I had been dancing around the issue for months.
Did I want to sit in with the Aces, our local Cajun band in Chicago? Make my debut on stage with my accordion?
I wanted to be invited—and I wanted to play. Desperately. But I didn’t believe I could do it. The thought made me feel panicky.
I had fallen in love with the Cajun accordion four years earlier, on a birthday trip to Louisiana. I had been obsessed with learning to play ever since. But it was a challenge for a woman at midlife who didn’t sing or dance—and who had never mastered a musical instrument.
My husband (a fiddler) and I were part of a little group of aspiring Cajun musicians. Charlie, the accordionist and leader of the Cajun Aces, had taken us all under his wing. He’d been working with us, and now he’d started to invite people to join his band on stage for a song or two. Most of the others had already taken the big step.
“Sitting in” was a time-honored tradition in music circles, I knew. No big deal. Except when it’s your first time. And you’ve discovered you have a massive case of stage fright. Or performance anxiety. Or whatever it was that paralyzed me.
I knew my time was coming. Charlie told me it was about time I took a turn. John, the guitarist, joked that maybe they would each have to take me by an arm and drag me up on stage.
I’d been working on myself, trying to get past my fears. I found a self-help book for timid adult musicians, full of affirmations, like: “Music is a path and not a destination.” “Your music is the child of your heart.” A little New Age, but I was ready to try anything. I pasted some of them inside the lid of my accordion case.
I was a psychologist myself, so I should be able to figure this out, right? I tried to analyze my fears. I talked about it with my own therapist. I reminded myself of all the similar things I had done in the past, without fear: High school theater. College teaching. Public speaking. What was the worst that could happen?
The worst? Easy. I'd already worked it out. I had a vivid picture of looming disaster: I would pick up the accordion and then freeze. Or maybe hit the wrong button. Then silence, followed by terrible humiliation and—even worse—the sick recognition that I had managed to derail the rest of the band. The song would crash to a halt. All eyes would be on me, slinking off the stage in disgrace.
I found myself going to dances and then carefully avoiding eye contact with the musicians, whenever my husband and I circled near the stage. I figured if I didn’t look at them as we danced by, then perhaps I could sidestep the problem altogether.
But then something changed.
One night, a few of us were sitting around with the Cajun Aces at a weekend folk festival. John, the guitarist, told a funny story. The band had been playing at their regular monthly venue. During the break, John got off the bandstand and headed over to the bar, where a friendly Cajun dance regular hailed him.
“You must be new around here,” the dancer said. “Can I buy you a drink?”
John laughed as he told the story. He seemed to relish telling a joke at his own expense. So much for being a star in the local Cajun scene.
I laughed along. But then I felt something shift inside me. If John, who played regularly with Chicago’s one and only Cajun band, had gone unrecognized, how could I imagine that anyone would notice the five or ten minutes I spent on stage?
The truth, both deflating and liberating, stared me in the face. How well—or poorly—I played the accordion was of consuming importance to no one but me.
At that moment, I resolved to play, the next time they invited me. I even told John, so I couldn’t back out. So I wasn't surprised when I got the nod at the next dance.
Even though my heart was racing, I mounted the stage when they called me up. I couldn’t very well change my mind. Someone produced a chair. Charlie handed me his accordion, then picked up the fiddle. John, on guitar, gave me an encouraging smile.
When I took the accordion, it felt loose and unfamiliar in my hands. I felt more at ease with my own accordion, even though I knew Charlie’s was a far better instrument. Years of playing, hours of music, had been worn into the buttons and bellows. But it all felt too big for my hands.
I tried to get comfortable with the unwieldy contraption, but the bellows of the accordion seemed to be fighting me. The tension in the springs was different, too, and the buttons felt strange to the touch. I felt distracted by the clank of the buckles on the unfamiliar shoulder strap, hanging loosely to the side. The bulbous microphone attached to the front of the accordion didn’t help matters.
I needed another pair of hands to manage all this. Preferably hands that weren’t slippery with sweat, sliding off the buttons. And I had only a few moments to get oriented, one song to play. One chance to get it right. At least my ordeal would be over soon.
I had already picked the song: “The Reno Waltz,” a tune I first heard through the recordings of a well known Louisiana band, and then live at the Cajun Aces dances. I had been working on it, trying to get it right.
“Waltz time.” I heard Charlie’s voice, speaking into the microphone. It was my introduction—and a nudge to get started.
I depressed the first button, then pushed the bellows. The sound of the accordion steadied and startled me, all it once. That throaty call was familiar by now— but why did it sound so loud? And it seemed to be coming from somewhere else, filling the entire room. Of course—the sound was coming from two places at once: the accordion in my hands, and then from the speakers, off to the sides of the stage. Well, I had announced myself. No place to hide now.
I heard the sad waltz come out of the accordion, note by note. A few pick up notes to lead in, and then the verse. I could hear the other instruments jumping in, following me. The song flowed along—simple, but steady and methodical. Whew. I got through the first accordion break without any big mistakes, except for dropping one note. Maybe no one had noticed. At least I had maintained the rhythm.
Now I could sit back and listen to Charlie sing. “Ouais la place, que moi, je voudrais mourir, c’est dans les bras de mon ‘tit bébé,” he began. Yes, the place I’d like to die, it’s in my little baby’s arms.
But I couldn’t let myself get lost in the music, because I had to remember to listen closely for the fiddle break, and come in again at the right point, just as it was ending. Now—my turn again. John’s guitar throbbed, steady and uncompromising as a drum, anchoring the rhythm. The sharp ring of the triangle, lighter but insistent, also helped keep me on track. I suddenly remembered the dancers and looked out into the gym. People were happily waltzing around the room—to my music!
One more time through on the accordion, then I listened to Charlie sing the second verse: “Quand j’vas mourir, j’aimerais tu viens, fermer mes veux, ‘tit bébe, pour moi j’m’en vas.” When I’m getting ready to die, I’d like you to come close my eyes, little baby, so I can leave.
Then the fiddle break, and my final ride on the accordion. It was easier this time around, after the two earlier tries. The strange accordion had begun to feel almost familiar—not that I wanted to prolong this song. We were nearing the end, and I remembered to stick out my foot, to signal the rest of the band. Incredible—it worked. We all managed to stop at the same time.
“That was Blair Kilpatrick on accordion.” I heard John’s voice, along with applause—from the dance floor. In less time than it took him to make the announcement, I had set down Charlie’s accordion, stood up, marched down the steps at the side of the stage, and hurried over to my husband’s side. I had exited in record time.
My husband hugged me. My friends gathered round, offering congratulations. I had survived. I could hear the first notes of the next song beginning to sound, but I didn’t feel like dancing just yet.
I felt like flying.
I have told this story a few times and I included it in my book Accordion Dreams: A Journey into Cajun and Creole Music. But this is the first time I have acknowledged the obvious irony of a psychologist who can't heal herself with the "tools of the trade." It took the humor and wisdom imbedded in an off-the-cuff story told by a musician friend to do the job. It's a lesson I've never forgotten.
Causes Blair Kilpatrick Supports
Louisiana Folk Roots, National Alliance for the Mentally Ill, Habitat for Humanity/Musician's Village New Orleans, Doctors Without Borders