Tuesday, 26 February 2008

A Pianist Backstage

The atmosphere was a bubble of water threatening to spill out of the cup rim, held back only by surface tension. You could have cut the blanket of tension with a scissors and heard the rebounding snap in the concert hall. Parents and teachers from all over Australia filled the interminable rows of plush chairs, eager for a night of music and excitement. Five teenagers– obviously competitors- were lined up by the right wall. They looked… ready. I didn’t feel so ready. My hands were dry, but only because I kept rubbing the sweat off on my pants. When I saw one of the kids by the wall nervously lick his suddenly parched lips, I didn’t feel so bad.

“Attention, everyone.” Six amplifiers jumped simultaneously.

“The finals for the National Young Pianists Competition will begin in 5 minutes. Would all competitors please make their way to the door on the right and line themselves up according to their competitor’s number. Also, could you please ensure your mobile phones are all switched off.”

There was a muffled scuffle as everyone scrambled for their seats and their phones, as if no one dared break the glass of silence in the hall. I glanced nervously at my parents who gave me a reassuring smile and made my way to the end of the short queue of musicians. The smothered sound of the speakers found us backstage. We could hear every word.

“Thank you for coming to the final round of the National Young Pianists Competition. Tonight, we are honoured to have Dr Carl Krammer, Mrs Jillian Below and Mr Ping Sin Lee as our adjudicators. Would you please join me in thanking them.” Applause.

“Our first competitor for this evening will be performing for us Gymnopedie 2 by Erik Satie...” The first competitor disappeared through the heavy crimson curtains.

Six others went after him. They were fantastic! Most of them played their pieces without mistakes. I became anxious. It would be my turn next.

The amplifiers rumbled my name and piece: Gordon Zhao playing Sonata Pathétique by Beethoven.

The attendant motioned to me to step through the curtains. “Good luck,” she whispered. This is it, I told myself. Taking a trembling breath, and gluing a smile on my face, I disappeared through the velvet curtains like the others before me. The glare of the stage lights surrounded me so that it made it difficult to walk straight. It looked to me as if I was walking on light! I hoped I wouldn’t do something stupid. The dazzling light itself was enough to make me walk off the stage in a daze.

My piano teacher’s words filled my ears. “Smile, and do your best, Gordie. Give a smart bow to acknowledge your audience.” Obeying her inaudible prompt, I smiled and bowed. I dared not look at Mum and Dad.

My hands started watering. A layer of sheen covered my palms. I rested my hands on my lap, trying not to seem as if I was crumbling to bits inside. Then, I remembered my teacher’s advice.

“Even if you are afraid, Gordie, (she calls me by my nickname) DON’T show it. If you can’t show your real confidence, fake it. Everyone else is nervous, and everyone else has worked as hard as you. The difference between the winners and the losers is that the winners don’t succumb to their fear. You just go up there and astound everyone with your self-possession.”

I slid my palms on my pants like how an airplane takes off: horizontally and then gradually up. I didn’t want anyone to suspect I was sweating in anxiety. I rested the tips of my fingers on the beautiful white and black keys and took a deep breath.

“Get into the music. Feel the music inside you.” My teacher’s voice played in my head. “If you can’t feel the music, you won’t be able to convey the music to your audience. You are a storyteller, Gordie. You have to figure out how to tell the story of Beethoven’s Sonata Pathétique to your audience in a way that will captivate them. But first, you must know the story inside out so that it can flow through your fingertips.” My teacher had drilled it into me. I knew how to do it. I could do it.

With a sudden bang of the opening chord, I let myself loose. A loud, solemn chord filled the hall and reverberated in it. It dared to break barriers: sound barriers, language barriers, even culture barriers. I was proud of my music. It was telling a story to anyone who will listen with their heart. This is the story of Beethoven and his life. His sorrowful, mournful and loveless life. A story of his many rages and rejected loves. A story of his frustration at being deaf. But most of all, I was testifying of his genius. From the first to the last strain in the piece, I felt the wordless pathos of his life flow through my arms, tingle in my fingers, and pass right through the black and white keys into the vibrating strings. Inspirational magic released into air and captivated the audience, just as it had when Beethoven first wrote it centuries ago.

“Gordie! Never do that again!” Whenever I end a piece, those words by my teacher always surfaces. When I abruptly ended a long piece by slapping my hands on my lap and sagging my shoulders in relief, the piano trembled at her wrath. “What you just did is like a storyteller who reached the end of his story and ruined the ending. That is a bad storyteller. Your music tells a story. You must NEVER ever break it off like that again even if you are tired. Often, the last passage of your piece- like the ending of a book- will stay with the listener forever. You may not remember all the animals Gingerbread Man met on his way to the river, but you remember what happened to him at the end.”
I waited until the last energetic chord vanished like a wisp of smoke before moving. I slowly landed my hands on my lap again, but this time like a helicopter landing on a launch pad. A volcanic applause erupted in the congregation. Mum and Dad forgot to clap and started waving and jumping in the air instead. I smiled to them and bowed smartly to the audience, remembering my teacher’s admonition to thank the audience for listening. I descended the stairs and made my way to my parents.

Mum squeezed my hand. “You did well, dear. You did really well. I am very proud of you.”

Even though my turn was over, my heart still kept beating with the exhilaration of the experience. I did it! I did not lose my balance bowing, fall off the chair playing or do any other stupid thing. Then, the familiar blare resounded above me.

“Ladies and gentlemen, please join me in welcoming our adjudicator Dr Carl Krammer.” More applause.

“Thank you everyone for coming. It was a treat to listen to all those talented young pianists from all over Australia. Everyone played very well tonight, and it is a great pity that only three of you can win. Everyone played well enough to win first place, so if you don’t win tonight, please don’t feel bad. You all have got potential- so keep trying. Well, that’s enough rambling from me. Let’s get on with the awards."

The exhilaration was wearing off. My heart beat eractically in my chest. It made me pant. Even though I wasn't playing anymore, but fingers sprouted sweat again. The concert hall seemed to condense to half its size.

"Third place goes to… Miranda Polanski for playing Beethoven’s Moonlight Sonata so beautifully. You projected the melody clearly and beautifully. Well Done! "

So. I didn't win third. Well, maybe I have hope to place 2nd or 1st. I started choking. Did someone turned off the oxygen supply in the hall?

"Second place… is awarded to Emmie-Rose Dewar for capturing the romantic dream of Liszt’s Liebestraum. It is a very difficult piece, and you mastered the technique skillfully and musically. Now to get down to what you’ve all been waiting for. First place."

My heart drilled in my chest. It felt like my heart was about to break into half. The drill was going to break through at the other end soon. My breath came in ragged puffs that I try manfully to hide. Mum and Dad doesn't seem to notice. I think they are just as anxious as I am.

My teacher’s voice sounded in my ear again. “Winning isn’t everything, Gordie. It doesn’t matter if you don’t win. What matters is that you’ve tried your best and given it a shot. Don’t be disappointed. A true winner starts from a good loser. When you don’t give up and keep trying, you are a winner. Remember that.”

“Many of you played Beethoven tonight. But no one captured him as masterfully and as passionately as this person. I think everyone in this room felt Beethoven’s character in the piece. His rage, grief and hurt. The essence of Beethoven was brought to life, ladies and gentlemen, by the splendid young pianist… Aidan Prue."

A loud cheer exploded at the back of the hall as a freckled shrimp of a youth sauntered up.

Falling... My mountain cliff crumbled and I plunged back into reality. I didn't win. The Judges must have not like the way I told my story. Maybe they didn't agree with the way I chose to portray Beethoven. Perhaps they thought he didn't have THAT tempestuous a life. Aidan certainly played Beethoven rather mildly. Maybe.... perhaps... what if....

I was too busy trying to curb my disappointment to notice the commotion up the front at the Judges thrones.

I was about to exit the hall when the loud speakers boomed again.

“Excuse me ladies and gentlemen, there’s been a mistake in the winner. I accidentally read the wrong name off the charts.” Everyone milling around in the hall froze. Me, I was waiting for the straining bubble of water to burst and spill over the cup.

“The actual winner of the National Young Pianists Competition is Gordan Zhao, competitor number eight.” The bubble burst.

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