The piano is a baby grand. It stands majestic at center stage, ready for young pianists to strike its ivory keys. An intimidating creature, its presence dominates and casts a spell interchangeably. We take our seat in the church pews after the second class finishes. We wait.
Fortunately, we have arrived in time to hear the second class play their selections. It gives my two just enough time to mentally prepare, and yet not enough time for nerves to take over. And in a blink of an eye, their turn comes.
My son walks to the front, unsure of himself and yet, not afraid of what might be. He is to play middle of the pack. I sit, muscles tight, stomach a ball of tensions. And then, his name is called. He walks quickly to the piano, sits without adjusting the seat and begins to play. I start to relax. He has not forgotten any notes, and for that I am grateful. He will not be disappointed with the silver he receives.
Immediately after this class is completed, it is my daughter’s turn to walk to the front. She is no less anxious, and I will be grateful when I hear the first note. The rest will follow. She plays beautifully. We are both surprised with the designation of gold. This was a relatively new piece for her.
The morning unfolds surprisingly. They leave at mid-morning break feeling confident and light. So far, so good. We come back for our second session, and nerves are more relaxed this time. No tight stomach muscles for me, anyway. I even read a little in between selections.
My daughter plays first this time. She hits every note, but she is not feeling her music. The aujudicator calls her on a musical term she does not know. Daughter feels embarrassed from both a lack of her own musical knowledge as well as from the commentary on her playing. Bronze, this time. There are tears when she joins me afterwards. Big, fat crocodile tears. They stain her dress, while the sparkles from her skirt scatter across her face as she wipes the wetness away. I tell her how proud I am, but she has lost her edge. She is no longer confident.
My son is up again, and he too is rattled. He misses quite a few notes, but recovers and finishes his piece. When he exits the stage and sits with his class, I can see the deluge he is holding back behind red eyes. He tries to hold it together. But a mother knows.
I realize that now is a pivotal point in the day. What happened before, and what comes next hinge on this moment. I am grasping for words that will take away their needless shame due to unmet expectations they had for themselves. My son has no time to process these feelings of his. He is called again to play his third and final number.
I am dealing with those pesky stomach nerves of mine again. This time, my son competes against a more advanced student. It could be the demise of the day. I try to exhale. Focus on breathing. I watch him, and then avert my eyes. What could he be thinking? I just want this to go well. No other expectations of him than for him to be pleased with his own playing and leave the stage confident.
He plays. It is beautiful. But is it enough to win her over, this accomplished pianist and professor standing before him? She takes a great deal of time to deliberate his mark and offer final comments.
I watch him walk back, and I realize that if he had not played again, and so quickly after the piece in which he missed the notes, he might not have wanted to get back on the piano bench and finish the competition. But because he has no time to think, to process, he gets right back up there and plays his final number without pause for too much concern.
He looks at me, and I can tell that he is at peace with this one.
My daughter has one last song left to play. She, on the other hand, does have time to think. In the two and a half hours in between second and third piece, she tells me she hates piano and that she wants to quit. I try not to lecture too much, but it does come out in dribs and drabs. We arrive back from lunch in plenty of time to watch a few of the more advanced classes. In the preceding two classes to her final one, two young piano players compete. One plays with confidence, vigour and emotion. The other lacks skill, technique and precision. She is having a hard time feeling her music. My daughter watches. She sees her persistently finish the two classes, and each time she receives bronze for her efforts. The young girl takes her seat without so much as blinking an eye. Whatever emotion she might be feeling is well concealed.
And then it is my own girl’s turn. She also competes in a class with those at higher levels. She is anxious, but yet she knows this piece and has interpreted it wisely. As she plays, I can feel the music. It moves me. She bows, and then takes her seat with the others. We both wait for the final verdict.
Silver, as well.
On the ride home, she sits quietly in the second row of our van. From the front, I tell her how proud I am. I talk about my own experiences playing in the festival as a young girl. I tell her that to courageously tackle something (and finish well that thing that brings you fear), that is the best I could wish for. Tenacity. Perserverance. It is what makes my children top of the class.
Although gold, silvers and bronze are top notch in my books, greater still is the ability to embrace fear and not allow it to control your actions. What you don’t know about my son is that a year and a half ago, he played the piano and made mistakes that were so jarring, he almost wrote piano off for good. He made it clear to me that he would never, ever play the piano again in public. He almost quit piano lessons, but in the end, he agreed to stay so long as he would never be pressured into playing for an audience.
And here we are. He has just finished paying three pieces at the music festival. I could not be any prouder of either one of my two worthy children. They have played the song of life with courage and resolve. It is the most beautiful of songs to hear.