On the Art of Awkwardness

The Schubert Quartet performing in July 2011.   L-R: Jenny, David, Katherine, Brian.

The Schubert Quartet performing in July 2011. L-R: Jenny, David, Katherine, Brian.


The smell of sawdust and fresh paint lingered in the air. I sat with my quartet members in the dim light backstage, fidgeting uncomfortably in my chair, drenching the fingerboard of my violin in cold nervous sweat. The cellist was sitting on his hands to keep them warm, and the violist was studying her sheet music as if it was a contract with the Devil, promising her lifetime success if she signed her soul away.

It was five minutes to showtime, and it wasn't hard to tell that my quartet members were beyond worried something dreadful would happen on stage – they'd drop their precious instruments or they'd knock over a chair or they'd somehow completely forget how to play the cello or the viola or the violin.

They were worried about those scenarios. But not me. 

You see, after losing a nose goes game, I had very unwillingly been designated the master of ceremonies. I was supposed to banter with the audience and make jokes with them and introduce each song and ensure everyone could connect with us and make certain we were all having a good time and...each responsibility was like another cable being plugged into the atomic bomb that would be dropped when I walked on stage, spreading chaos and destruction everywhere.

I've actually always loved performing. I felt very much at home that day, sitting backstage at the free concert we were giving in a low income area of Atlanta, Georgia. But that day was also the first time I ever spoke a word on stage. I remember battling pitifully against the microphone stand, almost knocking it into the heads of the audience twenty feet below. Then I held the microphone too far away, so my words, if I could think of any to say, were completely incomprehensible. And then, of course, I held it too close, so the microphone squealed and screeched in protest the way most microphones do when they judge you unworthy of using their great powers of communication amplification. I lost track of how many times I apologized to that poor audience: “Sorry. Umm, yeah. This is awkward. Our next number is…”.

We gave a good performance, though, which somehow, in the audience’s minds, made up for my beautiful Oscars-ready emceeing skills. I did actually say a few unplanned things that were well-received by the crowd, and my fellow quartet members’ reviews turned out to be pretty beneficial. David said I was “super awkward, but it was funny because you were super awkward.” Katherine apologized for the nose goes game while invalidating her apology by laughing at the same time, and told me through her laughter that I “was kind of bad at being serious because you kind of go way overboard with being serious.” Brian found my microphone mishaps extraordinarily impressive and commented accordingly: “That was funny, you know. You should have told us you were going to do that on purpose!”

Well, after concluding that my quartet was very strange indeed and questioning why I was friends with them, I put their profound insights together and concluded the following:

  1. I should improvise because if I prepare serious stuff I just sound bad and awkward.
  2. If I can pull off improvisation, I can talk on stage confidently without drowning in my own sweat. (A beautiful mental image, I know.)

In all seriousness, though, that one performance and the rave reviews I received afterwards from my fellow quartet members completely changed my life. Fears exist to be conquered, and from lessons learned that day, I conquered one of my greatest: public speaking. Instead of giving myself headaches from memorizing and over-rehearsing, I improvised nearly everything. As long as I knew the material, I could pull off something successful. And because of the constant success I had, I became increasingly relaxed in front of audiences – I truly no longer worried about what other people thought of me – and what a great liberating freedom that is! I actually started having fun giving presentations and speeches. Never thought that day would come.

When I look back, I think about how fortunate it was that I almost gave the front row audience members concussions with that microphone stand.