Give It Breath

Someone realises they were wrong about something they love. It's 11 pages long, but I wrote it in a day.

This Piece is 5 minutes and 32 seconds long.

My fingers are light as they move up and down the strings. The man watching me play is old. His skin is coated in liver spots, his hair is white and near balding, the frames of his glasses are too big for him, but the lenses too small for his face, making it look like his head is simultaneously comically large and tiny. The bow shifts neatly to the next string. I am 2 minutes and 12 seconds in. I have memorised the Piece with my entire body, spent months practising and perfecting, for this one performance will determine my future with the Instrument. The Instrument is a violoncello. Its sleek wooden curves fit neatly between my knees. My fingers fit perfectly over its neck, knowing their exact places to be in order to play the notes. Having a sheet is allowed, but I chose not to have one; apparently people are more impressed that way. Up to this point I hadn’t needed to concentrate but now it’s this section — I start paying attention to the way my fingers shift, the way my bow moves over the strings, quickly, each note a 32nd, the rosin billows, my right arm tires, I must keep going, I relax my thumb slightly to ease the pain. The person who wrote the Piece had obviously never played a violoncello before: this bit is impossible to play without contorting my left hand into an awful claw shape across no less than three of the four strings.

I am 3 minutes in to the Piece. The hardest section is over, and I can go back to focusing on other things, to allow my body to take over; it knows what needs to be done and I can trust it to do it without my supervision. The man’s eyes meet mine as I look at him. That’s another reason I didn’t bring in a sheet — I can look at the man’s eyes with my full attention now. They are showing something… awe? impress? Two measures. And then I look away. The walls of the room are blank, wood. This is presumably to avoid distractions during play but this is exactly what I’m trying to achieve: to enter that Zone where the brain provides no input and the body simply Gets On With It.

There was a girl I saw on the subway. She had blue hair. I think of that now. It was bright blue, caught my attention and kept it. She probably knew I was staring at her, and I probably knew that she knew that, but I couldn’t bring myself to look away, as if if I did then she would disappear, like some apparition, some phantom of my imagination, this one point of colour in an otherwise bleak subway ride towards the Instrument examination. People in black suits with black ties, black briefcases, grey hair grey skins grey lives. I had given up calling the Instrument a cello. It didn’t need a name. It bent under my will; it did what I asked it to, like a slave: and like a slave it didn’t need a name. Just a label. Pieces are the same. I can’t remember what this Piece is called, or who wrote it. But it doesn’t matter. Her name might have been Lucy. I heard one of her friends say it. She looked at me, and the Instrument, before quickly darting her eyes away the way that people do on subways, never look at someone, especially not their eyes. The last thing you want is to make someone — or yourself — uncomfortable with the realisation that other people have eyes. And behind those eyes are things, and thoughts, and feelings, and a life that you will never know, and you know that knowing that much would be such an intense burden on yourself that you would never be able to leave the safety of your own home because you would look into someone’s eyes and suddenly you would be aware of all their problems and hopes and dreams and memories and knowledge and that is too much for anyone to process. So you look away. And they’re gone. And they get off at the next stop and you never see them again.

This bit caused me some trouble in practice. I smile a bit thinking about how easy I find it now, hoping that it doesn’t come off as arrogant. The man’s name is possibly Pole. He has done nothing but stare at me for the entire duration of the Piece. But I suppose he’s allowed to: it’s his job to watch people, to view their technique, to understand where their weak points lie. But he’s not looking at my eyes, nor my face, he looks at my fingers, of my left hand, seeing their position and they way they jump effortlessly from 1st to 3rd or 4th position and back, crossing strings and dancing complicated over the fingerboard, and my right hand, the way it holds the bow — a caress, not a claw — the way my elbow points upward, allowing full freedom of movement of my right arm to use the full extent of the bow to produce the sound, a dull monotony of tones in rhythm that once sounded beautiful but is now so much noise in the background. The man whose name is possibly Pole — I remember reading or hearing that somewhere — makes subtle expressions at my technique; I can make them out in the extreme anti-concentration of playing.

A minute left. The Piece is coming to a close, repeating the major themes and phrases like a chorus in a song, for one last time before the rallentando at the end, which would signal the audience to be aware: The Piece Is Ending, and they would suddenly awaken from that strange state that listening to music puts people in when in certain situations such as a concert hall, wait a moment as they realise the Piece has ended, and stand up and clap. Remember this bit? It’s played slightly differently now; the Piece being in a different key from the one it started in, but it’s still recognisable as a certain phrase from the beginning. I am suddenly acutely aware of the shape of the Instrument. The curve of the neck that accommodates the thumb, the bends in the sides for the knees, the exact length of the neck, the intricate and delicate shape of the bridge, the shape of the echo chamber designed exactly to reverb sounds at specific frequencies. The Piece is closing. I slow down for the final few notes. And stop.

Pole sits back in his chair, adjusts his glasses, takes a sip of water, writes some notes on a piece of paper, thanks me for the performance, and tells me that I’ll receive the results of the examination in a week. And I leave, taking the Instrument and bow with me. When I open the door, the man who is possible Pole calls for the next entry, a younger player, looking nervous, sheet rustling as she steps through doorway.

I sit on the subway. I like to watch the people here; you get some characters, and sometimes people who tell stories all on their own. A man with a box that’s too large to contain anything practical to take on a subway. At least three other people with instruments of their own: two guitars, a violin, and some other unidentifiable thing that might have been a flute. No one with blue hair. A woman struggling with a pram. I arrive at my stop and leave.

The End

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