I may not be the most talented harp student but at my age, I have the most chutzpah

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I’m a 66-year-old harp student. Others in my class are five, seven, 10, 14… The next oldest is 30, tops. I fancy myself the sage elder, hoping that they see me as a source of inspiration, in the vein of, “You’re never to old…” or, “If she can do it, I can, too!”

Four years ago, when I first started out, I managed eight in-person lessons before the pandemic locked us down. For the next three years our spring recitals were a hodgepodge of students Zoom-playing for family and friends from the comfort of their homes.

I can play my entire repertoire flawlessly – when no one’s looking. But those three spring Zoom recitals generated performance anxiety for me, causing the occasional wince-worthy gaffe. Something about being watched and recorded, perhaps? But nothing too embarrassing.

But last year was a whole new ball game. That spring came with a real venue. A real audience. Harps galore on a real stage. An excited crowd. Clapping. Filming. Fidgeting folks. Coughers. A real recital!

The darling little performers were adoringly dressed in their party-best froufrou tulle skirts, fluffed up with their chiffon, pink lace and patent-leather shoes dangling beneath too-high chairs (in some cases), unable to reach the ground. Even I had the decency to dress up – although not in tulle – for this was a big deal. My first in-person harp recital! Lucky for me, though, that my patent-leathers reached the floor.

Performers sat amongst the guests beforehand, chatting and drawing excitement and energy from the buzzing-with-anticipation room. Regardless, I felt relaxed, gregarious and ready. (As ready as I could be considering I had rehearsed at home, rather than on site.)

To keep my nerves at bay, I gave each performer my full attention. It’s what I do in my day job as a motivational speaker. Rather than feign listening while I rehearse in my head one last time, I listened. I cheered them on to the point where, by design, I didn’t even know when it was my turn until my name was called. Otherwise, I’d be thinking, “Three more.” “Two more.” “One more.” “Yikes, me!”

One by one, up and down, my fellow students went – each playing superbly. I was proud of them like they were my own kids. Then, it was my turn. I was still relaxed. Confident. Assured.

But I struggled from the start. Somehow, I kept my fingers moving. Sound still radiated from the strings, but the melody was all wrong. (The harp is a forgiving instrument. Even wrong notes can sound melodic and purposeful.) But if anyone knew how Wild Mountain Thyme or Tammy were supposed to sound, they’d have known I was messing it up royally. Suddenly, glorious sunlight (after two weeks of rain) chose to beam through the concert hall’s windows during my performance. Now I couldn’t see! Couldn’t distinguish my red Cs from my blue Fs. But, hey, the show must go on, right? So I persevered.

I restarted both pieces three times, but my fingers played on without missing a beat. The second time I restarted the second piece I blurted out a half-baked, incredulous guffaw that sounded like a closed-mouth cough. I was beyond mortified. I was aghast. When I got totally lost for a few notes in the middle, on both pieces, I thought, “I don’t know what the heck this is anymore, but, hey, it sounds kind of nice!” Sometimes wonderful creations serendipitously can bloom from panicked improvisations. I kept thinking, “Make a joyful noise, regardless!”

I muddled through eight minutes that felt like eight hours. It reminded me of my competitive figure skating days. When I fell during my program and all I wanted to do was get off the ice, I’d hear my coach bellowing: “Get up! Get UP! Your music’s playing!” Those words sure came in handy on live-harp recital day, 2023.

Being the eldest in the room often makes people assume you’re the best or wisest. The truth, especially at that recital, was far different. But I would have awarded myself the gold for chutzpah – the courage, the nerve and the audacity to start playing a new instrument at 62, and then perform in front of a large audience.

Making music knows no age, and all players are welcome. Afterward, when forcing myself to think of something good about my first in-person harp performance, I realized that my lengthy life experience has taught me that the show must go on – no matter what worrisome world politics, health scares, uncertain economic times, topsy-turvy workplace dynamics or fragile personal relationships are occurring. Life’s music is playing! It’s my job to just show up and keep trying.

Nina Spencer lives in Toronto.

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