Write On!

a minor

In Responses, Uncategorized on February 24, 2012 at 6:13 pm

by Tara Wiley

“No, not like that. This is not an etude, your fingers are not little drills driving out the notes! You make Bach shudder in his grave with your lifeless interpretation!” Dr. Branch waved his impossibly long arms through the air as he spoke, and the beautiful young student at which he directed his tirade swallowed a giggle.

She did not succeed in suppressing her yawn. Olivia had become nocturnal lately, a change that seemed inevitable as a member of the conservatory of music. Late evening concerts, either attended or performed, brought on an adrelanine-laced sensory overload. Calming oneself to sleep required a glass of wine or two, usually enjoyed by friends, along with philosophical conversations that wound well past Cinderella’s magic hour. Why Dr. Branch insisted on having a teaching schedule beginning at 8 a.m. was beyond Olivia’s comprehension. Surely he was not truly a musician, but a hypocrite hiding behind the overblown gestures and instructional shouting sessions.

She had only once seen him perform, at a fundraising event for the college. He was playing second fiddle in a quartet comprised of professors. They were tucked away in a corner, providing background music as the city’s patrons sipped wine and ate shrimp cocktail. The perfect place for a pretender.

As Olivia nursed this train of thought, tuning out Dr. Branch’s grating, desperate voice, her disgust blossomed into a reckless disrespect. Unbridled words sputtered out before she could restrain them –

“Why don’t you SHOW me what you mean? Stop telling, start showing. Can you even play this? SHOW me why I should respect your instruction!” She shoved her violin and bow at the reddening face of her middle aged professor, shocking both of them with the intensity of her verbal venom.

Paul Branch’s mouth opened and shut without sound. His pale blue eyes widened, then squinted as he processed the confrontation. What should he say to this privileged, foolish girl? This concerto, laced with his painful memories, just might be the death of him yet. Would telling his story simply be pearls before swine, or would it actually change her perspective?

The heat of his anger and hurt kept decision at bay. After what seemed an impossibly long silence, he took two steps back, then three.

“Out.of.my.studio.now,” he growled, accentuating each word through gritted, coffee-stained teeth, pointing a shaking finger at the door. Olivia, stunned at her own behavior, silently and quickly put away her instrument, grabbed her backpack, and dared one glance at her professor before ducking out of his office. The pain shadowing his face shocked her, and yet she could not find an apology. His weekly verbal attacks had wounded her as well, and she did not feel remorse for her behavior, even though she knew her disrespect was improper. She’d had enough of his harsh, driving approach. She longed for the days when her high school teachers saw her playing for what it was, a gift. This Bach piece was going to ruin her.

When Liv began working with Dr. Branch, she invited his instruction and even his chastisement as a challenge. The first year, she felt herself improving as she implemented his techniques. It irritated her that he didn’t take his own instrument from its case on top of the grand piano in his studio, but eventually she let it go. Until she began working on Bach’s famous violin concerto in a minor. What used to be constructive criticism disintegrated over the weeks into fingernails-on-chalkboard grating accusations. One day he even threw a pencil at the wall as he yelled at her. More often than not, she left the sessions feeling lost and confused rather than empowered and prepared for a week of improvement.

Paul watched her retreat down the paved walkway beneath her studio window, and memories flooded before him, drawing him back thirty years to the days when he was the young student pressing through tree-lined pathways, violin in one hand, messenger bag in the other. He had waffled between music and medicine for several semesters, dividing his time between two very different sides of the campus. The strain of both programs was intense, and late night telephone conversations with his father eventually led him to drop the chemistry and cadaver labs in favor of his first love.

Music is a cruel mistress, it is said, and she exacted her demands on Paul Branch over the years. He filled the cookie jar with earnings from the flashier jobs – session work, gigs playing in strings sections for touring artists – and put bread on the table playing in the city’s professional orchestra and lyric opera pit orchestra. Playing was not effortless for him, but he lived for the rush when, after hours of repeated struggle, the challenging runs would suddenly flow from the page through his fingers without thought.

The Bach violin concerto was his favorite challenge, and the day he was able to play it well from beginning to end brought deep satisfaction. He had a local recital coming up, and the conductor from the orchestra would be in attendance. Still young and idealistic, he felt this could be the break he needed to start a solo career. Feverish hours of fine-tuning each phrase brought him to the brink of exhaustion as the day neared. Bach haunted him awake and asleep. Notes danced through joyous melodies, sang and sobbed through ecstatic phrases. At times he wondered if he were going mad with his passion for the piece. He stopped answering the phone, stopped shaving, would have stopped eating but sugar lows made his hands shake. His accompanist became his slave as they spent hours playing the same passages over and over again, until she nearly threatened to quit.

He was awakened early the day of his recital, the telephone interrupting his fitful sleep just as the sun rose. He ignored it, stumbled to the shower, shaved the weeks of growth from his face, all the while humming  in a minor. As the second movement flowed through his memory, he wept. The phone’s incessant atonal ringing repeatedly interrupted his mental rehearsing. He took it off the hook.

He knew in his bones this was a benchmark day. Surely, as he recalled those moments, fate was laughing at him, knowing his sense of urgency was misdirected.

The moment before the recital, backstage, hearing the audience shuffling and coughing before his entrance… it was almost too painful to recall. He closed his eyes against it but the moment pushed forward, insistent. A woman he did not know took his arm just as he was about to go onstage, and delivered the devastating news.

The recital did not go on.

A year later, he applied for a professorial job at the local conservatory of music. Several members of the hiring committee had played in the orchestra with him, done some chamber music with him, knew his abilities. They hired him. He always thought it was a bit of pity that motivated them. He didn’t care. At least he would have a steady income to save him from himself, a reason to get out of the house. He would do all he could to teach without having to touch the instrument. He would live vicariously through his students who hadn’t lived a lifetime of pain in one moment yet. He would pour his pain into them and let it become music.

And so, he awoke, every day at the same time, the time the phone had first rung on that day, the day he ignored it, the day the sun rose but his father did not. He showered, he shaved, he dressed, he went to the college, he taught.

He told himself, he would never play, or even teach the Bach a minor concerto again. Olivia convinced him otherwise. And now, he regretted it. But he was committed, and he would see her through, even if it killed him. Even if it killed her.

He watched her walk, an arrogant saunter down the pathway towards her next class in her simple life. He watched until she was out of sight. A knock at his studio door startled him; the next student had arrived. He looked forward to the distraction of Paganini.

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