I Played My Best for Him

One of my favorite Christmas songs as a kid was ‘The Little Drummer Boy’. The simple, insistent drum rolls, the intoxicating cadence, and the sentimental tale of a little boy who had nothing to give but a song – a small piece of self-created art – spoke to me more than any angels on high or Santas en route.

On one Christmas, my parents gave me a toy audio recorder – that recorded a couple minutes of sound, which you could then play back. I was too young for a proper stereo – and I don’t even think cassette tapes had come into play yet – so this little recorder was all we had. After all our gifts had been opened, and we were shifting into the lull of a post-Christmas morning moment, Mom suggested I try it out.

Suddenly I became shy and self-conscious – the budding stages of stage fright and a heart-bursting aversion to public speaking or unwanted attention reared its debilitating head. I hesitated and proffered excuses, saying I would do it later. Upon further pressure, I caved, but only on the condition that I could record a song alone without anyone watching.

Mom took me into her bedroom, where we sang ‘The Little Drummer Boy’ into the machine. Even then I was embarrassed and awkward about it – the pressure of performing, even if just for family, wreaked havoc on my nerves. Yet somehow I got through it, and my recording of the song was complete. We went back downstairs to play it for the rest of the family, and when it started I literally hid under a blanket – so suddenly bashful was I upon hearing my voice for the first time.

It’s a feeling I’ve never gotten over, and whenever I hear that song it is imbued with a slight bit of tension and apprehension, and a requisite sadness that accompanied more than a few childhood moments. An indication of what was to come, there was the voice that everyone heard, coming forth from some mechanized machine or computer – in someone else’s song, in a story, in a photograph – and the internal voice of a scared little boy, cowering from the world and begging for protection when none would be found. The safety of separation between the artist and the art – the perceived image of a man and the reality that will always pale beside it.

On that single Christmas morning, I learned more than I would from a whole year of school, and the knowledge would burden and terrify me.

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