Once many eons ago, so long ago I can't really relate to it so I'll fake it here in text, I played a solo on viola for a roomfull of people. OK, maybe not a full room. There were maybe twelve people there: four judges, the woman playing piano, my orchestra instructor, and a small gaggle of friends and curious onlookers. Maybe 14 people. Anyhow.
Picacho Middle School was a white-painted cinder block structure in the middle of what used to be the flood plain of the Rio Grande. Built on soil used until the 1970s for onion and chile and tomato and lettuce, it was turned into a school to serve the suddenly populated west valley and west mesa area. It was one of the newer schools in the area when I was in junior high, though it wasn't my school. It was where solo and ensemble competition was held for mid and high school (mid-school=junior high = some alphabet level in Engerland). Foreign ground, that campus. Ninth grade, I'd been playing viola since 5th grade, and I was good. Goddamn it I was good, I don't care who thinks I'm a jerk for saying so; my playing was filled with both technical accuracy and passion. I couldn't help it; music was what I had to express myself with, a thing that I could not entirely control; it vomited out of me, a violent spirit, a thing that my family could barely understand and could not contain. I was good.
So. End of the year, solo and ensemble competition for state, my last in the minor leagues before high school. The thing was, you could score very high (scale was 1+ to 5-, 1+ being the best) and maybe carry that on to compete with the very best in the state, but not at the middle school level. In mid school, you couldn't travel. You could be the best in the region, but those fucking high school kids could go on to compete in Santa Fe. And the kick in the nuts was, our region was changing their grade structure. The very next year? Ninth grade would be highschool. They changed the structure my first year of highschool; we were the last 9th grade mid-school class. So that sucked. Plus, I hated the whole idea of competition. I had nothing to prove. I hated having to prove my worth.
I really didn't want to do it. My orchestra instructor insisted on it. Pushed hard, got angry, and finally got me to agree to it by just being annoying.
Part of the deal was finding someone to be your accompaniment, someone who typically ended up being a housemom with a piano and maybe some background. I went with a classmate's mom who was well regarded, though it was odd; her daughter Darcy and I were in the same grade but not the same clique and Darcy was often quite obnoxious to me and my ilk. Still, Darcy's mom was very good, patient and quick to learn. She and I worked after school for nine weeks, every day for at least 30 minutes, but after six weeks we were just rocking through the piece and then chatting. She asked about her daughter. I told her myths and fables. We were a very good team.
You have to memorize the piece, and you have to play it at tempo and correctly; you can't fuck up. I'd never fucked up; I'd played solo and ensemble competitions since sixth grade, and I'd never had to rely on sheet music even in ensemble. Sheet music slowed me down. It was too easy, and you could score no higher than a 3 with sheet music in ensemble, and could not use sheet music at all in solo. So I never did. I hated crutches.
So, there I was. Day of competition. Starched white shirt, clip-on tie. Patent leather shoes and belt. My viola, an internal organ by that point, as familiar to me as skin. Mom drops me off in front of the school, because my mom really wasn't interested in the whole thing. Had chores to do. Things to accomplish. Shopping.
Parents of HuSi, take note: be interested. I swear to you, had my mom actually been interested in my existence, I'd not have been writing here for ten years. You'd not have to suffer this awful shit. My therapist would be short one Mercedes payment a month. Take note, you parents. BE INTERESTED.
So my mom, loving lady she is, she takes off, and I have four ensemble pieces: three quartets and one trio. Because I'm one of two viola players in my school and the only one who doesn't actively drool.
I get to first ensemble, and it is a perfect goddamn setup for a quad. Violin is this cat named James, he's the bees knees: a lifetime of private lessons and a fan of The Who and the Police. Second violin is a girl named Suzanne who I'd been in love with since the 7th grade. Cello is a girl whose name escapes me, but she was Hispanic and played with gigantic vowels and crisp consonants, passion barely restrained; her family would take her out of music in favor of sports. And me, if you can believe this, sitting there with a music stand in front of me, no sheet music on it, $1200 viola, and my fly down.
We got a 1+. Because fuck Mozart.
Second up was my trio. Me, James, and a girl named Tammy on cello. And we were very good, but Tammy was a mechanical Turk, all tree saw and thick but accurate fingers. Still, we managed a 1.
Third was a quad, and it killed me. I can't remember who was in it except this cat named Billy on violin (who recently, as an unrelated aside, died). He was the first guy I knew who, a couple of years later, got to third base with a girl, another violinist who wasn't in the competition, and he was as sloppy on the violin as he was with her. Come to think of it, she'd dead now too. There are coincidences. Anyhow, despite all the near future death, we got a 1- and a lot of half-hearted applause, because he looked like a 9th grade Brad Pitt and some of us could play.
Fourth ensemble, another quad, this one quiet and restrained to the point of indifference, but sometimes with clockwork Mozart you want a clockwork sound, robotic and precise. And this was that. We got a 1.
Then a two hour break for lunch. I was exhausted but relaxed. Had to re-string and let my viola settle. My mom, before she'd torn off across town in her Fiat, had handed me five bucks and noted that a Pic-Quik, the local equivalent of a Gas-n-Sip, was only 1/4 mile away. I got a frozen burrito and a grape soda, ate slowly as I walked back to the venue.
Waiting for my solo, pacing the floor, studying my bow and making sure my new strings were settled, I saw friends (James and Billy and April and Suzanne) and my instructor, all giving me the thumbs up. My pianist arrived from her other solo gig for a cellist, and she was dressed in flouncy 80's sheer polyester and big hair, bigger glasses, clompy shoes, shiny makeup. She looked more nervous than I.
The, the judges asked for me. I stepped to the front, nodded to my pianist. We breathed deep.
The judges asked what I'd be playing. I told them: Stamitz. Viola Concerto, 1st movement. One of the judges was the university and city symphony conductor. She asked me with a smile, why that piece?
All of the pieces available to us are weighted. Some are easy (Beethoven, Moonlight Sonata...my 7th grade solo) and some are stupid. This one was stupid. It wasn't something mid-school kids play.
I tell her, because there isn't a lot of option in the viola music, and all of it is easy. Her eyebrows march up her forehead. I say, this piece is not as easy. She grins, and settles back in her chair. Someone asks if I like the piece. I lie and say I love it. They ask how long I've known of it. I lie and say I heard it months ago. They ask me to begin.
I breathe in. I nod at the pianist. This piece starts with me alone. I launch.
The piece is one of those rural pieces, sounding like French or English countryside with, like, harpsichord intended. Because harpsi's and viols, they share some shit. It is pastoral but complex, ridiculous at times. Lots of gliss. Lots of strike and multi-string slide. Every position, from first to nth. Fast but relaxed. Almost slovenly in the way it wants all the low octaves. Oh my god, it wants a viola, craves a viola, it wants this clef because it sometimes trills up into the highest of highs on fast runs from the deepest depths of the low C, and sometimes it sits brooding in cello-ville, haunting and thick and filled with sad soul. It needs a viola.
And the end? Improvised rhythm. Deep, satisfying, crunchy, building. Piano has shut the fuck up, the metronome was reduced to suggestion. The barest suggestion of a line, a path, timbre and tone maintained by attitude and breath, chasing like small birds up long limbs, dropping like large stones into giant ponds, green and verdant and full, it pummels the notion that this is a mid-range instrument. No, this thing is all of the instruments, and why I played it was because it played all of it, from deepest cello to highest violin, the most my mask and ego could need and it needed every goddamn thing.
The end a trill, then piano waking up and punctuating the end, then?
Bow drops, instrument down, and the whole room is quiet. Dead. No air.
And in that eighth of a second between cheer or boo or too polite applause or golf clap or disinterest, in that intake of breath?
All the things.
The whole world. That half a heart beat. Nothing yet, but wood and lemon oil and rosin and sweat and fear and hope and love and joy and adrenal stink and hard breathing and the world stopped. Crystal. Time an illusion. A cave of silence.
Well, I don't remember. I do know I got another medal. They give medals and not trophies. I know I got a 1+ and I know that the very next year, my first year in high school, I lost interest and did not compete. Figure that since no one in my life was interested, neither was I. I'd played in the city symphony by then. I'd been on my way. But no one cared. After my 10th grade year when my parents would not pay for any part of the trip the orchestra took to Dallas to perform and do fun things, and I sat and twirled in the empty classroom, my friends out having an experience, my instructor begging me to find a way, and I stopped giving a fuck about most things. Everything. It no longer mattered. Because it didn't matter to anyone but me, and it was the very first decision I made that I had complete control over, and my decision was vindictive, bitter, horrible. Stupid.
Parents take note. Be interested. I am an old man now, and it still rings empty. It still affects me. I know it shouldn't, I know it is stupid and irrational and childish, but I also know that my life would have been very, very different if someone...anyone who was in my family...would have noticed that moment and cared. Stupid, childish, and accurate. Fuel for many years of derision and pain and bad posturing. Some very important part of my essence, played out to an empty room.
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