I am behind the curtain at stage right, watching someone else — a young girl, in a dress far too formal for how young she is, but she looks very impressive — playing with more gusto and intensiveness than is really necessary; I watch her breathe in time to the music, maybe some form of keeping tempo, her eyes are closed, probably to visualise the music, a tic I used to have before I realised I could memorise the music into my body, and I wouldn’t need to consciously remember it. I and the Instrument are standing behind the curtain. I can’t see the audience, but I can tell that they’re sitting forward in their seats, listening intently, like I am now, to the violin. There is no rustling of paper. You can tell an audience is getting bored or restless when you hear paper — programs if this were a concert, or in this scoring sheets — or coughing, or people shifting in their seats, not lending their entire attention to the music and the performance. The girl is probably about 13 years old, and the audience is enraptured. I can’t remember the name of the Piece that she’s playing, but it’s technically challenging, her fingers are moving faster than I can truly keep track — the sign of a player in that Zone, where conscious effort is no longer necessary — and her body is open to the music that she produces. This feels like the final few bars. I take a few deep breaths. The first time I went on stage I completely choked. I had no confidence in my own abilities, and forgot how to play, and everyone was staring at me, and the lights were in my face and it was suddenly too hot and my hands and knees were shaking and everything was falling around me and I couldn’t play. And I had to stand up, and walk off stage, knowing that I had failed, vowing silently never to go on stage ever again. It was then I realised I could forget. About the music, about what I was playing — to let my body do the work for me. My teacher eventually forced me back on. I’m glad for that forcing, now: I never feel at my best unless I'm on stage.
The girl has finished, and she takes her bow as the audience politely recognises her skill. She deserved more than that in my opinion, but no matter. She walks off stage left and I wait a few seconds before entering stage right. Again that polite applause, shuffling of paper, people coughing, getting it out the way in case this is a performance worth listening to. I sit down. This is a situation where sheets are not allowed: they would reflect badly on your own playing anyway, so many players tend to spend all their effort remembering the music on the day of performance, rather than the actual playing; a place I never find myself in, and this is the same — I have memorised the music with my body as I always do, there will be no effort to remember it on my part. I take a breath, and begin to play.
My left hand refuses to bend into shape. My bow hand is tight, my wrist is already feeling tired. I am not nervous, so what is it? I push on, knowing that if I stop people will start muttering, making that awful noise that will throw me out of the Zone. Not that I’m in there anyway, but as soon as I stop I am doomed never to start again, and the light, and their gaze, will be in my eyes. I hate admitting that I get stage-fright like that, and yet I’ve never been able to get rid of it, despite how many performances I have done over my life. My breathing is laboured. I straighten my back. I try to close my eyes, but I see nothing there — why do players do this, if it makes no real difference? — opening them again the lights blind me. She played with everything she had; she looked physically exhausted after her performance, breathing heavily, almost shuffling off stage. I decide to breathe.
It hits me: my teacher knew it, and I knew it once: music is not a collection of vibrations in the air arranged into rhythms and phrases and bars, with one person behind it orchestrating the whole sound; it is instead a bouquet of colour arranged into a splendid array of emotions and feelings that the composer can only inject into ink on the paper, but the performer injects it into the very air around them, drawing anyone listening into a state of mind not unlike euphoria; and into a place that the performer creates for themselves, an arena where music controls everything, constructed from memories and mental state alike, turning each performance of each Piece into a singular event, never repeated, and the performance should take everything out of the performer, because each Piece asks for everything from the player, and if they do not provide then the Piece will be the lesser for it. I see now why the audience was in such rapt attention with that previous girl: she was giving everything that she had, and in return the Piece gave her everything it needed. The audience is shuffling. Most of them are wearing suits, a sea of black, white. And one spot of blue. It’s the girl from the subway. I stop for a moment, but do it on a long slow note just before a pause of indeterminate length so I think I can get away with it. Think; what does this Piece evoke? A sense of despair? It is in a minor key — but this is not the time for thinking. Feel; what space does this piece create? I first played this piece in my teacher’s house, a cluttered space with papers strewn all over the floor, the curtains pulled over the window, letting in a faint parallelogram of light onto the floor where the cat is trying to make the most of it. Dust dances in that light, and the rosin from my bow flies off into the dance, adding itself seamlessly to the unending swirl. My teacher makes a sign that shows that he’s still listening and gets up to do something in another room. I play louder. I’m suddenly aware that I’m playing again, and this time the audience is in my grip: everyone is staring at me, but I don’t see them, not really, because I am sitting in this house, playing to no one but the cat, which isn’t even looking at me.
There aren’t many measures left of the song. My teacher has returned, and sits back down in his chair. He is looking on at me, and I recognise the expression. It is not pride, but longing. Why? He can play like this, surely? He once said something to me: “To you, everything you play is just a collection of notes, right? I wish I could play like that. I always end up adding too much of myself into the piece, you know?” Idiot, you were wrong. I wish I could have played like you, not simply playing but feeling the piece, knowing the notes intimately. The light of the sun disappears from the window, behind the tree in the garden, and the final measure draws to a close.
I open my eyes, and realised they were closed the entire time. I forgot I was on stage. Bewildered, I rise, and bow.