute whatever they could to help. What a contrast to the up-scale malls that didn't welcome someone who didn't fit in with the ambiance they were creating for their wealthy shoppers. I've often wondered how many of those wealthy shoppers would have walked past my kettle without leaving even a coin, when they never would have missed a $20 dollar bill.

The hours I spent playing in that run down mall were some of the best hours I've ever known. It helped reduce my stage fright to a manageable level and I had the feeling that I was doing some good with my harp. I also received a most remarkable gift. It happened on the day my husband had the time to help me bring my pedal harp to the mall. I was then able to try some more challenging music, including the Bach Prelude which was often used for the Ave Maria. There were many pedal changes which made me nervous, but I wanted to challenge myself more than I already had. I had run through my repertoire a couple of times and was beginning to play the Prelude/Ave Maria a third time. Then, out of the air behind me and above my head, a deep, soft but strong African-American voice gently entered into the song as if to not frighten me. As our music combined he sang more loudly and I completely forgot that I was playing a piece I considered challenging. In that moment in the dimly lit, run-down mall, heaven touched the earth. People gathered around us with their hands held up to their hearts as my angel and my harp sang. I felt apart from it all, as if I were a member of our audience, and there was no fear - only joy.

At the end of the song, the singer came from behind me so that I could finally see him. As I stood to shake his hand, his towering form warmly embraced me as people gathered around the kettle to leave their contributions before coming to thank us. After everyone left, he went to the kettle to leave his contribution and then walked away. I noticed then the 1940's style top coat he was wearing. It was very similar to the type worn by Jimmy Stewart or Cary Grant. How fitting, I thought, that he should bring to mind those wonderful old Christmas movies in which angels played a major role.

At the end of that holiday season, I discovered that my greatest challenge as a harpist gave me one of my greatest gifts. I think about that often when I'm facing new challenges on the harp or in life. I hope that you, too, will look at your challenges in this way - as opportunities to experience things you've never imagined possible.