Victory Has Its Price
I knew I was in trouble when my fingers started smoking.
It was the biggest competition of my life, and I’d been determined to win. I started playing piano when I was two and a half, my hands so small I could barely reach from one key to the next. And I was good. I was always better than even the kids several years older, and it wasn’t just because I practiced more, though I did. I was different.
By the time I was twelve, if I entered a competition most of the other kids dropped out. Most of them wouldn’t talk to me, either. Word on the playground was that I had sold my soul to the devil for a super-human ability to play piano.
I would have, but I hadn’t. Wherever the talent came from, I didn’t buy it. It felt like I was born knowing how to play. The thing was, I didn’t know if it was normal or totally weird. I knew most kids didn’t feel that way, but did the great ones? Did they fight their way through a clumsy childhood and only gradually discover their talent, like my teacher said he’d done, or did they just come with it ready-made, as I seemed to have?
My mother was too proud of me to wonder at any of it. She’d wanted to be a concert pianist, but an early onset of arthritis had ruined that plan. She could still play, but not at that level. And when she had me, it was like all her skill, and all her longing, poured through me. She taught me herself until I was six, then found the best teacher in San Francisco to take over. When I was fourteen, I graduated from the Conservatory, and we moved to New York so I could go to Julliard.
If I couldn’t play it was like a physical pain. The move across the country nearly killed me. We drove, so it took days. I only made it because Mom stopped in Denver and bought a portable keyboard. After that, I sat in the back seat and played, with headphones so I wouldn’t distract her from driving. The sound was awful, and the touch ghastly, but it was a keyboard, and I could breathe again.
By the time I’d completed my first year at Julliard, I knew I wasn’t normal. Even there, where no one was a dilettante, I felt like the only one who really served the music. I thought the others didn’t care, because sometimes they took a day off to go to the beach, or stood in the hall for half an hour chatting when they should have been practicing. I couldn’t do that. These were the most driven young musicians in America, and I made them look like a bunch of lazy bums. At first I found that exciting.
But when I was sixteen I started to see what I really was—and to realize just how much trouble I was in. Maybe I hadn’t sold my soul to the devil for this music. But I became convinced that someone had.
Then I entered The Competition. With capitals, because it was the biggest, most prestigious event anywhere, and if I won, I was set for life, pretty much. And I was sixteen.
And for the first time in my life, I had fallen in love with something besides a piano. He was a musician, of course—English Horn, if you must know—but he was really cute, and he would come by my practice room and try to get me to come out for coffee or a drink or whatever.
So here was a gorgeous guy asking me out, one I could really talk to about music, and I couldn’t go. I mean I literally couldn’t go. It had reached the point that if I left the practice room during the day I started to sweat, like a panic attack. I was still going home to eat and sleep, but if I tried to just go have fun I could tell I would totally freak out.
I told myself—and him—that it was on account of the big Competition coming up. He totally got that, and said he could wait. Part of me knew it wasn’t just that, though. The piano had a grip on me that was sucking my life out, and I didn’t dare even tell anyone, because they’d say I was crazy and probably lock me up without a piano, and I’d die.
The night of the Competition proved I was right about the piano. It was agony to sit behind the stage while the other contestants played. They were good, but all I could think about was my turn. Well, that was normal. No one competing at those things is there to listen to the music. But what I felt was different. My whole body ached to take over the keyboard, to play the music like it had never been played.
When my turn came at last, I walked out onto the stage, made my bow, and slid onto the piano bench. I smoothed my long gown, adjusting everything just right. Then I bowed over the keys for a moment, until I felt the power in me, a tingling from toes to fingertips. I raised my head and began to play.
It was like I was possessed. Even I had never played so well. It was not until my fingers started to smoke, like I said, that I realized how much trouble I was in. It was exactly like I was possessed. I had wanted to be the best, and I was.
I couldn't stop.
Music was burning me up, and I couldn’t stop.
©Rebecca M. Douglass 2014