Recently this story was published in the CEILI, the newsletter of the SCMA (Southwest Celtic Music Association.) Here is my original composition.
In early July, I took a trip to Springfield, Missouri, not only to see my friends Jesse and Ann Owsley, but also to take part in a fiddle contest. This only happened at Jesse's urging, it wasn't something I just decided, spur of the moment. I played at one Invitational contest a few weeks before in Fort Worth that was really more of an exhibition, but prior to that, I had not played in a contest since June, 1995. Before that I had been the California State Ladies' Champion four times, so I am no stranger to fiddle contests.
So this weekend, I had no expectations, and no wishes other than to get through my three tunes without completely losing it, or stopping in the middle.
See, I suffer from stage fright. People might not know this about me, but that's the main reason that, after Weiser 1995 (the National Oldtime Fiddlers' Contest), I stopped playing in contests. I embarrassed myself so badly back then that when I received my score sheets in the mail, one of the judges had written on it, "What happened?"
Now the stage fright manifests for me this way: I get butterflies in my stomach, which is normal, but in MY stomach, the butterflies are not sweet little blue fluttering pretties, they are more like pterodactyls who start a very annoying chain reaction. First is massive self-doubt in my head, which makes me obsess about messing up on stage, which makes me more nervous, which makes my hands shake, which causes me to lose control of my bow hand. If you've ever seen or heard me play, you know that the way I play is seriously dependent on the control of my bow, with intricate patterns, bowed triplets, and delicacy of the Irish tunes I typically play. So my bow hand shaking uncontrollably causes a complete breakdown of my ability to play a recognizable tune.
Because of the stage fright, after doing a lot of research and talking to several other performers about it, I decided back in 2005 to ask my doctor about beta blockers. I was prescribed Propranolol, which is a commonly used medication for high blood pressure. I tried it, got used to it, and lo and behold, the butterflies were just butterflies!! No more pterodactyls!! It seems that the medication helps reduce the massive flow of adrenaline so that I can once again function. No obsessing, no shaking hands, no stopping in the middle of tunes!!
So back to this weekend in Missouri....
As I said, I hadn't really played in a contest since 1995, but I still know how it works. You register, you choose your tunes, you warm up, you make sure your accompanists know the tunes and arrangements, you check out the competition, and if you're me, you resign yourself to the fact that there's no way you'll even place "in the money," much less win, but you've committed to doing it, so you want to just play your best, and share the tunes you love with the crowd.
That was my plan.
So I had started out the day with a Bloody Mary, then I took my pill, I started warming up, had a bit of hard cider (I typically do better with a beer or two, maybe a shot of whiskey), and waited. After the PeeWee and Junior divisions played, the contest organizer asked Jesse and I to get up and play a few tunes, which I was happy to do - it's the best warmup there is, playing a few tunes on the stage, with the microphone, the crowd, et cetera. We played some jigs! It was grand. I felt good.
It was time for the Open Division. But then more waiting. I had drawn the number seven in the playing order. Lucky Seven! I had not timed it quite right, and the pterodactyls were tapping at the window. My head was starting to get to the obsess stage. Head it off at the pass!! Quick! I took another pill, knowing I had at least another 30 minutes till I played.
Meanwhile, after hearing our few tunes during the earlier break, a young guitar player named Benjamin came over to comment on the bouzouki and bodhrán, which were my accompanists' instruments. That would be Jesse and Jeanette, respectively. We ended up asking Benjamin to join us, so we went to run through my tunes, hastily taught him the chords, and ran back out to hear where the round was...there were a few more before I was up.
Sit, breathe, wait, breathe...butterflies...
Heard a great Texas fiddler, then a really nice Missouri fiddler, another sort of Texas style fiddler, and me thinking the whole time, "Yeah, I just wanna make it through without any massive stumbles."
"Contestant number seven, all the way from Dallas, Texas, Linda Relph!"
We head up, get situated, make sure everyone is ready, announce the first tune, a reel called Mason's Apron.
Second tune, Josefin's Waltz. Midway through I decided to only do it one time through, as it's a bit lengthy. So the ending was kind of choppy. No problem, moving on.
Third tune, Mouth of the Tobique. A French Canadian tune. I played it a bit slower, "swingy" is how I describe it. We GOT this.
No big messes, no massive sweat dripping (yep, that's another result of the stage fright...sweating on the chin rest is not great.) Head back to where we were sitting, put the fiddle and bow away, and commence to waiting.
After the last contestant played (don't remember who or anything, my brain sort of shuts down a bit after the nerves can finally take a load off), the winner of the Junior Division, Trustin Baker, took the stage to entertain during the break while Open Division scores were tallied. Trustin was the winner of the Invitational Contest I had gone to in Fort Worth a few weeks back, so the music was great, even if they did feel a need to play Swallowtail Jig. (Hmmm...wonder if they did that because of me??)
In any case, after they were done, it was time for results. Third place, John Williams, the nice Missouri fiddler.
Second place, Cody Marriott, one of the great Texas (contest) style fiddlers who was there. At which point I leaned over to Jesse and said, "We can probably take off, I'm ready when you are."
While I said that, I was in the process of posting on Facebook, "Got through my tunes without too much embarrassment. Doubt if I'll win anything." Hit the [Post] button.
Seconds later, I hear this: "And first place, all the way from Dallas, Texas, Linda Relph!"
After about five long seconds of looking around at the faces around me, I stood up, saying out loud, "Really??!"
I was waiting for someone to say, "Oh wait, no, I'm sorry, I read the wrong thing." Or maybe, "Yep, ha, just kidding!" But no...I walked up and passed the guy running the stage sound, and he said, "Yes, really!!"
I walked up on stage, shook the guy's hand, was told "Congratulations, go to the registration table for your check," and walked back down, (no trophy or anything), back to the ladies at the little registration table, who handed me the check with my name in the 'Pay to the Order Of' line...they weren't kidding!! I really won!! I was seriously speechless!!
I don't think it really sunk in until the comments started on Facebook. There were comments about that "Irish" stuff winning...?? Asking how could that be considered danceable by Missouri Contest Rules? And what was wrong with the judges? This didn't fit the rules!!
But I posted the result on Facebook. Actually what I said was "OH MY GOD!! I won FIRST PLACE!!" Throughout the evening I received congratulatory supportive comments and messages from fiddlers, friends and acquaintances from all over the country.
I celebrated a bit with Ann and Jesse, I will admit. We monitored the comments on Facebook. When all was said and done, my post had over 200 'Likes' on it, and the critical comments were diminished by all the congratulatory ones.
Then on Sunday, I came home to Chris, who greeted me at the airport with "Hey, champ!" I also got a great text from the organizer of the event telling me "Everyone I talked to, judges included, felt you were the best fiddler there. Your song choices were traditional, very danceable. You received some high marks and comments from some might fine folks that have played Missouri contests all their lives."
I cashed the check. I went back to work on Monday with a smile on my face. I am quite happy with the results, and now am more confident about my plans to go back to Weiser, Idaho for the National Contest next year to try and redeem myself.
And now I can tell the pterodactyls to leave me alone while I bask for a bit. :-)