In Anchorage, I prepare for the upcoming January concert. The Beethoven symphony that we will perform (his first, I believe) makes me feel like running through the mountains, but the wind chill is minus fifteen, and I seem to have forgotten my longjohns. Besides, the mountains are too far to reach by foot from my hotel, and I have no car. So instead of taking him literally, I lace up my running shoes and alternate my practice sessions with bouts on the treadmill at the top of the hotel. (With no one familiar to distract me, I’m left to my own whims.)
Beethoven can be tricky, but if you enslave yourself to a metronome and some simple speed drills, his music becomes accessible and allows for the imagination to take over from there. With a chuckle, I discover that it actually helps to envision small scurrying animals when playing the scales in the finale. Before I know it, another hour has passed and it’s time to hit the treadmill.
I’m just warming up when Alisa Weilerstein, the featured cellist for the Dvorak concerto, enters and takes the neighboring treadmill. What an opportunity! Now is my chance to say something. I want to tell her that I stay in the room next to hers. I want to tell her that I look forward to the long measures of rests in the second movement because that’s when I can finally get lost in her playing, which at times has such a voice-like quality that it leaves me breathless. I want to thank her for bringing music to life and speaking to my soul.
But then I’d have to admit to all of those scratching sounds next door.
In each passing moment, the silence steadily builds an impenetrable concrete wall. I bury myself in my book that I bought at the airport terminal, where travelers buy things to help them get lost in something else that makes them feel a little more understood and a little less alone. She picks up a jog. For maybe two miles, she runs. During this time, my thoughts go back to Beethoven, and mountains, and how she will finish her two miles and cool down, and maybe someday I will run across a mountain ridge and never stop.
I wonder, does she ever feel that way too?
We don’t ever speak. We just go back to our rooms to practice.
One of my students won second place in SHAR's latest writing contest. He got $100. I don't know why I feel like bragging about this, since I didn't even know about the contest and had nothing to do with his essay, but it's always nice to believe you had a hand somehow in producing something good, no matter how indirect.
"Violin is the way I 'sing' and express myself; it is my voice in the world of music. I love to become better, and I strive to do so. My violin and I exist only with each other; without me it couldn’t make sound, and without it I couldn’t make music. It all comes back to just playing music and sharing it with others. This is why I love playing violin."
You can find the rest of this essay, as well as the other winning essays, here:
In the past when tackling challenges, I used to draw upon a bit of inspiration, imagination, or other secret incantation. But now it seems I’m all alone, just me and my metronome. I waited for a while to see if the motivation would find me again, but after sitting at the base of the mountain and watching it remain as it was, unbudging and ever towering, it became obvious that it wasn’t going to climb itself.
I could sit here and mope about how I can’t, or I could take a step. At least the metronome will give me a reference point for the start and end of each day. I’ll take it slow, and think about efficiency and muscle coordination, and try not to feel like a basset hound in a pack of greyhounds chasing a ridiculous mechanical rabbit.
Who knows, maybe I won’t summit, but maybe I’ll find something else of value along the way.
“If you hurry, you can still make it.” Jacquelyn, my sister-in-law, prompted once more. The words tugged. I really should go. But what if it doesn’t turn out like I imagined it would? Things usually don’t.
They usually don’t. Turn out that way. At least not the way I think about it in the studio, daydreaming, building up the scenario. In this particular scenario, I return to my old high school to see my old high school orchestra teacher, Mr. Peterson. Everyone there is in awe when they see the person that I turned out to be, all famous and well-kept and confident, full of positive energy, heavy-laden with medals of achievement. As I whip out my violin and unfold the first few measures of Bach’s chaccone (or insert whatever dashing violin repertoire you wish), the young aspiring students weep, either because they are so moved by the music, or out of pure jealousy, depending on my mood.
But ever since the day I graduated, I hadn’t set foot in that place. Every time I thought about actually doing it, I shuddered in fear, for the Emily in my imagination turned out to be a pretty hard girl to compete with. I never felt quite like I’d arrived just yet. And what if it didn’t turn out like that? What if he was too busy to stop and chat? What if he didn’t remember me after all, and I had nothing to say, and we stood there looking at the floor?
Maybe next year. Next year, next year, all of them stacking up like dust. Before I knew it, I’d missed the ten-year reunion, and I still wasn’t ready.
The thoughtfulness of Jacquelyn’s phone call prodded me to action. If not now, then when? I'd already concluded that there never would come a time where my status outweighed the standard I’d set. This time, however, it was something else that stirred me to action, an ulterior motive that would not let me rest until I’d seen it through. If it wasn’t for this one thing I really needed to do, I never would have made it out the door that night of the high school orchestra concert.
The parking lot was a little more difficult to find amidst the new structures. The walls inside the building had been re-tiled. They’d added monitors in the lobby to show the events on the stage. Other than that, it still smelled the same. I made it just in time for the last piece on the menu, a John Williams movie-theme arrangement (which I could tell was plagued with flats). As soon as possible, families were up out of their seats, finding their way out to their cars. I swam upstream and tucked myself backstage to wait. Mr. Peterson sat at the edge of the stage, helping his students. As he stood and turned, I stepped out of the shadows. It took a few seconds before he spoke.
The scene unfolded from there exactly like it would had it been scripted for a movie. He told me about the school’s growing string program, and of his involvement as a cellist with the newly formed Tulsa Symphony. I told him about my studio of thirty students and how I’d joined the Anchorage symphony. We couldn’t believe he’d been teaching for 27 years, and that I’d been graduated for fourteen.
Finally, I got around to what I came to do. “Mr. Peterson, I just wanted to say thank you. If it hadn’t been for the opportunity that the public school gave me by having a string program, I don’t think I would ever have played the violin at all.”
Can’t even imagine what that would be like.
Thank you, Mr. Peterson.
The weather in Pennsylvania seemed to want to make its Alaskan visitors feel right at home. One morning last week, for instance, I recall waking up to 40 mph winds and a thermometer that read three degrees above zero. Honestly, I'd been hoping for something a bit warmer than this on my vacation.
Sunday evening, we hit the road once again, Oklahoma-bound. I-70 sprawled through the night, broken only by pit stops for gas and caffeine. If we timed it just right, we could make it 300 miles between stops. So 300 miles from Jersey Shore, PA, I hopped out of the car for the first time to be greeted with shockingly balmy air. By the time we reached Oklahoma, it was over 70 degrees, the strong southern wind blowing like a hair dryer. I burst through the door of my parents' home and quickly switched out of my turtleneck into a t-shirt, shorts and running shoes, afraid to waste a single moment of this precious spring-like day, fully aware that it wasn't going to last.
Just 24 hours ago, I wrapped my scarf tightly and grabbed my gloves as I went out the door. But tonight, lightning boils high in the hot cauldron sky, spawning tornados and thunderstorms to the south and east. Tomorrow night, it will be twenty degrees again.
She plays it all with such dynamic contrast that it puts me on the edge of my seat, waiting to see what will unfold next.
And this is where I will be until further notice, banditing the wireless in intermittent snippets at the local coffee shop, waiting for the next cold snap to pass while knitting sweaters and shawls like a fiend.
Emily Grossman is from Soldotna, Alaska. Biography
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