By Karen Jahn
As her head grazes the slanted ceiling, my granddaughter, Bitsy, decides that bouncing on the bed isn't crucial to her act. So she switches to horizontal movement: guitar strung across her body, loose hairs sweeping across her face, she belts out a song composed on the spot about a gypsy Cinderella. Her "chords" come steadily, her rocking hips move rhythmically, but in place of the angelic four-year old face, an authentic performer puts her feelings across.
Bitsy's performance takes me back to St. Louis, a ten-year old squirming in a neighbor’s living room, being called to the spinet piano to perform my newest piece for the gathered company. My mother’s bragging had led to this, so I was very nervous. But, once seated and playing, I lost myself in a simplified Beethoven’s “Fur Elise”. With each repetition I left the boring get-together for my own dreamy world. As the music ended, I was brought back into this awkward scene by soft applause. After I rejoined the other kids on the floor, a dorky boy whispered to me, “You aren’t so hot. You lost the beat and missed some notes. I could do better!"
It took a year before I was able to throw myself into performance with pleasure.
Unlike my mother, I am musical, so I wouldn’t set Bitsy up for such a fall. My role as Bitsy's grandmother provides distance so I can support her passion as well as show her how to play. But when I ask her if she would like to learn how to play guitar, she responds, “I already know how!” What would happen to that passionate performance if I contradict her? I’m hoping that she will gradually begin to hear guitarists play and want to study.
It’s not the first time I’ve recognized that even in my grandmotherly wisdom, I can’t protect Bitsy from disappointment. But in the meantime, her performance brought it all back to me—total commitment, confidence, and pleasure—the childlike bliss that we hope to discover in moments throughout life.
We have tokens of the childlike even now. One of my husband’s favorite photos of me was taken when I was performing in a chorus a decade ago. A full-time English professor, living half-time in two abodes two hours apart, with two adult children, and a steady habit of tennis, I am transfixed, caught in the moment of singing. My expression is both focused and relaxed, all features harmonious as I join my voice with the rest of the chorus. Unlike Bitsy’s performance, study brought me there: reading music, learning phrasing, dynamics, blending, and following the conductor. Vivaldi’s “Gloria,” a beautiful piece I first learned as a college freshman, came alive that evening, and the photo celebrates that intensity, so akin to Bitsy’s with her guitar.
Writer Karen Jahn of Spencertown, New York, was for many years a Professor of English. She now teaches writing workshops and is writing a memoir.