Learning to Breathe This work is considered exceptional by our editorial staff.

May 22, 2014
I have practiced the Prelude to Bach’s Suite No. 2 hundreds of times; my fingers play the sixteenth notes with ease, as though the music is air and my fingers are lungs. But today, my usually loose, amethyst-colored gown feels tighter and my fingers shake, not glide, along the smooth wood of the fingerboard. The sorrowful melody does not come to me automatically, and it takes me a few seconds to remember the last five chords. But today is not yesterday, a week ago, last month, or the month before—today is the National Bach Festival of Michigan (NBFM).

Three months ago, I competed against thirty string players and received honorable mention in the prerequisite to the NBFM, the Regional Bach Festival. I can still hear the laughter of the audience when I stopped halfway through the Prelude. When I told my cello teacher what happened—that I dropped my bow during the most climatic section of the piece—she shook her head and reminded me, “Practicing alone isn’t going to help you in real life. If you want to be a performer, you need to play in front of others. Don’t pay attention to the audience or the adjudicators. Just play.”

Just play. Those two words make the Prelude sound as elementary as “Twinkle Twinkle Little Star.” I breathe in the icy, evening air and waddle with my cello through the snow-covered campus of University of Michigan. My feet carry me toward the distant cacophony of tuning musicians, and once inside, I warm up and wait behind the stage.

A subtle tap, tap, tap on my shoulder startles me, and I turn around to see a spritely old woman with flaming red hair. Her fish-like eyes widen and her mouth begins to move so fast that I can barely understand a word she is saying.

“Sorry. Didn’t mean to scare you. Nadya Emsky, right? Your adjudicator isn’t coming tonight, so Mrs. Bernsheen will take his place. Be careful, though. She’s a dragon; they say she breathes fire if you play a wrong note. Oh, and they’re calling you up on stage now. Break a bow!” she calls out as she disappears around the hallway.

My heartbeat pounds as I enter the stage. Mrs. Bernsheen does not look like an evil dragon-lady. In fact, her white bun, blue eyes, and beige pantsuit remind me of my grandmother. She smiles warmly and asks, “Would you introduce yourself and the piece your playing?”

“My name is Nadya Emsky, and tonight I’ll be playing the Prelude to Bach’s Suite No. 2.” My voice may be a barely audible whisper, but my body feigns confidence as I pull the bow across the strings. My fingers shake at the beginning but relax as I reach the main melody. For a brief moment, I forget about Mrs. Bernsheen, the blaring stage lights, the audience, and the time I dropped my bow. The music is air and my fingers are lungs.

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