Wednesday, April 13, 2011

Guest Writer: Eric G. Müller

Debut

I sat at the back of the packed hall, waiting for my turn to perform a duet with the resident flautist. We were last on the program, the highlight of the evening – the finale. It would be my formal debut into the new school community, both as a teacher and accompanist. It would also be my debut playing a classical piece after ten years of rock and roll, but that bit of info I kept to myself.

Financial desperation and a tad of hubris led me to take the job as a piano accompanist at the school where my wife had graduated. There was an opening and I auditioned. As a kid I’d taken piano lessons for a couple of years, but I gave that up to play guitar. I went back to the piano when I noticed most rock bands needed keyboardists. I played by ear and improvised, emulating maestros like Rick Wakeman, Keith Emerson, Vangelis and Chick Corea. After my stint as a rock musician I resumed my academic studies, going to grad school where I met my wife. She played the violin, and in order to accompany her, I decided to learn how to read music again. By the time I auditioned I could play two pieces by heart. I only pretended I could read the music, and my renditions of Schumann’s “Von fremden Ländern und Menshen,” and a Chopin nocturne were only so-so. But they loved my improvisations. I got the job and now had to pay my dues.

The air was stuffy, the program too long, and my solar plexus shot nervous currents up my spinal cord. I hadn’t wanted to play with Mrs. Googlin. She was the best flautist around and I didn’t feel ready to play publicly yet, especially not a piece by Bach; the driving polyphonic texture confused my fingers. But she assured me it was very simple and that I would have no trouble at all. She’d heard me play a few times at different events – coffee houses, parties, cabarets, weddings – but each time I’d played by ear, or improvised. She thought I was brilliant, and besides, she couldn’t find anybody else. I yielded.

And now I was mentally preparing myself, going over every note in my mind, imagining my fingers flitting with precision over the keys. The children were getting increasingly restless and the program was never-ending.

I’d practiced like mad. I learned the whole thing by heart (my third piece). I played it ad nauseam, to the exasperation of wife and neighbors. But when I rehearsed together with Mrs. Googlin I still faltered. She assured me that I’d be fine. “And you still have a few days to perfect your playing.” We hadn’t practiced since, and now I was stuck in this stifling concert hall, waiting to go on.

At last our turn came. Amidst applause we stepped on stage. As I sat down by the grand piano she whispered to me, “Whatever you do, don’t stop. Just keep on playing.” I nodded. The expectant silence set in. My head was filled with noxious smog after the long wait and the lack of ventilation (too much carbon dioxide). Mrs. Googlin nodded and I began.

Not three measures into the piece and I made my first mistake. I should have stopped right there, smiled, breathed deeply and started again (after all I had rehearsed it hundreds of times), but I didn’t, because she’d told me not to. At the flute entrance my blunders began to multiply, and my clammy hands started trembling, but I didn’t stop – just like when I used to play with the band, Tokolosh. I was their keyboardist and frontman. We were an unstoppable sonic avalanche even when we witnessed fights and melees erupting in the mosh pit, or when tables, chairs and bottles went flying in clubs and bars. I used to strut across the stage like Jagger and scream like Led Zeppelin’s Robert Plant. I postured and played the part of the proverbial rock star; I was a demigod backed by an arsenal of amps and a towering PA system. And who cared about mistakes, anyway? It was part of the metal grit we hurled at the gyrating mass beyond the blinding spotlights. But now I cared, each blatant error drawing blood.

She played beautifully, though her silvery notes did not coincide with mine. I was not even sure whether we were following the same measures or tempo. The hall had become a morgue, and I was hyper perceptive to the audience’s sudden attentiveness as they listened to the gradual tonal implosion. Her words propelled me forward. So I adhered to the credo: the show must go on!

By now I was utterly lost, though I scurried around the key of E flat major like a beheaded turkey, hoping to find my way back to the melodic path – anywhere along the way would do. Pleadingly I glanced up at the formidable Mrs. Googlin, but she tooted right on, playing with fierce determination – no stopping this iron-woman. And where was that flagrant rocker, oozing with self-confidence? By now Bach had morphed into an atonal collage of chance encounters between distorted sharps, flats and accidentals crashing into one another – 4’33” of noise. Children began to snicker, which underscored the expanding, oppressive mood surrounding the inexorable butchering of Bach.

I leaned forward, swaying with the music, as if it was heart-wrenchingly moving. All the while I felt the sweat run down my face and neck, seeping through my scalp, draining into my collar, trickling down my chest and back, soaking my shirt. The piece in its entirety was hardly five minutes long, but I’d begun to understand the concept of eternal hell and damnation. As heavy metal macho-men we used to conjure forth doom and gloom images for show, but now I was living it – payback time. I was plunging down a precipice, head first, feeling the fatal pull of gravity.

At last I heard Mrs. Googlin play the final long, soft notes, and I knew we’d arrived at the end. I played the last chord in unison with her, but even at this moment I struck a minor instead of a major chord. At least it was played molte piano.

Amidst isolated and perfunctory clapping, Mrs. Googlin walked off in a huff. I, in turn, got up, grabbed my score and took cover behind the black grand, fumbling with a plastic bag I found on the floor. Thus occupied, scrunching my music into the dusty bag, I waited till everybody had left, before sneaking out the back entrance – a fallen rock star. For a moment I'd thought of apologizing, of seeking her out, but then her voice resounded in my ears, "Whatever you do, don't stop."

© Eric G. Müller 2011

Eric G. Müller is a musician, teacher and writer. He has written two novels, Rites of Rock (Adonis Press 2005) and Meet Me at the Met (Plain View Press, 2010), as well as a collection of poetry, Coffee on the Piano for You (Adonis Press, 2008). Articles, short stories and poetry have appeared in various journals and magazines.
www.ericgmuller.com

4 comments:

  1. That was great Eric- you had my stomach in knots the whole time- funny yet terrifying- enjoyed the 'butchering of Bach'

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  2. well-depicted nightmare: horrendous

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  3. This made me agonizingly nervous. I'm a big music fan, but a listener as opposed to a practitioner, and I've always been floored by people who can play to a quiet hall where every note is listened to closely. (I also like the mosh pit, but that's another thing entirely, as you pointed out.) Well written piece.

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  4. An incredibly nerve-wracking, cringe-enducing piece. And funny! Great work.

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