|I posed my bow over the violin. Waves crashed against the black rocks, while seagulls squwaked above my head. But I didn't hear any of this. All that existed in my world was me and my music.
Bringing the bow down, I released a single note. Some say the sound produced from my instrument was so sweet it brought tears to their eyes. I did not recognize that. When I played, all that I heard was the story I told.
And tell a story, I did. Notes tumbled from my heart, to my mind, to my violin. I never thought of what to play. I just played, slow and steady. I dug through my music, my notes blending into each other, creating a simple harmony. A sweet melody, whispering of happy things. A sunlit meadow, perhaps, with a bunny rabbits playing.
My fingers slipped over the strings, changing into a minor key. A darker twist now. Closing my eyes, I focused on my story. A fox appears out of the grass, it's eyes on it's prey. My notes sang long and sinister, casting a gloom upon my meadow. One jarring note made up the single moment for the bunny rabbit. The single moment in which the creature feels so many things. Surprise, anxiety, fear. Above all, fear. All this captured in a chilling note.
Faster now. I build my notes, starting from my lowest, crescendoing into a higher range. The melodies threaded together, faster and faster. My heart pumped and my cheeks flushed. The fox was getting closer. Finally, in a delightful mix of noise, the fox lunges for the rabbit. I tumbled my notes downward, spiraling back into my original key. The fox had missed the rabbit, who had scampered back into the bushes, safe. The fox stalked back into the tall, tall grass, annoyed at wasting an opportunity. All was safe in the meadow once more.
~ ~ ~
I started playing violin when I was four years old. My mother, famous for her success as a clarinetist, was eager to put an instrument in my hands. Especially after her accident, which made holding anything for too long painful. So she pushed me with violin, hoping to make her dreams come true through me. My father was not musically inclined at all. He was a physicist, and abhorred anything vaguely creative, such as my music.
"It's a waste of time, Katrina. Become a physicist, like me! Strive to understand the world we live in!" he would say to me, over and over. And I did, for some time anyway. I put down my violin and focused only on his talk of physics. I listened to his lectures, on Newton and his theories. But it pained me. I felt incomplete, like a hole had opened in my chest and swallowed my heart. This is how my mother found me one day. Alone in my father's library, staring blankly at a wall.
"What are you doing, Katrina?"
"Why, my darling?"
"It's…practical," I said, my voice breaking a little on the last word.
"Oh, Katie." Mother sighed, pulling me close. After coddling me, just for a bit, she gave me my violin, nudging the bow under my fingers. I played, for hours on end, and reclaimed my heart. That was the day I truly realized my love for violin. That was the day I stood up for myself and said no to my father. The day when he hurled insults at me, promising me no future and little money to live by. That was also the day my father left us forever.
~ ~ ~
"Katrina!" a voice called. I was at the threshold of our seashore cottage. My violin case was in my right hand, which was slightly sore after carrying it for two miles from the sea to the house.
"Katrina, breakfast is ready!" the voice called again. I pushed open the door and smells embraced my nose. So, it was pancakes for breakfast. Putting my case down on the table by the door, I walked into the kitchen/dining room.
"Good morning, my darling." Mother said, kissing my cheek. I smiled and took a plate of pancakes from her.
"Good morning, Mother."
"How was your practice?" she asked, flipping a pancake on the stove.
"Enlightening." I laughed. This was my usual response. My music took me to new places, places I could only describe as enlightenment. Laughing with me, Mother sat down in a chair next to mine.
"I received a letter in the mail." she said, the laughter slowly seeping out of her voice.
"It was an invitation, really…"
I sat straighter. An invitation? At this time of year? It could only mean one thing, or one thing I was hoping for anyway.
"…an invitation to the finals of the International Alcott-Wynters Violin Competition!" she said. Her face didn't reveal anything, she only gazed intently at me. After a few seconds, I realized she was waiting for my reaction.
"I made it?" was all I could gasp. I had not fared well at all during the semi-final rounds. The recording was taken at a fancy studio and it hadn't felt right at all. Now for the finals, I knew we had to give a live performance.
"Yes! Yes, you did! Oh, darling, I'm so excited for you. Your dreams, my dreams, they have all come true. We'll have to book the tickets to New York right away, of course, the competition is in three days—"
"What? Three days?" I asked. I must have heard wrong. Next week was too soon. I would never be ready. My teacher, Helena Dvorkin, couldn't assist me through the music so soon.
"You will be fine, Katerina. The music is the one you have learned before. It is the Vivaldi piece, that is all."
I breathed a sigh of relief and remembered. The sonata in C major, the one I had rehearsed and practiced until my fingers were numb. The one that I had set aside, just for my finals piece. The one that had finally, finally brought tears to Helena's eyes.
"We'll leave tomorrow." Mother said, eyes shining with excitement. I pushed my plate of half-eaten pancakes away and walked out the front door with my violin in hand. I needed to play, to craft, to practice. I needed to hold my instrument and listen to my stories. Most of all, I needed to escape my life, for a few tiny hours, just so the monstrous fear didn't eat me alive.
~ ~ ~
Our plane landed in New York a half-hour late, making sure I was late to my appointment with Helena, which made sure that she would be thoroughly annoyed. As I walked with my mother through the terminal, I once again felt surprised at the number of people crowded around us. It was a pleasant surprise, though. My mother had spent most of her life here in the city and owned a house here. We had moved to our sea-shore cottage in Maine when I was very young, but still came here often. It had now been at least two months since I was back in the city. This moving back and forth might have made things difficult with my classes with Helena, had she not decided to come with us on our moves.
“Svetlana! Katerina! Here, here!” called a voice. It was difficult to hear through the din of voices, but finally the caller caught our attention. It was my aunt, Tatiana, who actually lived in New York.
“Tatiana? I wasn’t expecting you!” my mother cried, embracing her sister in a crushing hug. I stood to the side and looked out the window. It was raining, and the streets were made up with people holding brightly colored umbrellas.
“Come, Katerina, you are already late for your lesson.” Mother called. She was slowly morphing into her city-mode. It usually happened before my big concerts, which was generally why we were in the city. Mother became distant and cold, scolding me for the least of infractions. I had forgotten this personality that didn’t show itself while we were in Maine.
I walked briskly towards the sliding doors, only a small bag in hand. I had a closet stocked in both my homes, so the only thing in my bag was my violin and music. We hailed a cab and then, we were zooming through the streets of New York City.
I am in love with both my homes, but they both hold very different meanings for me. Maine had quiet beaches and soft sunsets. You could not hear the honking of cars or the shouts of people. In a way, it was quite isolated. New York was the polar opposite. It was loud, fun, and full of life. Every turn of a street had new stories to tell, whether it was the buildings or the people that occupied them.
I have been to many places in my life, whether it was to see or play in big concerts. Never, though, has my music sounded the way it sounds in New York. That is the only reason I might love New York better: because my music is so passionate here.
The cab stopped and my mother all but pushed me out of it with my violin case.
“Quickly Katrina! You are already fifteen minutes late!” she yelled, slamming the cab door. It zoomed away, and was soon lost in the sea of yellow cabs that constantly crowded New York’s streets.
I turned and walked up the set of stairs to the front door. Ringing the bell, I shifted from foot to foot. What if my notes didn’t come right when I played for Helena? What if she thought I hadn’t been practicing?
The door opened and a tall lady with folds all over her face opened the door.
“Come, come! Ms. Dvorkin waits for you!” the lady said in a thick Russian accent. I rushed into the house and handed my coat to the lady, her housekeeper. Jogging up a set of stairs, I opened the door I knew to be her music room.
“You. Are. Late.”
I shivered from the ice in her words.
“I’m sorry, my flight was delayed and—”
“No excused. Play for me.” she barked. I took out my violin and immediatly began doing so. After warming up, I launched into the Vivaldi piece. There was no need for a stand or music. I had memorized it long ago.
While I played, I looked up to see her reaction. Helena was sitting in a chair with her eyes closed. Taking that as a good sign, I played with more confidence. Suddenly, she put her hand up.
I obeyed, startled. She never made me stop, not even when I was a horrible beginner.
“Start what you finish” she was famous for saying. I looked at her, confused. What could I have done to make her command me to stop?
“What did you just play?” she asked.
“Vivaldi.” I answered immediately.
“No!” she said, almost shouting, “No! That was not Vivaldi! That was merely notes, memorized from a page! Where is the life, the joy? I know you have it inside of you, Katrina! Learn to show it! Now leave.” she finished coldly.
So I trudged down the steps and retrieved my coat from the housekeeper. With violin case in hand, I walked down the front door. I placed my hand on the doorknob and just stood there. What would I tell Mother? Opening the door, I walked into the rain, and directly into another girl. It was Sophia, my biggest fan and possibly the one person I could count on the most. She was my best friend.
~ ~ ~
It was two hours later and I still hadn’t gone home. Sophia and I were sitting in a small coffee house that wasn’t that crowded. If I had passed by it myself, I wouldn’t have gone in at all. I preferred the big companies for coffee, like Starbucks or Coffee Bean and Tea Leaf. But Sophia had insisted, saying that the danishes here were “to die for.” So far, she hadn’t been wrong.
“I’m so glad you’re in New York again. I swear I would have died if I hadn’t seen you soon!” she said. I sighed and smiled. Being adored by a fan was a rare privilege for me. I knew some of my other competitors surrounded themselves with fans, befriending them and having them around when they toured. Mother didn’t allow me to talk to my fans, saying my ego would inflate if I did. Sophia was the only exception.
“Listen, Sophie, I have to go home. Mother will be mad enough as it is.” I said. Her face fell.
“Oh, alright then. Look at me, trying to spend the day with one of today’s best violinists. Of course you have stuff to do. It’s Alcott-Wynters, isn’t it?” she asked, signing the bill for our coffee and danishes.
“Yes, it is.” I replied. Then came the tears, slowly at first, then faster. Soon, my whole face was wet with the evidence of my sadness. Sophia brought me some tissues and sat in the chair next to me, stroking my back.
“Shh, shh. It’s okay. Everything will be alright.” she repeated soothingly. Finally, I straightened my back and wiped off my face.
“I’m sorry, Sophie, that was irrational.” I apologized.
“Irrational? I would be crying if I were a finalist in one of the world’s most famous competitions too.”
I smiled. That was the most sensitive thing anyone had said to me in a long time.
“I’m going to go home and practice...would you like to come?” I asked. She was elated. Grabbing her purse, she pulled me out of my chair.
“Are you kidding me? Let’s go!”
~ ~ ~
The day of the accident was one of the worst days of my life. I was only five years old, but still, I remember everything with a chilling clarity. The snow, the honking, the bright lights, everything was crystal-clear. What I remember most, though, was the fear. Fear when I realized that Mother couldn’t stop the car. Fear when she and I sat in the car and she turned to me and whispered “keep playing.” Fear when the paramedics came and hauled her away. Fear when I thought she would never wake up.
The brunt of the damage had been done to the driver’s side of the car, so because I was sitting in the back, I had come through with only a few scratches and a broken leg. Mother, on the other hand, was in horrible shape. Her body had suffered so much internal damage, the doctors were sure she would never wake from her coma.
A month later, just before my father was going to pull her plug and take away her life support, my mother eyes fluttered open, then shut again. It lasted only a second, but I was sure of what I saw. I pleaded with my father and we agreed to wait another week. Within days, my mother’s eyes were open, and she was able to speak and just be alive again. The doctors said that her brain damage was minimal, that she could live her life normally and fully. Then, though, they realized the problems with her hands. They looked perfectly normal, except that she could not move them with experiencing intense pain. After months of physical therapy, the doctors gave her the worse news she could hear. Her hands would never fully recover. She would never be able to play the clarinet again. They had taken away the one thing that made her life worth living. Except for, of course, my violin.
~ ~ ~
Three hours later, Sophia and I stood in my practice room. I was playing Vivaldi for her, as she listened and gently critiqued. It was a kind of tradition before every concert that she listened to my pieces.
“Will you play that last measure again?” she asked. I did so, closing my eyes and giving it my all. When I looked up, I saw her wipe tears from the corners of her eyes.
“That was beautiful.” she whispered. “I have no doubt you’re going to win Alcott-Wynters, Katrina.”
I laughed and shook my head. My win was not guaranteed.
“What are you doing tonight?” she asked. I shrugged.
“Practicing some more, I suppose.”
She frowned and shook her head.
“What?” I asked, slightly defensive.
“You need to get out a little. Have some fun.”
“I have to practice. Alcott-Wynters is in two days!” I cried. How could she even think about asking me to “have some fun” with her?
“Okay, fine. I’ll be at 321 Coffee at nine if you decide to live a little.” she said, sounding a little sad. I made a noncommittal noise and she left. Bringing my violin up, I launched into the sonata again. Half-way through, I heard the door open again and thought it must be Sophia. When I opened my eyes, I saw it was Mother.
“Good, you’re practicing.”
“What else would I be doing?” I asked.
“That’s right, you don’t have anywhere else to be.” she said in a final voice. A voice that made no room for arguments. A voice that made me want to go out.
Instead, I just played on, knowing that this was the life I chose for myself. One filled with practice, and beauty, and music. A life that left no room for parties or being normal. I was still convincing myself when the clock struck nine.
~ ~ ~
The next morning, I awoke to clarinet music. This wouldn’t have been odd, my mother liked to play clarinet music, except this time it was different. It wasn’t Mozart or any other Classical composer. It was the opening part to Gershwin’s Rhapsody in Blue.
Shrugging it off, I took a shower and grabbed my violin. A quick glance at the clock told me it was six o'clock, and that I still had a half hour before my lesson with Helena. Walking down the hallway to the stairs, I paused in front of my music room. The music sounded so alive that I doubted it was from a recording. Was my mother...playing? The abrupt stop of music when I opened the door confirmed it.
She looked up, startled. Her clarinet lay in her lap and she was massaging her hands.
“Katrina! What are you doing here?” she said, her voice verging on desperate.
“I heard the music. Does it hurt?” I asked, indicating her hand. She shook her head absentmindedly and turned her back to me.
“Get ready for your lesson. Helena will be mad if you are late again.”
And with that, I was dismissed. I retreated back to the staircase and headed to the kitchen. Getting a granola bar, I walked out the front door. The weather was nicer today, with the rain clouds gone and the sun shining. Munching on my bar, I caught a cab and sped to Helena’s house. Classes usually never made me nervous, but today I could barely eat my granola bar. I ran the bell and the housekeeper let me in. My hands shook so much I could barely open the door to the practice room. There was no one inside, so I took the time to warm up. I played a C major scale up and down, first in eighth notes then half notes, taking time to practice vibrato. Helena still hadn’t arrived when I was done, so I played my own composition. I didn’t plan any of it, I just played. Closing my eyes, I thought of a story. Minor notes...there once was an evil man. Slowly, with accents. This man had done very bad things. Switch keys. There once was a good man, a happy one. He seeks only to be rid of all the evil in the world. Three minor notes, three major notes. Quickly, accented. The two men have met. Now, loudly and fast. The two men argue in a whirl of notes. Evil, good, minor, major. Soft and slow, then crescendoing into a fast paced, loud noise. I breathed and lived the music. I was the music. My body swayed with the fast-paced tempo. Then, it all stopped. One keening high note, and everything tumbled back down. The nice man had won. Goodness was restored.
My heart was racing when I brought my violin down. My eyes were open, but I wasn’t really seeing what was before me. All I could think about was the good man and the evil man. In this state, I couldn’t even really hear the single applause coming from behind me. When I finally hear and registered it, I turned around to find Helena. Her cheeks were wet, her eyes glistening. This was not like the time she had shed tears for Vivaldi. No, this was full-on crying.
I silently handed her a tissue. She took it and dabbed at her eyes. Then, softly, “Play the Vivaldi.” And so I did. But the magic was gone. Vivaldi didn’t hold it within his pieces. Or maybe I just couldn’t play them that way. To me, magic was a fox and a mouse, a good man and an evil man. Magic was my stories. It wasn’t just music, it was my music.
~ ~ ~
The morning of the concert arrived quicker than expected. Mother laid a gown out for me--red with a cut up to just below my knee. I zipped it in a dress bag and put on sweats. There was no point in doing my hair, the hair dressers there would just redo it anyway. Swishing on lipgloss, I hauled the dress and violin down the stairs. I was in zombie mode. I was always like this before big events. My brain just couldn’t handle the nerves. At least, as Mother says, I don’t puke.
“Here you go, Katrina.” Mother says as I arrive in the dining room. It was a piece of toast, no butter, only jam. Just the way I liked it.
“You can eat on the way there. I like being early.” she says, putting granola bars in her purse. I nod and she takes the dress bag from me. Numbly, I put on sneakers and take a shoebox with high heels in them. Mother hails a cab, and we’re zooming away. The weather is reflecting my mood today:uncertain on how to proceed. It looks as if it might rain, but I couldn’t tell for sure. The cab driver pulls up at Carnegie Hall. As we climb out, he passes me a thumbs up. I’m not sure if I smile or not. The next two hours or so is a blur. I make it to my dressing room and hairdressers pull and tug at my hair. Then, Helena came to me and we practiced. This is the part I remember clearly.
“Use more vibrato...no, no less!” she commanded. This was the most nervous I’d seen her in a long time. She hadn’t been the same in the lessons after the one I had played my own composition in. We had practiced the Vivaldi many times, but something had changed. There was a glimmer of something in her eyes. Respect maybe?
“Stop. You must rest now. You will be playing in ten, fifteen minutes.” she said, her accent thicker than ever. I nodded and she left. Sitting down on a chair, I sipped some water. The nerves were slowly coming at me. What if I miss notes? What if, after all this, they think I haven’t interpreted it right?
Morale-crushing thoughts flitted through my head as I tried to take deep breaths. I was on my own to battle my feelings. Mother said my nerves made her nervous and usually sat down in the audience with my aunt instead.
I closed my eyes and let my mind wander. Back to the beach, with the rhythmic waves. Back to beautiful sunrises. Back to the peace. My thoughts were interrupted by a stagehand, who knocked on the door and informed me that it was time. I stood up and tuned for a minute. Then, I headed out behind him. My heels clicked against the dark wood flooring. I took my place in front of the dark curtains. My pulse beat frantically, and I tried to control myself. If the nerves took me now, I could never do this. I heard the last, depressing notes of the player before me. There was a wave of applause and my competitor walked through the curtains and passed me. He was young, asian, and looked thoroughly exhausted. Just as I was about to walk throught the curtains, Helena appeared.
“Play your story.” she whispered. My story?
“Good luck!” she said hastily, almost pushing me through the curtain. I walked on the stage. The audience was vast, the lights bright. Taking my place in the center, I nodded to the judges. Then, it hit me. My story. My music. Not Vivaldi.
Closing my eyes, I played small, happy notes. A young girl. They transformed into long, melodious ones. A young girl with a passion. I swirled the melodies, making them more and more complex. Then the notes shattered. Musically, of course. It was the girl, her passion shattered. Sad, dull notes. They were choppy and uneven. The girl was broken, lifeless without her passion. Then, ever so slowly, the passion’s melody came back. Bit by bit, broken at first. Then fuller and faster. It raged into its full potential. It soared, up, up, up. The girl was on top of the world, her passion so abundant. Still, there was one piece missing. That sad little melody was still able to be heard.
It was only afterward that I realized how closely the song resembled to me. Apparently, though, I wasn’t the only one to recognize it.
“From your self,” Helena said approvingly, when we were back in my dressing room. I nodded, smiling weakly. It was about me, but so what? It all came down to if you were good enough or you weren’t.
“That was brilliant, darling.” Mother said.
“Thank you, Mother.” I replied. She layed out a dress for the reception afterward, and left to let me get ready. I was still pretty keyed up, so I played scales to cool down. As I was calming down, I heard a knock at my door.
“Who is it?” I asked, hoping it wasn’t Mother asking if I was ready.
“Katrina? It’s your father...may I come in?”
~ ~ ~
I didn’t know what to say. My mind, so exhausted from playing, couldn’t process this. My father? As in the one I hadn’t seen in eight years? My surprise was slowly replaced with anger. What right did he have to come talk to me now, when I was a finalist for the Alcott-Wynters International Violin Competition? Did he think me worthy of his attention now?
“Katrina?” he asked again.
“I heard you the first time.” I snapped.
“Please, just let me talk to you!” he pleaded. I rolled my eyes.
“Leave. Right now. I need to get ready.” I said sharply.
“Please,” he whispered again. It was strange, he didn’t sound like the over-confident jerk he had been as my father.
“Fine, alright.” I relented. While most of me was still burning with anger, there was a part of me that was curious. Why did he want to talk to me now, after so many years? I opened the door, and there he stood. In a black suit, with greatly receding grey hair. He was thinner and his face was more lined.
“Oh, Katrina.” he said, holding his arms out in embrace. I frowned and turned away.
“Just say what you need to and leave. I’m very busy.” I said coldly. He flinched, but sat down in a chair anyway.
“I wanted to congratulate you on your performance tonight. Even if you don’t win, this must have been a fantastic opportunity.” he said. I sat still, waiting for him to get to the point.
“I’m really sorry, Katrina. It was immature and stupid of me to walk away from you and your mother like that. Please, will you forgive me?” he said, his brown eyes looking up earnestly.
“I don’t think you know, Dad. I don’t think you know at all. You walked away from us, just because I wouldn’t do what you wanted. Do you know how much that hurt? How I woke up to breakfast everyday, and you weren’t there. I came back from school, and you weren’t there. It was just me and Mother. So, no. No, I do not, and will never forgive you.” I said, tears clouding my vision. He sighed, and it looked like he had the world on his shoulders.
“I’m staying at the Marriott near your house. Please, if you change your mind, come see me. I don’t have to be your father, I can understand how that is innapproprate to you, but I can be your friend.” he said. With that, he left, whispering a soft “good luck” as he slipped out the door.
Glancing at the clock, I went into panic mode. I was supposed to meet Mother outside five minutes ago. Hurriedly slipping on the blue dress and heels, I grabbed my violin case and purse and rushed out the door.
“Oh, you’re here. Quick, get in.” she said, ushering me into the cab that was waiting. We zoomed through the streets and ended up in front of a large building. There was already a line of people waiting to get in.
“No, we don’t have to wait. It’s a party for you, remember?” she asked, laughing. There was something forced in the sound, and I wondered if she had seen Dad too.
As I passed the line of people, they offered me their congratulations. I was so glad that all I had to do was smile and thank them. I didn’t think I could handle anything more.
The rest of the evening passed in a blur, and when the announcer said that it was time to announce a winner, I couldn’t remember anyone who had introduced themselves to me. Luckily, Mother found me and pulled me to the front of the auditorium with her.
“The talent presented tonight has been amazing,” the announcer said, “both finalists did an amazing job. It was clear, though, that for one of these musicians, violin was what they lived for. The judges could see what levels music took them. And so, with great pride, I announce that the winner of this year’s Alcott-Wynters National Violin Competition is...Katrina Ivanov!”
The applause was thundering. I could feel it in every cell of my body. Grinning, I moved up to the stage. Each of the judges shook my hand in turn. “Congratulations” they all murmured. Then, the announcer shook my hand, handing me the trophee. I smiled at the blinding flashes of cameras. “Thank you...thank you.” I murmured over and over.
It was in these moments, my song really spoke true. I was on top of my world, my passion at its peak. Still, there was that little piece of sadness, always there, in my heart.
~ ~ ~
The next morning, I awoke with a purpose. I was tired, but not in the literal sense. I was tired of being sad. People weren’t perfect, they made mistakes. So, I told Mother I was going out, got in a cab, and headed to the Marriott hotel. Yes, I was still mad at my dad, but it was time to move on. It was time to make a change. Maybe he would never be a father to me again, but he could be a friend. And for now, being friends was just enough for me.