Broken String

March 10, 2009
By Ellen Burns SILVER, State University, Arkansas
Ellen Burns SILVER, State University, Arkansas
6 articles 0 photos 0 comments

When American History rolled around, I was still clueless. Mr. Gnirob (who on the first day of school made clear that, yes, he was from Germany and the 'G' is silent) babbled on and on about how depressing the Depression really was, while I kept trying to come up with a piece to play. The class period flew by, probably because I was in my own world, and unsurprisingly I still had nothing.

'Don't forget to watch a movie for this quarter and write a brief summary of it. It's due one week from Friday,' he announced.

I pulled out Mr. Gnirob's list of acceptable movies, which he had passed out at the beginning of the year, right after he clarified the origin and pronunciation of his name. I surveyed it, trying to find a movie I hadn't seen yet. As I scrolled down the titles, 'Schindler's List' popped out at me. I remembered seeing it last quarter, and the music was absolutely beautiful. As the theme began playing in my head, I realized that it was probably the most moving thing I had ever heard. I have to play this for the competition.

This was my chance. For so long I've had to sit back and watch, while others claimed all the glory. They would smile and bow as the audience went wild, screaming, 'Encore!' and 'Bravo!' This year, I was going to be on the other side: the one up onstage, tastefully accepting the audience's praise, while acting like my performance had been effortless. It was my year to shine.

The Young Artists Competition was a big deal in Austin. I anticipated getting to participate in the contest every year, but my violin teacher always said, 'Not this year.' Maybe, if I kick it up a notch or two, she will have a higher opinion of my violin-playing ability.

'I can't wait another year,' I told Mrs. Maria, my violin teacher. 'I am going to be off somewhere at college next year, so this is my last chance.'

'I'm not sure, Jacklyn. We'll have to see.'

'I'll do whatever it takes. I promise I'll practice like crazy; I want this so badly,' I pleaded.

Two years ago, a nineteen-year-old played Mozart's Clarinet Concerto in E Flat. Last year, a sixteen-year old won with the Tchaikovsky Concerto. How am I going to compete with that? I thought. No. Don't do that to yourself. You're just as good as them.

I leaned over and jabbed the eraser of my pencil into Taylor's arm.

'Ow!' she wailed, rubbing the spot.

'Sorry!' I whispered. I had already gotten in trouble with Mrs. Mallard once today for talking, so I had to be extra careful. ' I'm going to play the 'Schindler's List' theme for the competition.'

'That's great!' she said. I knew she hadn't seen 'Schindler's List' or heard the soundtrack before, but she was always there to support me. She was the ink in my pen, the sugar in my sweet tea, the marshmallows in my cocoa; she was Taylor.

Taylor and I had been best friends since the fourth grade. We shared a plethora of physical qualities, but we also shared a love for the arts, which was why we both attended Austin Arts Academy. I was interested in music, obviously, while she was involved in film. She lugged a camcorder around wherever we went, which some people like to tease her about, but I thought it was actually pretty cool. Also, one of the benefits of our friendship was, since we were so 'artsy' and creative, we gave each other great birthday presents.

'Yeah, I thought of it today in history class, of all places. I guess Mr. Gnirob can be pretty inspiring.'

'Did your violin teacher say you could enter?'

'Well, not exactly, but she will. Give me time.' Taylor let out a giggle that seemed forced. 'Is everything okay?' I asked, sensing something wasn't quite right.

'Well, I have a project in film class due really soon and I am majorly stressing about it. I have no idea what to do for it.'

'I'm sure it will turn out just fine. You're usually able to pull things together at the last minute.'

'Yeah, but I hope I stumble over some inspiration soon.'

I was ecstatic when I told my parents that I had decided what to play, but, unfortunately, they weren't as enthusiastic about it.

'I don't know, Jacklyn,' my mom said. 'You know that everyone will compare your performance to Itzhak Perlman's.'

'Nobody can play it like Itzhak Perlman. That's why he's the one who played it. I am going to try my hardest over the next month, though. And I love the song, so practicing will be fun, instead of work.'

'It's a big risk, but if you want to take it, we'll be behind you,' my parents said. I guess that was good enough.

After school the next day, I stopped by Marvin's Music to pick up the sheet music. As soon as I got home I wanted to start learning it. I had been listening to it through my iPod in the car until I could sing it by myself, so I would know how every note was supposed to sound when it came time to play.

I set the music on the stand and turned it to the 'Schindler's List Theme.' After sliding my shoulder rest on, and coating the horsehair of the bow with rosin, I checked to see if my violin was in tune with the piano. Placing my bow on the 'G' string, I let my body take over. The smooth, slurred bowings felt natural, while I let the weight of my arm transfer every time the bow moved up and down. Though my fingers got tripped up on some of the runs, I still had goose bumps as the last note echoed throughout my bedroom.

I ended up practicing for about two hours. By the time I was done, residue from the rosin had accumulated on the strings and fingerboard, and my fingertips had black indentions from where they had dug into the strings. That's about how every night that week concluded. When I wasn't playing, the tune bounced around in my head, trying to escape, but it had no such luck. During school, I would sometimes find myself fingering parts of the song on my desk, or even on my palm.

After a few more weeks of intense practicing I was able to close my eyes while I played; my fingers moved from muscle memory, lightly floating from string to string. It also gave me a chance to listen closely to intonation, so I added in dynamics to keep the piece interesting. Mrs. Maria had been guiding me along the way, and she seemed like she was pleased with the progress I'd made.

'This is coming along quite nicely,' she told me as I was packing up after a lesson.

'Do you think I'm ready yet?'

'It's not completely polished yet, but you are at a good place right now. There's still two more weeks left.'

'So I can do it? I can enter the contest?'

'Well, of course you can. You've been working your butt off. Which brings me to what else I wanted to talk to you about. You are very persistent and driven, which are good qualities to have, but I don't want you to wear yourself out. Your determination and dedication are admirable, but every artist needs a break to recharge, and when they come back, they're better than ever.'

'Okay. I guess I'll go see a movie or something this week.'

'It is coming along, though,' she said as I walked out the door.

'Do you want to see a movie tonight?' I asked Taylor the next day at school.

'Actually, I have a big project due tomorrow, and I still have a ton of editing to do.'

'Another one?' I asked. I missed seeing my best friend.

'Yeah, Mr. Barker's killing us. He' s cramming all of these extra projects in at the last minute for this nine weeks.'

'Bummer,' I said, trying to be sympathetic.

'You're telling me.'

When I got home I went into the bathroom to trim my nails. Since they grow fast I have to cut them about every other week. As I clipped away I noticed the thick calluses that had formed on the tips of my fingers. I poked them with my thumb, but they were numb. I looked up and saw a stranger looking back at me in the mirror. My eyes drooped from lack of sleep and my frail body contrasted with my arms, which had become defined from holding my violin up for such long hours. My brown hair was frizzy, because it hadn't been cared for in a while, and my face had become pale, since I had reduced the hours I spend outdoors.

After dinner I lay in bed to rest my eyes before practicing, but I didn't wake up until morning. I woke up feeling rejuvenated. For the rest of the week I felt strong and my nightly practices were extremely productive. At my last lesson before the audition, Mrs. Maria fed me words of encouragement and said that I had surpassed her expectations. She wished me the best of luck and left me with these wise words, 'Winning is learned, but succeeding is earned.' The statement echoed in my head as I drove home.

It was Friday, and the Young Artists Competition was Saturday morning. My feelings toward it shifted from excitement to nervousness. I increased my practice time, fearing that I was not as prepared as I had previously thought. As I sat down to practice there was a knock at the door, and Taylor strolled in and sat on my bed.

'Hey. How's it going? I wanted to take a rain check on that movie. I'm done with all of the projects.'

'Um. Actually, I kind of need to practice. The competition is tomorrow morning, and I think I could be more prepared than I am.'

'You've been practicing a lot lately,' she said with a concerned look on her face. She mirrored my mother, who had been worried about me for the past few weeks as well. I'd been so tired of having to explain to everyone.

'I'm fine, ' I argued. 'Practice makes perfect.'

'I have an idea!' she exclaimed. 'You can practice, and I can film it. That way you can practice, and we can still hang out.'

'Oh, no,' I said immediately. 'I'm not ready yet.'

'Please. You won't even notice I'm here.'

'Well, okay. I guess so.' I was too weary to argue. It would only be a waste of precious time that could be better utilized for polishing the piece.

I stood up, pretending like the judges were evaluating my every move. I closed my eyes and instead of seeing darkness, I saw light. I was standing on stage; all of the lights were directed on me, giving my skin a warm glow. I began to play, my violin becoming my voice, as my trained fingers moved with accuracy and precision. My vibrato was steady, and constant. I could hear the Austin Symphony Orchestra backing me up, filling the auditorium with a rich, vibrant tone. It was over all too soon. When I opened my eyes, Taylor was gaping at me with her camera by her side.

'That was unbelievable,' she said.

'You really think so?' Being the first opinion I had heard from an outsider, I took it to heart.

'You're going to knock them dead tomorrow. If you don't win, then something must be pretty messed up with their judging system.'

After Taylor left, I kept practicing. There's always room for improvement. Though I felt drained, I persevered through it. Before packing up, I thought I should tune my violin one last time. I pounded the keys out on the piano, and turned the tuners accordingly. When I got to the 'G' string, it was a little flat, so I tried to adjust it. There was no give in the tuner, so I placed my hand on the peg and slowly turned it away from me, but the string became too taught, and gave way. Frustrated that I had to delay getting ready for bed, I sat on the piano bench and replaced the string with a new one. It had been starting to fray anyway.

That night, the reverberations of neglecting my health hit me like the stone struck Goliath: sudden and unexpected. I became nauseated, getting sick to my stomach three times before dawn. I woke up exhausted. I slid my heavy body out of bed, and attempted to go about my daily schedule, but I couldn't make it through. At the same time as the competition started, I was curled up in bed, with a thermometer in my mouth.

'One-hundred-and-one degrees,' my mom read aloud. 'I'm really sorry,' she said. 'I know how much this meant to you.'

No matter what she said, she didn't know. She couldn't know. For the past month, I'd dedicated my life to this competition. It consumed my actions and thoughts. Night after night I spent long hours working my fingers to the bone, striving for perfection, and where did it get me? Here sweeping the deck, while the men sailed off onto the sea. I turned to the left, where my violin lay in its case. I turned my head away.

'I called the doctor's office, and they said that you just caught a bug. Something's been going around. He said that it should clear up in a few days, though.' She smiled at me, looking so sincere.

"But I don't have a few days!" I internally screamed back at her. 'Can I just be alone?' I asked her.

'Sure, sweetie. If you need anything at all, let me know.'

'Okay. Thanks,' I said, forcing a tight smile. She didn't fully understand how I felt, but she really did try.

Morning blurred into afternoon, as I slept, only taking breaks to eat Jello and chicken noodle soup. Sometime in the late afternoon, there was a knock on my door.

'Come in,' I said.

Taylor walked in with an empathetic look on her face. 'I'm so sorry.'

'Talk about rotten luck.' I'd had all day to accept what had happened, so by this time I was past the pity stage. 'Wait, how did you know I didn't go to the auditions?' I asked, curiously.

'Oh, yeah. I went to surprise you, but I guess it was me who was surprised. I called your home phone, since you didn't answer your cell, and your mom explained everything to me.'

'Since you were there, did you go ahead and pick up two tickets for the performance?'

'Actually I only bought one.'

'Why can't you go?' She'd gone with me every year. First I miss the competition, and now Taylor's going to bail on me, and let me go alone to the concert?

'Oh, I'll be there,' she said smiling. 'We'll both be there, but performers don't need a ticket.'

'I don't get it.'

'Jackie, you won!' she shouted.

'What? How? That's impossible.'

'Nothing's impossible. When your mom told me what happened, I started to leave, but then I remembered that I still had the tape that I taped you playing on yesterday in my camcorder. I explained your situation to the judges, and showed them the tape, and, well' you ended up winning! You're not the only one with smooth talking skills.'

'Taylor, you're a genius!' I said, sitting up to hug her.

She stayed all afternoon, until I drifted off, and we got caught up on each other's lives.

Concert day came. I was energized, and instead of being nervous, I was thankful.

I stepped out onto the stage, and the audience's applause boomed throughout the auditorium. Though the lights clouded my vision, I could see Taylor and my family sitting proudly in the front row. Behind me was a full orchestra, ready to bend at my every command. I bowed, meeting the audience's demand. While I placed my violin on my left shoulder, my feet planted themselves in a secure stance. I turned to my left and gave the conductor a confident nod. The orchestra played a few measures before I came in, but there was no need to count them; I knew it by heart. When the time came, I let my low 'A' resonate, like dipping a brush into the paint, before creating a masterpiece. I let go, allowing my body to sway to the music. My feet shifted my weight back and forth, only there was no weight; I was weightless. I closed my eyes again, feeling each position with my hand; seeing wasn't necessary. The high octave rang out; every note was right on pitch. As my feet made contact with the ground once again, I opened my eyes to see my family and several other members of the audience crying.

As I peered through the bright lights at the audience, who was on their feet, hysterically clapping, I saw that, though tears trickled from their eyes, their mouths displayed smiles of fulfillment.

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