Well, I’ve decided that I absolutely hate watching individual events in the Olympics. Team events are awesome, but individual things completely destroy me. I literally wring my hands. I start breathing fast. And when I yell and shout, TB & Grey run for the front porch (Nothing phases Earl). You can hardly blame them. It’s generally pretty quiet up here. I don’t get excited to the point of yelling and shouting unless one of them has done something horrible and I’m furious. That doesn’t happen often.
It hit me yesterday that my visceral reaction to these events comes from a deep dark place inside of me. One that makes me shudder when I think about it. You see, I’m terribly competitive, but I hate competition. Makes tons of sense, right? I know. I know. I’m complicated.
I’m a musician. Even more specifically, I’m a pianist and was raised by my father to be a concert pianist. His dream for me was a lifetime on stage, playing the Masters for large crowds of people. I started taking piano lessons about the time I started to read. Now kudos to him, my first piano teachers were asked to help me love playing, not just learn the skill. My very first piano teacher – Diane Bonnett – lived on a farm and as much as I remember playing, I also remember learning about chickens and pigs, dogs and cows. We spent time at the piano, but we spent a lot of time outside.
Dad kept talking to me about the ‘killer instinct.’ Nothing, but nothing was to get between me and the goal. So I practiced. He wasn’t always there, so when I learned a piece of music, he gave me a tape recorder and I was expected to record it for him five times in a row without a mistake. Of course this was back when audio editing was impossible – especially on those wonderful old cassette recorders. Dad didn’t just expect me to be good. He expected me to be the best.
When I was in 6th grade, I went to small group contest and came home with a II for a flute solo. I was devastated because the judge hadn’t understood that the reason I stopped and talked to my accompanist wasn’t because I was lost, but because he was lost and was so far off of where we were supposed to be that I could no longer focus on playing. The next year, I started accompanying soloists and that experience forced me to become the best possible accompanist I could be. No solo or group would ever have be leery of having me at the piano.
For the next several years, I obeyed Dad and practiced. I spent hours at the piano learning whatever was put in front of me. I spent hours practicing my flute, because there were a number of girls just waiting to take first chair away from me. Dad wanted me to learn to play organ. That lasted … not at all. I couldn’t do one more thing and … oh … have a life!
My junior year in high school was pretty intense with me, Dad, and my music. Mom was a wreck. I cried a lot. Dad was angry a lot. As good as I was, I hated all of the time that it took. All I could see in front of me was hours and hours alone in a practice room, to end up alone on a stage so I could do it all over again and again. As competitive as I was (am), I wanted the opportunity to step back and let someone else have the limelight. That didn’t make sense to Dad. If I was that good, I should win … every single time.
Finally Mom was done and forced the two of us to talk to each other instead of using her as a sounding board. I told Dad that I needed to be done with this. It wasn’t my dream. It was his. I wasn’t giving up my music, but it could no longer be at the forefront of everything I did. He was crushed and really didn’t know how to even talk to me after that for a while. (We’d always had a tough relationship when it came to communicating. We lived through it.)
My degree is in Music Education and though I didn’t end up teaching, and though music has never been how I financially supported myself, it was so much better that way. I’ve always held really high standards for music performance, whether it was for myself, the choirs I directed, the groups I performed with, and worship teams I was part of. It was that killer instinct that still kicked in. Even though there was no one to compete against, I couldn’t be anything less than what I could be.
But those moments when I walked out onto a stage to perform a piece in front of judges and strangers, or in college for professors and students don’t always bring back joyful memories. The sensations that I feel when Katie Ledecky or Michael Phelps are slicing through the water come from those days of competition and required performances. The only thing I can focus on is the moment when it is finished. I did all I could do and it had to be enough.
Team competition? Now that’s a completely different story. My greatest, most joyful memories come from accompanying choirs and even soloists, from directing choirs and performing with worship teams and other musicians. When my competitive instincts are used to support others, the thrills that others feel when they’re winning a gold medal are right there, surging through my blood.
It occurs to me that this whole Bellingwood – writing stories thing is part of that team competition thing. Even though I’m writing in solitude, you would be surprised at the number of you who hang out with me in my head. I don’t write these alone and I really do think that I might be acting as an accompanist – a support system for the characters who have come to exist. I never want to be at the forefront of this process, I much prefer that the books sit out in front and I personally take a back seat to them. Dad would tell me I need to work on that competitive spirit, but I think there’s enough of that going on. I just want to do this job as well as I can. I will pour my whole self into it and it has to be enough, but I’m not alone and that’s the best part.
There’s a whole lot of individual competition coming up in the Olympics and I’m pretty sure I’ll be a wreck every single day. It’s probably good for my cardio vascular system. Good thing there are plenty of team sports so I can take a breath every once in a while.