Bach and Belgians
by Ariel Mo
DISCLAIMER: None of the characters in this piece were based on real persons.
My mother is on the phone. She’s speaking almost (but not quite) loud enough for me to make out each individual syllable; the result is a buzz that invades the entire house, that interrupts the steady processions of leggierissimos and cantabiles in my head; and by the time she puts down the receiver, almost (but not quite) smashing it—I am just as irritated as she.
I keep struggling, for a few more minutes, with Staccato Triplets vs. Steady 16ths, before I finally give up.
The stairs are barely five steps away but I count each with tense anticipation.
“Are you done already?”
“Yeah,” I say.
And so it begins. “Is this how you will succeed succeed? You go to bed without touching piano yesterday night and today, today you barely touch music for ten minutes and you say you’re done? I pick you up from school early and this is what you miss for? How can you be so lazy? You need to work more, or you will never…”
And on and on and on it goes, an entire exposition—theme, my character; countermelody, all the mistakes of my past—that gets developed one, two—no, three times, eventually building up to a stunning final Coda of why All-of-Me will amount to The-Failure-of-Everything-I’ve-Ever-Wanted should I continue this way.
I barely hear her; Bach’s A Major Fugue from Well-Tempered Klavier, Book II rings in my head, sorrowfully accusing me of neglect. And of course it’s true but what can I say? “Sorry, but I’m just a little tired of you;” and off I go to the world of Hercule Poirot and his sirop de cassis, promenading and smiling amicably behind his most fabulous moustache in all of England.
I am stuck. Rachmaninoff will not agree with me. He says—with a heavy Russian accent—“Make this beautiful, make this sing, make this long and legato” but my fingers do not know beauty, they cannot sing and all they make are choppy sounds that don’t belong in this concerto at all. I try the other passage with the falling stars but now my fingers are sloppy and lazy and don’t move as quickly as they should.
I head for the stairs.
“Are you done already?”
“Yeah,” I say.
“How can you play music if you do not practice? How can you start to think sound quality if your fingers don’t know, have not memorized, the shape and size of the keys? Every adjudicator will listen to expression. They are tired of technique—but you, you don’t even have technique, you sound like sight reading…”
Bach is still crying at me, almost screaming now, his appoggiatura repeating again and again and again, an incessant curse, an accusation…
It’s almost 10 p.m. when we get home. My mother is on the phone. I drop my bag off by the cloakroom, hang my coat on the staircase bannister, leave my shoes half on the stairs and rush into my room.
A few minutes later she comes to the door.
“Are you in there? Get out, get out now.”
“I need to go to bed.”
“You need to practice.”
“I’ve practiced already.”
“Yes, enough, I know what I’m doing—”
“Oh, you do, you do? So they were very happy with you today? So they liked your half-memorized Bach? So they liked Rachmaninoff even though you play wrong notes? So they liked Debussy?”
“They didn’t hear the Debussy,” I say in my head. I can hear the Debussy.
The Debussy. I am stuck in The Debussy. I should be swimming through its pedal tones and pentatonics but it’s like moving through a sea of sludge. It feels like I am smashing apart the delicate tea cups in my mother’s kitchen instead of painting estampes into the air with notes.
I head for the stairs. Poirot still hasn’t explained the significance of that sharp green quill.
My mother’s sharp tongue stops me and beats me into submission, to surrender until even Bach begs for mercy and I sit back on the hard black bench and I let the entire weight of myself fall into each chord and Rachmaninoff is furious and proud, and almost as arrogant as the little Belgian with the most fabulous moustache in all of England, and he thunders across my house in a storm of chromatics and then he cries and cries for forgiveness and the orchestra in my head grants it.
Before bed, my mother says, “You play well this evening.”
The adjudicator is Belgian. I listen to her voice and try to imagine it is Poirot speaking but it’s impossible.
For example, he wouldn’t tell me to think of myself as a center of energy and imagine that inside my stomach is a chakra which I must use to give life and volume to the sounds my fingers make… His list of clues would have far more writing on it then this empty comment sheet the woman gives me, with a single word—“Good.”
And two more—“Lacked passion.”
My mother is stony-faced and I am even more so.
“There’s still tomorrow.”
“And if it’s her again?”
Day 5 still:
Bach is not picking up.
I have tried him again and again but he ignores me.
Have I neglected him for too long?
My mother’s voice rises in the kitchen, where she’s on the phone again.
Come on, I think. The A Major transitions to E then B then somehow it winds through a bunch of things back to A. It’s a maze. It doesn’t make sense.
“What are you doing? This you call practicing? Fighting with piano? Think!”
“I AM THINKING!”
She looks at me. I refuse to feel look down.
She walks away. Now the shame is there. I look back to Bach, and it only multiplies.
Debussy lies on the ground, near my feet. I pick him up and run a finger over the notes. I put everything aside, open the lid on the piano, and close my eyes and swim with Debussy.
When that is done I take back the Bach and I take up my pencil. Here is the subject; here’s the countersubject; some stretto, an episode, another episode—subject, subject again, subject, countersubject—oh, what’s that, a wrong note? I play it over 100 times exactly the way I used to do when I was little, counting each with shiny wooden toothpicks. The appoggiatura is not on the beat, isn’t following the jump-slur-jump-jump of the left hand—I do that 100 times too. I play through it again—it makes more sense, my fingers know the keys now, it is so much easier…
The Belgian lady’s writing is flat and has too many curls in it.
Bach: Good interpretation.
Rachmaninoff: Needs more forte.
Total marks: 96.
My mother makes a huffy sound. “No musician,” she says, “would ever call your Debussy ‘good’. Does she not hear the smoothness? The beauty? The line? And Bach. Again, “good”!? Does she not hear your intelligence in your Fugue? Has she no brains for clear voices? Sad sound? Happy sound? No emotion? This is the sort of judge they pick these days? You need to find someone better who appreciate you and your music and know music, like real musician, not like this fraud who barely…”
“Okay, Mom,” I say lightly.
A call comes through while we’re on our way home. My mother scowls at the caller ID and presses decline.
“Oh,” I say, “have I told you about those books I’ve been reading lately? They’re these crime novels featuring a Belgian detective—they’re really fun, actually. His name is Hercule Poirot…”