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Karen Rile

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Published: October 10, 2013 at 8:12 PM [UTC]

a birds eye view of nyc


When my daughter was a gap-toothed eight-year-old her teacher invited us to a masterclass where several of his older students would be playing for a famous violinist. Although I was hesitant to bring a young child to an event that ended close to her bedtime, my daughter insisted, so we went.

The masterclass was held at the music school’s main branch, on the other side of town. We arrived a few minutes after the hour, due to traffic on the expressway.

At the front of the room, a serious-faced eleven-year-old boy in a black sweater was already playing a movement of unaccompanied Bach. I thought he looked terribly grown-up in comparison to my pigtailed daughter, and to my ear he sounded astonishingly sophisticated. In what world do children play the violin this well? Would my daughter be like him someday? The famous violinist was watching him intensely.

We glanced around for my daughter’s teacher. Me, nervous for his reproving look since we were late; she, hoping to wave at him, because his face always brightened when he saw her. But not today. Her teacher was staring at the boy, who was the first and youngest of his students to perform on this program. The teacher’s body was as rigid; every muscle in his face was tense with grave concern.

The boy finished playing and looked up at the famous violinist with his large, dark eyes. The violinist smiled at the boy and began to speak. I opened my notebook out of habit. My daughter opened her notebook, too, a child’s black-and-white composition book. What on earth was she writing? “Watch your frazing in the Bach…” I imagined my own self at eight, which was a year before I’d even begun my own ill-fated piano lessons. I could probably have sat through a similarly long lecture demo, but only if someone gave me Twizzlers, and only with my head buried in Harriet the Spy.

The class continued for two hours. A thirteen-year-old Russian girl, who had soloed with the Philadelphia Orchestra in a schoolchildren’s concert earlier that same day, played a movement of Wieniawski. An 11th grade boy played Tchaikovsky, a performance so exciting I found myself holding my breath. After each child played, the famous violinist gave his opinions; then they re-played their pieces, incorporating his suggestions. My daughter and I scribbled more notes. I kept glancing at her teacher, whose gaze remained locked on his students, his face muscles stiff with concentration. I couldn’t shake the feeling that everyone in the audience ought to lighten up. We ought to leap to their feet to celebrate the astonishing achievements of these kids, these children. These children.

There was no reception after, no folding table groaning with cupcakes and punch, like at student recitals where families show up with bunches of supermarket flowers to help the performers feel like little divas no matter how it went. The mood remained sober and studious to the end, but with a frisson of dangerous excitement—because it meant something to play for the famous violinist, who was on the faculty of a famous conservatory some twelve blocks north. It was an opportunity that would not be taken lightly by these children, their parents, or their teacher. And the stakes were high. It could go either way.

“Why isn’t he saying hello to me?” whispered my daughter. Her teacher still had not acknowledged us, or even looked in our direction. He, who made her feel so special during her lessons.

“It’s because he’s focusing on the students who played tonight. He’s their teacher too, you know.” In this room, she was not important. Her first lesson in recontextualization.

My daughter’s teacher finally greeted us. His face lit up as he smiled down at her (he is a very tall man and she was tiny for her age.) He repeated for us with pleasure, sotto voce, what the famous violinist had just told him, about the eleven-year-old boy who'd played Bach: “He is a very talented boy." Then a shadow passed over his face and he rushed off to speak to the mother of the Russian girl, who was applying that month for early admission to the famous violinist's conservatory. We found ourselves chatting with the mom of the very talented boy.

“What are you working on now?” she asked my daughter.

“Bach A minor!” she answered. In spite of myself, I  felt a small swell of pride; it was a new piece, assigned a few lessons ago. Her first “real” concerto.

The woman narrowed her eyes, regarding my daughter. “Gettin’ there,” she said after a pause.

My daughter beamed back at the boy’s mom, considering this a compliment. I felt the sting of her condescension. I got it: we were in the room, but we weren’t really “there.” My daughter wasn’t yet among those who would be chosen to play for a famous visitor. But she would someday if she kept working. She was "gettin' there."

But where is “there”? How do you know when you're no longer aspiring, when you’ve arrived? By a teacher’s approval, by advancement in repertoire, or technique, or some elusive, shifting sense of mastery? Is Carnegie Hall “there”? Is winning a competition “there”? What about a job? What about a career?

No matter where you are on the grid, you'll always be able to make out the distant figures of the ones far ahead of you. But don't be fooled: they're not there any more than you are. The very talented boy, the Russian girl, the 11th grade boy, my daughter, her teacher, the famous violinist, you, me, all of us moving forward in our own orbits, traveling towards the elusive “there”.

It’s exhausting; it's essential. Keep moving. You're getting there.

From Emily Grossman
Posted on October 10, 2013 at 8:34 PM
Did you take that photo? I love it! All those skyscrapers, towering below, and yet the little pigeon looks down on them all... I have recurrent dreams of tall buildings, flights of stairs, trees, and mountains; I'm trying to climb them, and sometimes they are toppling even as I ascend. And sometimes, in those rare, once-in-a-while dreams, I can fly. Gettin' there...
From Laurie Niles
Posted on October 10, 2013 at 9:18 PM
I love her little note-taking!
From Karen Rile
Posted on October 10, 2013 at 9:45 PM
Hi Emily,
Yes, I took it at the top of the Empire State Building. Rumor has it that the birds don't have to wait in those long lines!
From Emily Grossman
Posted on October 10, 2013 at 10:22 PM
I love your blog, too, by the way. I've always loved catching glimpses into your life.
From Anne-Marie Proulx
Posted on October 10, 2013 at 11:23 PM
Hi, very good and true blug... and fantastic picture of the bird!
From Ellie Phillips
Posted on October 11, 2013 at 12:00 AM
Thank you so much for this post.

I constantly struggle with feeling worthless. Even as I read your article, I thought, 'She played Bach A minor when she was eight!? I wasn't playing repertoire like that until I was eleven! I must not be good enough!'.

But this reminded me of an important, crucial truth: we're all getting there. I'm getting there. And for now (and forever), "getting there" is good enough.

From Thessa Tang
Posted on October 11, 2013 at 10:51 AM
Love your blog, Karen. Getting "there" is so much better than getting - nowhere!
From Yixi Zhang
Posted on October 11, 2013 at 5:50 PM
Karen, another fan of your blog! You have inspired me in many ways and specially in your writing. I'm taking in so much when I read your blog. I'm taking a poetry writing course now. I want to reclaim my voice, and as an ESL kid, the race is on all the time and I know I probably will never quite get there, especially “there” being a moving target. I figured the fun is really in the "getting" rather than the "there" bit.
From Karen Rile
Posted on October 11, 2013 at 9:02 PM
Thanks for your comment, Yixi! You're right to plunge right ahead with the poetry course. I'm teaching an advanced fiction writing course right now and one of my most interesting students is Iranian, an MFA visual arts student. English is his 3rd language, but he is fearless. His work is really interesting and the writing workshop is so much richer for his participation.
From Rebecca Wishnia
Posted on October 11, 2013 at 10:33 PM
I find reprehensible that kind of condescension for playing Bach or other "easier" composers (unfortunately, I've received the same condescension for playing a lovely Handel sonata!). It's all great music, and I hope that if your daughter later works on Tchaikovsky or Wieniawski, she'll revisit the Bach as well as other "getting there" concertos. :-)
From Karen Rile
Posted on October 12, 2013 at 11:06 AM
Dear Eric,

Thank you for your note-- I'm glad you wrote it because it shows me how differently a reader might interpret the essay from how I meant it. If I use it again, I will need to be clearer.

First, and most importantly, I don't believe that the mother necessarily intended to be condescending. (Her son also played Bach.) I don't know her intentions; she could have just as easily meant it as a compliment, or it could have been the kind of conversational filler that slips out of one's mouth after a long day.

Initially, I took what she said as patronizing because I was naive; only looking back at it after many years, can I see the value of understanding that one is always on some kind of grid or continuum; that the horizon it always twinkling in the distance. One struggles towards "there" because one is still alive; one constantly works to improve. My hope was that a reader would follow this transformation in my own understanding of those words.

What I meant was : "there" isn't joining some club with other people; "there" isn't playing Tchaikovsky concerto or publishing a novel, or winning an important prize. "There" is the idea of continual striving throughout life. It's a good thing to struggle this way; it means we're still alive.

The point of the essay was to turn the platitude around. Ironically, as you have demonstrated, the essay wasn't yet "there." Or possibly it required a closer reading than I've a right to demand in this forum, as the commenter above you also mistook my meaning.

Also, I think the photo (which I took at the top of the Empire State Building) may have been misleading. The bird is literally looking towards uptown Manhattan (perhaps Carnegie Hall or The Juilliard School). I meant it in the sense of "how the heck do I get there from here?" but the clever pun in the headline "pecking order" (which I didn't write) may have thrown readers off. There is only one bird in the photo; he (she?) is alone on his trajectory; as are we all.

From Yixi Zhang
Posted on October 12, 2013 at 10:20 PM
“There are things you can’t reach. But
You can reach out to them, and all day long.

The wind, the bird flying away. The idea of god.

And it can keep you busy as anything else, and happier.

.....” -- Mary Oliver

My cat is my role model. For her, it's the butterflies in the summer; for me, Bach, Kant, Jan Zwicky, ... The list goes on.

From marjory lange
Posted on October 13, 2013 at 2:47 PM
Karen, my first reaction to the mother's comment was, "Well, at least she didn't say, 'you'll get here' someday." That, to me, would have been unequivocally condescending.

But your blog reminds me how every moment is part of a process (often of more than one process)--whether it's your daughter taking notes, or you (perhaps) having a first meeting with someone who later becomes mightily significant in your life. At the moment, it's impossible to see the results of the meeting.

As the only musician (or even musician wanna-be) in my family, that set of meetings and the journey have been made sola. I'm glad you have been there for your offspring.

From Karen Rile
Posted on October 13, 2013 at 5:35 PM
Eric, to be honest, I don't see "gettin' there" as a meme. I can't recall hearing anyone say that to me before or since (which is why the moment stuck with me all these years.) I'm not sure actually what you are talking about -- memes and shibboleths. Perhaps there is some use of the phrase that I'm not familiar with. The essay was simply meant to illustrate what Marjory succinctly states just above this comment, nothing deeper. ("...every moment is part of a process (often of more than one process)...") The scene with the catchy phrase is merely a device for getting to that point. The change in person from first to second is really just a device, not meant to be taken literally. But thanks again for reading and taking the time to comment!

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