13 April 1995
An overstuffed bowl of gorgeous white lilacs graces the top of my old oak piano; the ceiling fan lazily sends the thick, nostalgic fragrance throughout the house. I sip an iced drink and travel the keyboard contentedly with a languid blues in B flat, satisfied and relieved now that the pressure is off for another year.
Solo Festival is over in Fairfax, Va.; the student musicians who came to me for piano accompaniment or counsel have lived through their grueling moment before the judge, playing pieces they prepared for weeks or even months on their band instruments. Once again, I reflect on the personal growth in each of us, sometimes in artistry, always in character, as a result of this annual striving to bring out the best in young performers.
My two trombonists, a boy and a girl, are perfect examples of this growth. I remember watching the boy, recovering from a recent knee operation, limp slowly down the driveway with my music a month or so ago. His temporary setback brought back only too vividly the memory of the girl’s first performance four years before. She had come to me with her arm in a baby-blue cast, having fractured her wrist just before the festival, but determined to learn new slide techniques and capture the top rating anyway.
When I read through the music this tall young man handed me, I almost despaired. It was a lush, overblown, fin de siècle piece, dripping with emotion. This boy’s enthusiasm was for computers, diving, and an upcoming course in artificial intelligence. How could his teacher expect drama from this raw material?
By contrast, my female soloist had been struggling with her teacher for weeks over a piece. This ambitious young woman needed to choose something challenging, something so difficult that the line between failure and success would never be crossed until the actual festival performance. As her accompanist, I agonized to dig my fingers into her music in order to begin searching for perfection. Although she seemed to thrive on the knife’s edge, I did not. An accompanist needs to be solid, steady, predictable as the pendulum on a metronome.
When she finally wrenched a satisfactory solo from her music teacher’s library, I was shocked at the irony of her choice. My two trombonists clearly belonged with each other’s pieces. This girl, who, with her long blond hair caught up in a black-velvet ribbon, seemed suited for a romantic, melodic, well-behaved tune, presented me with a wacky modern Polish duet for trombone and piano that — at first — I thought only an artificial intelligence could love.
When I attacked my old Baldwin with this piece, I realized that I was at war with my own fingers. The jarring dissonances, random patterns, and constantly shifting rhythms caused me anxiety for the first time in all my years of accompanying students. If I couldn’t learn to find beauty in this piece, the technical challenges would defeat me.
I began rehearsing with all my students several weeks before the festival day. Predictably, the girl approached even the first rehearsal with an image in her mind of how the piece should sound. There was no opportunity to make light conversation or to make light of mistakes. If the mood didn’t work for her, she would silently place the trombone back in its case and curtly suggest that we try again on another day.
The computer wizard, however, brought an air of casualness, almost bemused detachment, to his rehearsals. His response to wrong notes was to stop, say, ”That was awful,” and look at his instrument as if it had a life of its own. Nothing upset him; he could practice the same measure over and over again.
Of all my students, he was by far the least temperamental, the least moody. In fact, my one concern as we moved closer to the festival was that he might not be able to put the moodiness in the piece that clearly needed to be there.
We began talking about the images his piece called up; I worked harder than usual on my own expressiveness. At last, the music worked its way inside him, and we started to create. This introverted 10th-grader, too busy being brilliant to have ever indulged in deep and meaningful talk about his feelings, suddenly began to find a soul in his trombone and pour it out like stardust over the piano.
The girl and I discovered a different kind of soulfulness. Once we managed to master the technical difficulties, we began to find an athleticism, a sinewy, tough strength to the piece that only appeared when we played it together. Working together brought us closer together; she found more enjoyment in rehearsing, and I finally found a melody in the music.
Amazingly, by the time of the festival, we had merged our separate, bizarre voices into one harmony, and there was a haunting, breathtaking beauty to the sound we made. During our performance, the judge actually stopped following the score and stared in admiration at this determined young lady as she wrestled furiously with speed and staccato, and won.
My limping musician managed to surprise and conquer as well on festival day. We began with the brooding minor strains of the piano introduction. To my immense relief, he came in with a full arsenal of pathos to wow the judge. This piece had all the emotional excesses of a silent movie, with its attendant moods of unrequited love, despairing heroines, and slapstick comedians. He found all those moods in his horn, with enough energy left for a galloping, powerful finale.
We all knew that we had found our way to some beautiful, transcendent music. At the festival, however, there is still the hour-long wait for the scores to be posted. A lot of character can be built during that hour, wondering about one’s score, and then having to accept it publicly — in good grace — in front of fellow students and parents.
The boy pulled off his tie and carefully rolled it into a little ball, stuffing it into a pocket. When the low-brass results finally went up and both trombonists spotted their superior ratings, the full, warm smiles on their faces belied any earlier attempts at nonchalance. I hugged them proudly; somehow, they had both become my children during the intensive and emotion-filled month we spent together.
–Cathleen Ann Steg
© 1995 The Christian Science Monitor
reprinted with permission