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What had ever possessed her to agree to play a solo in competition? During the weeks preceding their trip to the competition in Ocean City, Maryland, she had actually looked forward to playing it. She must have been crazy. It was one thing to play in front of everyone's parents in a music group at the Pops concert. Ninety-nine percent of those people thought any kind of sound that even resembled music was wonderful. It was quite another thing to perform in front of real musicians. Her solo was not going to be judged, but it was going to be the warm-up piece for the chamber orchestra, or, in other words, the first impression the judges would have of the group.
They had rehearsed at DaVinci's by the Sea, the restaurant where they had eaten dinner. In the middle of the Telemann Concerto, her solo, she had gone blank. Her fingers failed her. They flailed clumsily over the fingerboard, becoming little demons with lives of their own, and defiantly refusing to do anything they were supposed to do.
During the bus ride to their hotel, she came to a decision. As soon as they checked in, she would go through the concerto over and over, until she could play it perfectly, even if she were half dead. She had two hours until the 10: 30 curfew. With any luck, she would be able to play the piece perfectly by then.
She removed her viola from its case as soon as she reached her room. She slipped a mute over the bridge of the instrument in case the other inhabitants of the hotel weren't up for the Telemann Concerto being played for two hours.
Beth, Susan and Ami, her roommates, went in three separate directions, leaving the key in the room, so she had no choice but to keep the door open. At first, she hid in the kitchenette in case the chaperons objected to her playing, but when her chaperon came in and didn't mind the music (or noise, as it could have been called), she walked around the room, faster and faster as the tempo of the piece grew faster and faster. The room became a blur. The light of the kitchenette was fluorescent, making the white tile seem unbearably bright. The rest of the room was a smoky pinkish-beige. The beds, the small table with a lamp and the luggage, strewn all over the room, went in and out of focus.
Then she came to the arpeggio section of the piece. These were supposed to bounce playfully on the string in a IV-V/V-V-V/VI-VI chord progression, a very happy relaxed progression that called to mind the images of sparrows flitting from tree to tree in the spring. They didn't. Her fingers sped out of control, hitting every note perfectly, but hitting them three times too fast. She didn't even try to control her fingers. She was too tired. She let all of the energy from the rest of her body flow through her arm and into the tips of her rebellious fingers.
In the middle of these arpeggios, she heard a loud, guttural "Hey!" She leaped around, her hands quaking so much with fear that she almost dropped her viola. She confronted one of the chaperons. He was short and stocky and his eyes looked wild. The grey fringe encircling his bald head was disheveled. "At 10: 30 ...," he said and drew his finger across his throat. For one wild moment, she thought he was going to kill her.
She regained enough composure to whisper "OK," and nodded. He left her trembling in fright.
She tried unsuccessfully to calm herself down. All night her fingers convulsed in the rhythm of the arpeggios and the concerto played in her head. It played in different keys and at different tempos.
The next morning she could only swallow a cup of coffee for breakfast. She was trying to steady her hand on her coffee cup, letting the conversation at her table flow around her, when she felt two hands on her shoulders. I'm going to die! shot through her head illogically. She turned around and saw that it was only Mr. Vinci, her teacher. He stood behind her with his perpetual relaxed grin on his face. "How're you doing?" he asked. "Fine," she squeaked out. I really have to calm down, she thought. Her friends told her the same thing, but she couldn't seem to do it.
When they got to the competition, she spent every spare moment practicing. She practiced in the storage room, with its royal blue walls and dirty white floor. Instrument cases littered the floor. People drifted in and out. She vaguely heard Dave, the bass player, saying "Oh my God! She is so good! We should record her; we would probably make money selling the tape." This really didn't help, though it was good for her ego. Now, however, it just put more pressure on her. She had a reputation. People expected her to be good. She had to uphold that reputation as well as try not to ruin the judges' first impression of the chamber orchestra.
Mr. Vinci floated in and said she would be fine. "You were just tired last night," he said. She tried to listen to what he was saying but his words were drowned out by the concerto that continuously droned on in her head.
The stage floor was shiny and the lights were yellowish and glaring. The light reflected off her viola. Out of the corner of her eye, she saw Mr. Vinci's baton keeping the beat. A sea of faces she knew stared up at her, but they seemed strange.
She held her breath as she approached the part of the concerto where she had gone blank the previous night. Her fingers obeyed with perfect manners this time, not only hitting the correct notes, but hitting them with style.
Now she relaxed. She even ventured to look out at the audience. The faces were not strange any more. They were familiar and encouraging. She finished the piece with a flourish. She had to force herself to stand and accept the applause. She wanted to run off stage and do cartwheels, but she still had to play in the adjudicated part of the competition, the "important" part.
As she sat down, she felt her fingers relax for the first time in two days, and in her head the concerto faded into nothingness. n