The Bells of Moscow
The first three, absolutely chilling notes of Rachmaninov's Prelude in C-sharp minor was playing on the radio as Violet and her mother drove home. Her heart skipped a beat and she remembered that she had the music to the piano piece in her backpack. She bent down, unzipped her bag, and dragged the sheet music out and began tracking it with her eyes. Ms. Paulson wanted the song mastered within two weeks and Violet could feel that she was almost there. There was just one passage that she needed to get under control.
"I can't believe you can play that," Violet's mother said, shaking her head in disbelief. "It looks like ink splatters and random dots everywhere."
Violet silently chuckled. "It's not that hard, really. It's just a lot of chords. A lot of chords. The middle section might look easier on the eyes, but that's actually the hardest part. And the part that Ms. Paulson wants me to master..."
"I don't care if you say it's easy or not, it's all Greek to me. And I still can't believe you can play that..."
If only you tried to understand. I don't believe this. You still don't think I'm a pianist. I don't get you, Mom. I really don't. After all this time, all this practice and hard work. It seems like Dad is my cheerleader. The one who understands me more. It's sad really. I wish you would understand why I love music so much.
"Well, it's not Greek to me." It was all Violet could say to her.
She couldn't help but be relieved when her mother stopped the car. They were finally home. That meant more practice time. More time to get this piece ready for her audition. She still had to practice her Mozart and Chopin. There was so much that needed to be done, so many things to remember. If she was going to ace her recorded audition to the Gillman Conservatory of Music in New York City, she was going to have to play with absolute, crisp perfection. The mere thought of it made her freeze. But all of that faded away when she made herself walk into her piano room. Her glossy black upright piano was just waiting to be played on, and Violet just had to get everything right.
"No, Vi." Her mother said. "I need your help in the kitchen."
"With what?" Violet said, her voice sounding as if it was close to tears. "Why couldn't we just eat Sonic like I wanted in the first place?
"With the buttermilk. You know the drill. And Sonic is bad for you... No fast food for you."
Vinegar and regular milk. Sit it for fifteen minutes and then come back and use it for the recipe. Mom, why do we have to bake a cake right now?
"Well, while the buttermilk is sitting, can I at least practice my Rachmaninov piece?"
"You know how much I hate the sound of it. It's so depressing. Why on earth did you choose that for your audition?"
"Because Ms. Paulson said that it is good for me. Besides, the passage that I need to play, it is important that I get it right. I could go to the Gillman Conservatory of Music and you holding me back isn't good. It's not."
"Yes, you can play, but only for fifteen minutes."
Violet smiled and sped to the kitchen like a dart going towards it target. She got the white vinegar out and the milk from the refrigerator. Relieved when everything was put together, she got out her iPod and started listening to Rachmaninov, so that she could get into the practicing mood. She had no time to imagine that she was in her own special world. As soon as she sat on the piano bench, she rewound the music and started from the beginning, playing along with it. It was something Violet adored doing. It kept her fingers steady and her music as close to quality as possible. Soon enough, she found herself seeing nothing but her hands rapidly playing the middle passage. The most difficult part of the entire piece. She rocked her body in the rhythm, feeling herself in a whirlwind. The whirlwind becoming more intense with every passing note. Soon enough, she was an animal - completely gone. She had no intention of going to her own special place but being swept away with the music again. Her mind went back to all of those times that she struggled with piano music, letting it all out before her as she played.
"Ms. Paulson," Violet said. "I have a confession to make." She slumped her shoulders.
"Violet, what is it?"
"I want to quit the piano. I'm no good. I practice so much and I can't get anywhere. I'm stuck at level one and I've been here for so long now. I can't do it anymore."
The other woman shook her head looking at Violet with a pained expression. Her eyes looked as if she was losing hope. Her lips were curled in an unmistakable frown. "I'm disappointed in you." She looked away. "Very disappointed."
Violet sighed. "I know. But I can't do this anymore." She sniffled, fighting back the tears that were desperately wanting release.
"Why do you want to give up? You may be stuck at level one and can hardly read notes, but I do want you to keep practicing. You'll get there. I know you will. Why don't you play a little bit for me? Here's Mountain Song. You've been working hard at it. Why don't you start from the beginning."
Violet put her hands on the keys and looked at Mountain Song. It was gibberish. Everything. Completely foreign to her - the notes were like dots. Even after all of this practice. She still couldn't read music. How did people like Alexander Kafka do it? How did they become so successful at playing piano?
"First off," Ms. Paulson said, looking at Violet with firm conviction. "You need to stop comparing yourself to Alexander Kafka. I see you do it all the time. I know you do it. Alexander is human. I'm sure he had struggles like you do right now. I'm sure there were times where he felt like he was close to giving up, but look at him now."
"But he's already one of the best pianists of all time," Violet said, keeping her head low. "He's gotten so many awards and so many magazine articles about him."
"Then aspire to that," she said. "Aspire to it because the more you put yourself down, the worse you will be. I know this from experience."
Violet knew that Ms. Paulson was right. She wasn't going to quit. She was going to keep playing.
Violet was glad that she kept playing. She was glad that she kept on, despite the fact that she went through several stumbling blocks to get where she was. She was going to audition to a conservatory that was just as great as Juilliard. She smiled as she played the last notes of the Rachmaninov, and as she played those final notes, she felt as if she had turned out to be a success in her own way. Perseverance and dedication came a long way for her, and she was grateful to Ms. Paulson for her constant encouragement and guiding. Thinking of getting a new teacher after her was a rather painful thought, but Violet knew it was what needed to be done. Ms. Paulson got her where she needed to be, but a new professor, one with a good amount of experience was what she needed. New guidance and a way to get herself out there in the world of music, was something that made her excited.
"Violet," her mother said as she tapped her on the shoulder. "It's done. Are you ready to make the mix?"
Why must white cake have so many steps? I wish I could stay at this bench. Chopin needs to be played. My Ballade in g minor is just waiting for me... I want to play it so badly now. But I suppose I should give my fingers a rest. After all, I have been playing for a while. And those chords in the Rachmaninov are intense...
Violet's mother watched her as she used the stand-mixer to mix everything together, but for some reason, Violet didn't care. All she could think about was getting back to that piano. Her father would have definitely understood the need for her to practice. He must have still been teaching at the university. Violet took her phone out and began texting her father, asking when he was coming back home.
Within moments, the door opened and Violet's mother dashed out of the kitchen. Violet turned off the mixer, making sure that the flour didn't develop too much gluten. It was something her mother taught her after sequences of failed cakes. Developing the gluten too much when mixing caused for a dense cake. And the white cake was supposed to be for her father's birthday.
"Henry..." Violet heard her mother say. "What do you mean you lost your job?"
Violet's heart sunk to the kitchen floor. Did she hear her mother correctly? Her father lost her job? How on earth did that happen? She blinked for several seconds, trying to process everything. The conversation between her parents had fallen into an awkward sort of silence and Violet felt uncomfortable.
"Dad?" Violet asked when he came into the kitchen. "Is it true?"
He nodded, keeping his head low.
"But why? I thought everything was fine!"
"But why didn't Mom get fired?"
She sighed. "I'm tenured, Vi. Your dad hadn't been there as long as me. Remember I've been there longer than him."
Still it didn't ease the blow. Her father loved his job. She could see in his eyes that everything he ever worked for had crumbled into bits. And on his birthday too. How horrible. Violet didn't feel like piano much anymore. She felt the strong need to be there for her father, helping him through this time.
"I'm sorry Dad."
"It's not your fault." His response was curt. "It's no one's faulty. Budget cuts happen all the time, and they have to get rid o those who haven't been there as long."
"Still, it makes me angry. You loved your job."
"It's just, it's your birthday... We were baking you your favorite cake."
Violet's father smiled, and brought her mother close to him, drawing her in an embrace. "I love you both... Coming home to you guys is the best medicine."
Seeing the interaction between her parents, Violet smiled. She was grateful that her parents had such a great relationship, even after nineteen years of being married to each other. Their relationship wasn't perfect and Violet knew that, but there was something simple and profound about the way they looked at each other. Talked to each other. Embraced each other. Violet wished that she too, when she got married, had the same kind of relationship.
"Dad," Violet said, remembering the surprise gift that she had gotten a few days ago.
"Yes?" he asked.
"I have something for you."
Violet ran out of the kitchen and up the stairs, into her room. She dug the CD out. It was Chopin's Greatest Hits, along with the book, Light in August by William Faulkner. It was a rare edition that Violet knew her father would love. In her mind, it was the best surprise gift she could have given her father and she knew from the bottom of her heart that he would love it. After all, he had only been talking about wanting this rare edition of the Faulkner novel for ages and ages. Violet walked out of her room, hoping that today, her father's bad day, would be turned around with the best surprise gift he'd ever gotten.