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The Accompanist

Beth was a quiet girl. Thin, too—she probably weighed less than that French horn she was always lugging around. She was the sort of girl who could have faded into the background. If, that is, she weren’t so very good at everything. As it was, people with her combination of dazzling talent and painful modesty were perpetually in short supply and high demand, and those with the chance to earn her favor took the opportunity and were grateful for it.

She hadn’t been planning on accompanying anyone. Three weeks before the Music Department Recitals, Beth’s schedule looked blissfully ordinary. Not empty, certainly—there were piano lessons, horn lessons, and the endless litany of church chores that always awaited the church music director’s daughter—but ordinary nonetheless.

Then the bassoon player’s accompanist fell through and choral soloists sprang up like dandelions as they realized that they needed to participate in the Music Department Recitals to earn their performance credits. The bassoon player and one singer turned to Beth.

“Could you accompany me?” the singer asked sheepishly, only a week and half before the recital. She had only just found out, to her horror, that vocal soloists were not allowed to perform a capella.

“Sure,” Beth replied, the rubber bands on her braces straining as she smiled. She looked over the music that the singer had handed her. “Yeah, I can learn this. No problem. It looks easy. Are you free Saturday morning? We should get together to practice.”

“Good idea,” the singer agreed. “Thanks.”

Saturday came. Of course it was Beth, not the singer, who knew how to play all the choir warm-ups on the piano. Beth, rather than the singer, knew how much warming up was enough before they started practicing the piece. And Beth, of course, was the one who knew what the tempo marking at the top of the piece meant; she knew how fast the piece was supposed to go.

And so she started playing the accompaniment, her thin fingers creeping and flying across the piano keys in a way that made the singer think her hands looked like spiders. The singer screwed up her entrance five times, trying to get used to the piece having an introduction. Beth was patient, indicating which chord told the singer she should breathe, and how to come in a couple seconds after that, while the piano was holding the chord.

After practicing the entire piece several times, Beth noticed that the singer was consistently skipping measures 58-65, and had to be reminded that that part of the piece even existed. The section was a slight variation on the parts before and after it, and the singer had, in teaching herself the piece, accidentally left those measures out.

“I’m sorry!” the singer exclaimed, frustrated with herself for making such a stupid mistake.

“No, no, it’s fine,” Beth assured her calmly. “Do you want to try to learn that part, or should I just cross it out?”

“I should probably learn it,” the singer mumbled.

“I can totally cross them out if it’s easier that way. You can just keep going from measure 57 to measure 66 like you’ve been doing. I can make the accompaniment work. If you want,” Beth offered.

“All right,” the singer agreed. “I think that would be easier. Thanks.”

“No problem,” Beth replied.

After nearly half an hour more of repeatedly practicing the piece, Beth pointed out to the singer, “You’re slowing down here, at measure 70.” She pointed to the music, and her chipped purple nail polish made her finger stand out against the white paper. “Do you want me to write in a ritard, or do you want to try and bring it up to tempo?”

“I don’t know,” the singer admitted honestly. “What do you think?”

“No.” Beth stood up, pointing one long finger authoritatively at the singer. Since Beth was the taller one, the effect of her standing, rather than sitting at the piano bench, was striking. “No. I’m the accompanist. You’re the soloist. You make the decisions, and then I go with them.”

The singer sighed. “Fine. Write in a ritard.”

When Beth asked if the singer wanted a grand pause at measure 72 to take a bigger breath, the singer didn’t even try to ask Beth’s opinion. “Yes,” she decided, though she really wasn’t sure.

Altogether, that Saturday morning’s rehearsal took about two hours. When the singer left, she thanked Beth for her time, and Beth replied with a “No problem” and a smile.

On the day of the Music Department Recital, it was Beth who wished the singer luck. The singer thought about wishing Beth luck in return, but Beth really didn’t need any luck, and she didn’t want to make it seem like she thought she did. The piece went smoothly, thank heavens, and Beth allowed the singer to bow and smile and accept the praise of the crowd. For her part, Beth faded into the background.

Afterward, the singer asked Beth, “How come you didn’t bow too? You did at least as much work on this piece as I did.”

Beth laughed, the rubber bands on her braces straining. “You’re the soloist. I’m just the accompanist.”



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