The Hospice music ministry volunteer coordinator called at the end of March and asked if I would play my harp for their annual Service of Remembrance in early May. Play solo harp, that is. For the entire ceremony. By myself. I could distinctly hear the ghost of Nancy Reagan whispering in my ear, saying “Just say no.” But thanks to my Three Non-negotiable Decisions, what I heard myself say was “Of course. I’d love to. It would be a pleasure. Thank you for asking me.”
She asked me to play 20 minutes before the service started, approximately 20 minutes while people walked from their chairs to place a white rose in a wreath in memory of their loved ones, and another 15 to 20 minutes while people left the hospital’s labyrinth courtyard where the service would be held.
Thanks to the past months of playing at the hospital hospice unit, I had more than enough repertoire to play for an hour. I selected a medley of Celtic tunes for gathering music. I’d been working on a long piece with a soothing melody in the middle section. My teacher helped me figure out how to introduce and then loop that section so I could play it multiple times during the wreath ceremony. I wrote a bridge to another soothing tune that I could play until the last flower was placed. I selected four of the contemporary tunes I play on the unit for the closing music.
Driving to the hospital on the morning of the service, I prayed for calm, and quiet and steady hands. I arrived early enough to sit in my car and meditate for 20 minutes. Following my breath, I found a place of alert and steady awareness, of easy breathing and quiet mind. I had plenty of time to load my harp and bench on my cart and walk slowly through the hospital corridors to the courtyard. I had plenty of time to set up and tune my harp, and to try the beginnings of several tunes, which warmed up my fingers and let me preview how the harp would sound in the brick-walled space. Hospice staff rehearsed the order of the ceremony, so I was clear on my cues to start and stop playing. The low gray clouds spitting rain finally lifted, and pale sunshine tried to warm my fingers. I peeled off my fingerless gloves and began to play.
On this morning I was blessed with an absence of fear. I was blessed with the focus of being of service to those who wished to remember their loved ones and ease their aching hearts. I was blessed with gratitude to be able to offer Music as a balm for healing. I was blessed with grace to play more smoothly and comfortably than I ever have before.
I had a few fumble-fingered moments, but on this morning I played through them without panic. A couple of weeks before the remembrance service I participated in Madeline Bruser’s second teaching call. That night’s exercise was to play a phrase extremely slowly, and let the sound enter my body without rushing to the next note – instead, to just let the next note emerge from the sound I was already feeling. The carryover from that exercise on this morning was trusting that the next note was on its way, was streaming towards me, was already present. I didn’t have to panic about finding it. I just had to pluck the string.
It really was a pleasure, and an honor, to play for the remembrance service. People stopped on their way out of the courtyard to thank me for playing, to say that the music was perfect for the ceremony. The hospice administrative staff offered enthusiastic thank you’s. But it was my friend and fellow hospice harp volunteer Dani who recognized what I had accomplished, saying “Today is a real milestone for you. You looked and sounded confident, and the music was beautiful. You would not have done this a year ago.”
Dani and I play together in the harp ensemble. She’s witnessed the fear freezing me, or making my hands shake so violently that I could not keep my fingers on my harp strings. She’s been recruited to be an “audience” at my lessons as I practiced breathing and moving forward playing a piece while my adrenal glands hijacked my hands and my memory.
During the worst of the performance anxiety, when I could not even play at my lessons without shaking from massive adrenaline overdoses, I told my teacher that I would not be doing this work, would not be persisting in staring down the terror, were it not for my completely unreasonable assurance that someday I would say, “Oh yes, I used to be bothered by performance anxiety, but not anymore.”
On this morning I took a leap into the reality where that is so, into the reality where I am fearless on the harp bench. Playing my harp without fear – it’s a blessing long sought, and an accomplishment dearly earned.