THE POWER OF MUSIC
Rachel opened the door of her townhouse to see Patrick, Bay City’s leading impresario, pick nervously at the sleeve of his navy-blue blazer.
“I’m in a terrible jam!” he said.
Rachel glanced over his head at the main spire of Bay City University and the early moon rising above. Patrick was the most colorful character she’d met since coming here to teach music theory and violin five years ago. Always in a tizzy over his latest problem. But a good heart she thought.
“Drink?” she asked.
“A dollop of Fireball would help.”
On her way to the kitchen Rachel looked thoughtfully at the priceless violin she’d set on her piano. Special delivered just that morning.
Drinks in hand Rachel led Patrick onto her small patio to enjoy the spring evening. No sooner had they sat than Patrick’s eyes pleaded to Rachel through gold-rimmed glasses.
“I need a big, big favor.” He clutched the glass with both hands. “Next week is the inaugural concert of our beautiful new hall.”
“I have my ticket.”
“Of course. Everybody who’s anybody in this state will be there. I somehow manage to get Hillary Hahn for the inaugural concert and a week beforehand she shuts a suitcase on her pinky and can’t play.”
Patrick rolled his eyes to the sky.
“Short of Joshua Bell who could I find to replace her?”
“Well,” With a sideways glance at Patrick Rachel took a bigger than usual sip of vodka tonic. “On such short notice—”
“A name’s come up. She’s never performed in public but she’s a legend to most every music lover around here. Under the circumstances I thought maybe she’d agree to give her first public performance.”
Rachel stood like a startled animal.
“Please please say you’ll do it.”
She stumbled to her kitchen to gulp a glass of water.
Patrick came up behind her.
“You all right?”
“You’ve put me in terrible spot.”
Patrick touched her shoulder lightly.
“I know how hard this is for you. I shouldn’t have asked. But I’m so desperate.”
Rachel stared into the sink heart hammering like a little girl watching herself swirl down the drain.
“I hate to let you down,” she whispered. “But you know how I am.”
He nodded sadly.
“I just hoped against hope.” He turned to leave. “I can find somebody from the school so don’t worry about it. But absolutely nobody would have been as riveting as you.”
Rachel listened to his footsteps slow fade down the hallway. She edged away from the sink. Just perhaps —at long last— tonight might be different. She hurried to catch Patrick at the door.
“Can I call you tomorrow?”
“There’d be just enough time,” Patrick face lit up with hope.
Rachel shook her head ever so slightly.
“I’ll be by my phone.”
Rachel watched him stride down the brick sidewalk into the turn-of-the-century neighborhood of Bay City. She remained in the doorway to gaze up at the line of stately elms rising through the late dusk into a surprisingly bright blue sky above.
She shut the door. Just one step back into her living room and second thoughts already. Like Sisyphus she rolled her yearning to play up the hill only to have panic topple her back to the bottom.
She paused by the glass coffee table to pick up the letter that had come with the violin. Ironic—the letter from Laura Biddle and now the concert. Laura had been the neighbor across the street all during Rachel’s childhood. Her spiritual mother until Rachel graduated from college and moved far away.
It’s been an effort to compose this. You and Bobby were so close until you parted ways in high school. I know that broke your heart as it did mine. Your mutual devotion to music was such a bond I thought you two might get married some day. But that was never to be—
Now it’s my sad task to tell you that our precious son Bobby died after routine surgery. He fell victim to an infection and never left the hospital
But Bobby’s tragic death brought inspiration too. No matter how hard things were he always found the way to something better. After his wretchedly unhappy marriage ended in divorce along an equally unhappy accounting career, Bobby returned to the violin—the great love of his life. He enrolled in the Oberlin Conservatory three years ago and just recently graduated with honors in violin and music theory. Then he won the grand prize at the George Szell music festival and a contract for a year of recitals throughout America.
So you see dearest Rachel though Bobby’s life was cut cruelly short it ended in personal triumph because he died reunited with his deepest purpose. His father and I placed the score of Bach’s Chaconne in his hands as he lay so peacefully. You know how much he loved the D Minor Sonata. That’s what he played in Cleveland. If there is any meaning to this universe we feel that Bobby lives on somewhere with the music he loved so much.
Despite what happened, you were his true love. His father and I feel that he would embrace this gift of his beautiful violin. Please play it. Perhaps it will help you break out of the terrors that have silenced your music far too long.
Rachel had sprawled on the couch sobbing for her old friend and for a short while her lover. Her feelings for Bobby never completely died. After all these years to find out they had stayed with him too.
She set the letter aside and went to the piano to pick up the violin. She ran through a few scales and tuned it, luxuriating in its rich tone, then began Schubert’s Arpeggione Sonata which she and Bobby were to play in the recital that never was. She felt his presence playing beside her once again.
A knock at the door brought her back.
Rachel set her violin back on the piano. She slowly opened the door to see her best friend John Taylor, the ruddy well-built pianist who taught a master class in the studio next to hers.
“There’ve been the rumors,” he sputtered. “People say you’re the genius who’s never played. But I never could have imagined what I just heard!”
Rachel stepped back like she’d been slapped.
“I had no idea anyone was listening!” She struggled to regain her composure. “How long have you been standing there?”
If it had to be anybody thank god it was Johnny.
“How . . .” he struggled for the words.
Rachel motioned him to come in.
“I had no inkling,” he said edging part way through the door. “I’ve overheard a few notes when you demonstrated something in class. Just from that I knew you were extraordinary.”
He shook his head in disbelief.
“But my god!”
“Now you know,” she said softly. With a little wave she motioned for Johnny to come the rest of the way in.
“Please let me play the piano part with you.”
He walked past her to sit gingerly at the piano as if the slightest misstep would cause her to vanish in a puff of smoke. That sent her pacing around her living room, catching a glimpse of her slender figure in a window like a Whistler shadow haunting the house. She stopped in front of the window.
“Did Patrick send you?”
She peeked over her shoulder to see him nod sheepishly.
“He begged me to come over right away. Said you might play.”
“I don’t think I can.”
She lapsed into silence.
“Please let’s play the Schubert together.”
She waved her hands as if warding off the devil.
“Rachel it’s just me. Your friend John.”
Struggling to calm herself Rachel turned from the window but she remained rooted to the spot.
“At least share this with someone who cares for you so much.”
Hesitantly Rachel went over to pick up the violin. Before she could back out John began the opening bars. He really did play well. Schubert took care of the rest of it. For the next twenty minutes their friendship merged with the music.
“To finally share this,” she said after the last note.
“I’m here as long as you need me.”
But the passageway to her past pulled her back all too easily.
The days after the tragedy of that first grade play grew into weeks then months. Her father had taken only the slightest notice of the whole affair from the beginning. Mother never mentioned it again. Rachel’s parents grew ever more preoccupied with their own lives until Rachel felt invisible in her own home. She slipped into a private silence where any hope of speaking to other people became mummified like a bug wrapped in the spider web of mutism.
Rachel resumed pacing the living room. She paused by a Degas dancer.
“He was blind when he sculpted this.”
She brushed her fingers over the crescent curve Degas had molded in the dancer’s body capturing the moment just as she reached behind to catch her foot in midair.
“My life’s so ruled by fear I can only perform for a sculpture.”
“Has no one ever heard you play?”
“Just a hand full of teachers who won my trust. But only in the safety of their studios. That’s why my degree is music theory. I could never do the recitals for a degree in violin.”
She’d had a few sporadic affairs, the kind a reasonably attractive woman can get into. But it was hard to put her trust in a man. Playing Schubert together like this had strengthened her trust in John.
“You’ve been a good friend.”
She took a deep breath . . . it was now or never.
She returned to the window seat to begin her story.
“The terrors began when I was in a first grade play. It morphed into a case of selective mutism that lasted for years and years. Meaning I only spoke to a select few people. Never with anyone else.
“Anyway a teacher had transcribed a P.D. Eastman story for the stage. About a lost little girl searching for her mother. She meets a succession of animals and asks each one if it’s her mother. At the end Mother herself was to walk on the stage and say, ‘I am your mother.’ Presumably to rapturous applause. She’d lobbied relentlessly to get that little part. It was her sole interest. I was just a prop.”
Rachel got up from the window seat.
“Would you like a beer or something? I need a drink.”
“A beer would be great.”
She returned with two Yuengling.
“I can’t get over how your mother tried to steal the scene from her own daughter,” John said.
“She was center stage. I was always in the wings, the late-in-life baby she didn’t want. It took years of therapy before I understood that. As a little kid what do you now but the rejection? Mother always blamed my unexpected arrival for her broken dreams.”
Rachel sipped the beer.
“This is our beginning,” Mother hissed at me. Clutching a bouquet of flowers she shoved me onto the stage. I’ll never erase from my mind those first steps in front so many people. I had to walk all the way to a scared boy wearing a dog costume. I don’t know how I made it as far as I did.”
“It must have been pure terror.”
“Paralyzing. Before I got to the boy I just stopped, frozen, arms dangling by my sides and peed my pants.
“I ran off the stage wailing. All I wanted was to throw myself in mother’s arms. Instead she threw her bouquet on the floor and walked away without a glance at me. My teacher swept me up in her arms but no mother’s hug.”
“Did your mother never hug you?”
She clenched her fists.
“Music is as important to my life as breathing! But I’m so straightjacketed by fear I can never perform. It feels like I’ve been living in an asylum!”
She looked beseechingly at John.
“Every day first thing when I come home is play Bach. Year after year every partita, every sonata. If I can never share my music with the world it feels like I’m going to die!”
John came over to take her hands in his.
“You’re not doing this alone one minute longer.”
He let go of her hands to lean back on the seat.
“Maybe playing triggers your fear, but music can set you free too. Let me tell you a story. It’s about a little boy who halfway through first grade couldn’t read. No one thought he’d succeed any time soon.”
“There was a lot of talk about holding me back a year. Better yet a special school for kids who weren’t bright enough to keep up with normal kids.”
“Obviously that wasn’t true. What happened?”
“My Great Aunt Marian arrived. She was kind of my fairy godmother.”
“I had one of those.” Rachel glanced at the letter. “Guess I still do.”
“Aunt Marion had heard all the family talk about me so it wasn’t long before she appeared at the door. ‘I won’t have this nonsense about Johnny!’ She announced she would stay until she straightened it all out. It so happened she specialized in learning disabilities. The next day she started a series of tests. Turned out I was dyslexic.
“A defective child! My parents were ashamed. Nobody was to know. Aunt Marion shushed all that. She began a special reading program and within two months I was reading with the rest of the class.”
“You did it!”
“The program used touching and feeling to break the reading code since dyslexics can’t learn by phonetics. She sat me at a piano to make a musical game out of it. To everyone’s astonishment I was gifted.”
“And the rest is history, “Rachel said.
“It was a miracle.”
“I had a miracle too,” Rachel said.
“Please tell me about yours.”
“One day in elementary school I sat at the back of music class hiding in my cocoon of silence. A kid came by to shove a small violin in my hands without the slightest notice of me.
“The instant the violin touched my hands I was born! As if I’d always known what to do I tucked the violin under my chin and found out I could change the sounds by moving my fingers around. I’d just seen The Wizard of Oz. Hearing it once was all I needed to play “Over the Rainbow” all the way through.
“The tuneless screeching of all the instruments, the desks, the room, the school all disappeared. I’d entered MY world! I’d never leave it. Never! When I finished I looked up into the wide-open eyes of the music teacher.
“‘Oh my goodness gracious Rachel!’ she said. ‘How did you do that?’”
John glanced at the silent violin on the coffee table.
“I was so lost in the music I didn’t realize the teacher could hear me over the din of the classroom. The panic came as soon as I realized the teacher had been listening. But in the days after she was so supportive I slowly began to trust her. She was the first teacher I’d talk to. She got me a better violin. Even convinced my parents to agree to violin lessons against their better judgment.”
“Patrick said you might do this concert.”
“I said maybe.” She shook her head. “Not yes.”
“What changed this from no to maybe?”
“A second miracle. A boy across the street loved the violin as much as I did. From the beginning we were inseparable.
“We took music lessons together. Practiced together. We played duets made up songs. I began opening up to more and more people. Then in high school we dated. I was head over heels in love with him. The love he returned further eroded my fear. He talked about a public performance we’d do together. He’d done many but of course I never had. I finally said yes. At that moment I knew I could do it.”
The pain came back as if it was there and then.
“What happened Rachel?”
She looked into his eyes as if seeing him from far away.
“Bobby and I were music geeks. But you have to understand how handsome he was.”
“You must have been a beauty yourself.”
“I was so excruciatingly shy kids called me emo. Bobby was my lifeline to other people. He was involved. One of the most popular kids in the school.”
“There was this super-pretty cheerleader.”
“On the brink of breaking out of my fear Bobby falls for another girl. Of course the concert never happened. I was shattered. It toppled me back into the mutism again. In the fifteen years since I’ve been able to come out it socially but my music is forever silenced.”
“Not forever Rachel. Not this time.”
Rachel went on to tell Johnny about Bobby’s return to his spiritual roots. How he broke out of a terrible marriage—yes, it was that cheerleader—and how he turned away from an accounting career to come back to his violin. And the untimely death that silenced his gift.
“His personal triumph lives on don’t you see? Just as his mother said.”
She allowed herself a little sliver of possibility.
“Is it my turn now?”
“I have an idea,” John said. “You have a circle of friends who understand what you’re going through. You know how much we pull for you to break out of this.”
“Maybe we have only a week but I’m sure we can do it. Tomorrow we’ll play some Schubert songs together.”
“That would be nice.”
“The day after Sue will come buy and we’ll ease into some trios. The next day Mark and Jocelyn will come over and we’ll do some string quintets. Then the fifth day you’ll play the chaconne for me. The final day we’ll all return and you’ll would run through your entire program for us.”
“This is cognitive behavioral therapy,” Rachel said accusingly.
“Have you ever tried it?”
She shook her head.
“It’s been suggested more than once but I’ve never had the nerve.”
“When I had terrible stage fright as a kid it worked for me. Besides it’ll be with your best friends.”
“Well . . .” Rachel pondered the task before her. It was like climbing a hill to get to the concert mountain. “Considering the warm wonderful friends you mentioned . . . maybe I can do it.”
John glanced at his watch.
“I’d better go now. You have a busy week coming up and it’s important to get some rest.”
* * *
On the other side of the curtain the murmur of a swelling audience grew relentlessly. Rachel begged her hands to relax their finger-tight grip on the violin before every note turned to stone.
Patrick observed her anxiously.
Rachel nodded with much more determination than she felt. Patrick joined John to peek through the curtains. She softly ran through a quick scale seeking comfort in the rich tone of Bobby’s violin. As her bow glided over the strings she became like a child again when each new violin had spoken to her with a unique voice.
Patrick scurried back.
“It’s filling up fast!”
His excitement didn’t help her nerves.
“A horde of your friends from the university are out there.”
At that moment she decided she couldn’t do it. Just as she turned to run off John was at her side.
“Oh no you don’t,” he said.
He gently led her to the curtain.
“Only you can do this,” he said stepping back.
She stood on a razor edge of fear that slashed into her skin, her bones, all the way to the very guts of being or not being . . .
“Put your trust in Bach,” John’s voice was like a gentle push not Mother’s brusque shove so many nightmares ago.
With a deep breath Rachel stepped out on the stage to seek her freedom.
Instead the throng of faces floating in a sea of red seats beneath glittering chandeliers brought her face to face with a rising cobra head of terror.
Through gathering mists of delirium she watched herself step onto a bridge arching over a pond. She gazed down at schools of brightly colored fish flashing in the light. A little girl floated among them in a billowing white dress. The girl’s eyes slowly closed. Her lips parted to surrender, Rachel yielding with her, in a last dying scream.
Instead Bach’s score spread out at the end of the bridge just as John said it would. With a deep breath she put her faith in that.
She felt the violin under her chin.
She raised her bow to release —at long last— the Chaconne’s first haunting notes from their incarceration in terror. She continued from Bach’s simple starting point to follow his inspiration, unfolding it like the time lapse of a flower that blossomed into ever-widening circles until her violin sounded like an entire orchestra. Rachel drove Bach’s complexity, pushing to the very edge of his music, her passion surging with his but always with the virtuosic control he demanded and she possessed along with few others in the world.
Her last notes reverberated from wall to wall. She’d transformed the concert hall into a cathedral for Bach’s music. After a stunned silence, rapturous applause poured down like rain on a thousand windows leaving the embers of her fear smoldering under liberation’s rising sun.
Ron Torrence published his first short story at age 50 and his first poem at age 80. Even so his fiction, non-fiction and poetry is pretty widely published.