Competition Isn’t the Point

While she was in bed, trying to go to sleep, her sister practiced “Für Elise” on the old upright piano on the sunporch directly underneath her bedroom. Her bedroom was lined with windows: three in the wall next to her bed, three more along the wall at the foot of the bed, and one in the door to the deck outside her bedroom. As each note of Beethoven’s genius floated up through the floorboards and danced across her perception, it had its choice of which window to dance out of, away from her hearing as she gave herself to slumber.

Fifteen years later the teacher who had coached her so rigorously for the past two years declared her ready for the contest. Her piece was the second movement of a concerto by MacDowell, a truly awful piece of music, and not only because she’d been practicing it for an entire year and by now didn’t care if she never heard it again. The teacher could’ve chosen any part of the best piano concerto ever written, Schostakovich’s 2nd piano concerto in D-Minor, but Noooooo. He could’ve assigned her something sturdy, declaratory, even soldierly by Liszt or Chopin, but Noooooo. Or something melodic and haunting by Mozart, or Haydn, but … well, you get the idea. As awful as it was, she had tackled the MacDowell piece with commitment and fearlessness. She stayed with the bombastic and obnoxious opening chords that were utterly unlike anything about her personality. She tangled for months inside of the complex arpeggios with their monstrous fingering, until she got them all under control so her fingers could fly around the keyboard as if on filigreed wings. She circled round the dynamics and changes in pace and nuance, bringing every note into her bones and blood as if she had grown up inside of them and them inside of her.

The contest happened. Her stage fright held itself back sufficiently for her to get through in a way that earned her a second try, this time with an accompanist playing the orchestral part on a second piano. She was a finalist, one of only four contestants from the entire state to make it thus far in the competition. This was the closest she ever got to achieving her childhood dream of becoming a concert pianist.

A different contestant was destined to play his piece with the capitol city’s symphony orchestra, and she did not begrudge him because he was, quite simply, a better pianist than she was. She was disappointed, yes, because of course it would’ve been thrilling to win, but her disappointment in this was overshadowed by the horror of having her piano teacher tell her, after she played one of her own compositions for him, that she should stop writing music.

She stopped taking piano lessons, but she did not stop composing music. The music stayed with her, always, in her bones and blood. It came out through her fingertips whenever she got close to a piano. Fifty years away from her very first piano lesson she could still, when the mind slowed down enough to let the fingers have their way, play from muscle memory pieces she’d memorized at the age of eight. She taught herself basic chords on the guitar. She sang. She sang a lot – – in musicals, in operas, in choirs, and yes, even on stage with a symphony orchestra.

Today destiny has thrown her a bone, as she vocalizes just for fun, when she’s by herself at home, just her and the dog. Sometimes the dog sings with her. She likes to think that this is fun for the dog but in the back of her mind she really believes the dog is, in fact, begging her to stop singing.

Destiny is a jokester and laughter is the best kind of music.

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  1. This is lovely. It represents the millions of us – whether pianists or other musicians – who dreamed of a music career and slowly came to the heartbreaking conclusion it was just never going to happen. And how we all slowly learned to live with that and enjoy our musical abilities continuously but not professionally. Well done!

    1. Thank you Helen. I still think that kind of dream is a good one to have, even if only for a while — long enough to train us to go after what we want and to make the best of unexpected outcomes. Well, hopefully that’s a lesson we can learn, anyway.

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