When I looked down, I saw fifteen eyes staring back at me. Mr. Ethan, my conductor with the comforting Santa Claus mustache, had marked my score with hand-drawn eyes, saying, “These are the places we need to make eye contact.” Before the New York Concerto Competition winner’s concert, I felt nervously excited and took a deep breath, imagining the fantastic scenes I had mapped out for each movement.
For weeks, the hardest part of practicing had been finding the emotion hidden inside the notes, an enterprise like recreating the perfumed scent of an old blossom folded within a book. Technical perfection could be learned after just a few hours spent with an étude, but the passion behind the performance required imagination from the soul.
With the concert’s opening crash of golden cymbals, I closed my eyes and envisioned the ebb and flow of the opening theme of Prokofiev’s Concerto No. 1. I froze, shocked by the fast tempo, my stomach in turmoil; I couldn’t match the orchestra’s pulse, not at a clip at least twenty beats faster than we had rehearsed. The call of the brass seemed to signal impending doom–mine!
My heart started throbbing to the rhythm of the snare drum, their beats synchronizing. I embodied the music, my breath in harmony with the motions of Mr. Ethan’s baton. Concentrate, I commanded myself. In lessons, when my hand slipped off the keys, my teacher would scold me, not for the technical error, but for the lapse in concentration. “Warm heart and cool mind,” she always advised me. “Mental control.”
Back straight, because a question-mark spine would block energy, I pushed off from the balls of my feet, a charge zipping through my legs to my shoulders, arms and fingers. I had become synchronized and had followed all the rules, but I saw that these were not enough, that technique could take me only so far. Then I let myself go. I stilled the butterflies in my stomach and dove into the melodious wave of the first phrase, boosted by the fifty musicians surrounding me. The energy exploding from the intense crescendos flooded through me, raced through my veins; the beat pulsed in my blood, scene after scene of fox hunts, mischievous imps, and glittering ballrooms keeping the music alive.
The concerto began to wind up. Drawing on my swimming training, the straining push for the last sprint, I filled my lungs. I no longer needed to remember the eyes on the sheet music. I was performing from a different place beyond notations and technique. The iron-lunged trumpeters, the tinkling glockenspiel, all accompanied me in sending the rich harmonies spinning and dancing around the hall. To the last of my mental snapshots, the driving percussion and triumphant, final outcry of the orchestra propelled us across the finish line.
With a bob of the conductor’s white mustache, fifty players simultaneously expelled their breath. The music had come alive, and from the corner of my eye, I saw powdery creased flowers explode into fresh blossoms.