Woster: Panicking on performance led to music misgivings

"He accepted my resignation from the string bass but cautioned that I would never amount to anything if I quit everything."

Terry Woster
Terry Woster

If I had high school to do over, I like to think I would go out for vocal music and learn to play an instrument in band.

Those aren’t huge regrets, just things I wish I had done but didn’t because I was timid. I didn’t want to sing or play in front of people, you know?

Not doing those things didn’t ruin my life. It doesn’t haunt me. Occasionally when I see an old photograph of the Chamberlain High band or chorus, I think, “Hey, I’ll bet that would have been a blast.’’ Then I remember how just the thought of playing or singing in public created a huge, terrifying pressure deep in my stomach.

I suppose most people, the ones we like to call “normal,’’ have trouble understanding how intense my terror was. Normal people might say that waiting to perform in public put butterflies in their stomach. That is such a mild description of what I experienced. Waiting to perform? Just thinking about waiting to perform. It was enough to make me grab the latest novel from my science-fiction mail-order book club, climb to the top of the tree in the south yard and hide out for the rest of the afternoon.

I should have been a natural performer. My dad sang in the church choir and played accordion for dances. My mom played organ in church and piano for service clubs and dinner clubs around town. My older brother played baritone in the band and sang in the high school choir. He soloed, too, and won awards at multi-school contests. Both my sisters were in band and chorus. Both accompanied a bunch of vocalists at contests.


Imagine being the piano player who had to sit down at the keys in front of a crowd and play the introduction before attention shifted to the singer. I would have melted away like the wicked witch when Dorothy slopped her with a bucket of water in the “Wizard of Oz.’’

I quit band before I really started. In sixth grade, the high school band teacher, Charles Roberts, talked me into taking a lesson on the string bass. I was tall for my age. I suppose he thought I could hold the thing upright and pluck the strings. Against my will, under orders from my parents, I had had four years of piano. A person could be forgiven for thinking I could read music. I could not.

Mr. Roberts started out with “first position’’ and “seventh position’’ and other such gibberish as his left hand flew over the fingerboard and the fingers of his right hand plucked the fat, slick strings. After a single lesson during which I comprehended nothing, I said I was quitting. He accepted my resignation from the string bass but cautioned that I would never amount to anything if I quit everything. Harsh but not terribly unfair.

I kind of made it up to Mr. Roberts when I agreed to be drum major for my senior year. The graduating major, a neighbor, talked me into it, and the uniform fit. Later, Mr. Roberts invited me to join the dance band as rhythm guitar. That wasn’t bad. I kept the volume down on my amp and I ducked low behind the row of saxophones. My charts had chord symbols, not notes. That seemed like cheating. I should have been reading notes on an instrument that needed notes, not chords.

My vocal music career was shorter than my string bass experience. In grade school and junior high, everyone had to be in chorus. In high school, it was a choice. As my dad and the vocal instructor picked sweet corn one afternoon, I overheard the instructor say he would have me singing solos by the middle of my freshman year. I nearly fainted in the middle of the corn field. I didn’t go out, of course. I regret that.

It’s not a big regret. Neither is not learning to read music to play a horn or woodwind. It’s just that, when I think about not taking the opportunity to do those things in high school, I find myself wishing I had tried.

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