I am 10 years old, dressed in a fancy dress and sparkly black tights, and in the passenger seat of my father’s SUV. The heat is blasting my face and it is a cold Minnesota winter afternoon outside. I don’t mind. I am afraid I will waste my favorite fancy outfit on a bad day and a bad experience. Usually I enjoy getting dressed up and driving in the car, but not today. Today my father is driving me to a piano competition in Minneapolis.
I began taking piano lessons at age 5 and my teacher’s name was Tatiana. Tatiana was a brilliant, Russian piano teacher who was strict yet gentle and always smelled like strawberries and wore black turtlenecks. When she said my name, her accent would affect my ability to comprehend what she was trying to communicate, “Carlinne, Corline?”
After Tatiana spoke, there were uncomfortable stares and silence between the two of us as I attempted to piece together her words clouded by her thick Russian accent. Every Christmas, Tatiana always opened my gifts without tearing any of the wrapping paper, which I thought was quite strange.
Even with her odd characteristics, Tatiana was a gifted teacher. Her stance was rigid but her advice was soft and nurturing. That was until piano competitions came. Then, I immediately despised her.
Tatiana had brought up the competition in my lesson and I had foolishly agreed to it, and I’m now in the car on the way to the competition. It will not help my situation to hate Tatiana, I tell myself.
My father and I pull up to the University of Minnesota Performing Arts Center, park the car, and cross the street. “Come on, hurry up. It’d be too bad if you get hit by a car on the way to your competition,” my father jokes. My dad knows to crack jokes when I get nervous because the laughing distracts me from the traumatic experience that is to come.
We enter the building and I am uneasy with all of the stimuli. I see hundreds of signs guiding competitors through the building. There are many check in people dressed in old clothing and younger siblings of the piano players crying and screaming.
I squeeze my clammy hand against the paper that contains my music to verify its presence and tame my nervousness. I take one big deep breath and locate the M-P sign to sign in for Caroline Morgan. Is that my last name? I think that’s me.
The lady behind the M-P table hands me a piece of paper to give to the proctor at the door of my performance room. For such a small piece of paper, it holds all of the information that will determine where and when my fate will be determined. Next, my father and I start our journey towards the performance room.
“It’s normal to get butterflies when you are nervous,” my dad says. Butterflies are happy, covered in bright colors, and are signs of life. I honestly do not think even one bright color or one happy thought is present in my fragile stomach right now. “Is it unnecessarily hot in here or is it just me?” I ask.
We reach our destination feeling defeated and sweaty from the long trek through the hallways. I see a small human in front of my room who cannot be older than 9. He sits at a chair with a connecting desk, a paper, a ruler and a highlighter. This child is the proctor I am supposed to check in with.
He takes his giant ruler, places it over my name and draws the highlighter over my name. That straight line takes a lot of concentration and skill. He must get paid a lot for his proctor job. Wait, is this considered child labor? Wait, why I am worried? Shouldn’t I be focusing on the competition? I am officially checked in.
My father and I are extremely early so we decide to sit in the lobby and check out the competition, as my Dad knows this will distract me from my nerves. The competitors are a rather interesting bunch. I feel like I am living in a real life piano competition stereotype. I do not believe in stereotypes but at this event, the competitors fall into what might be recognized as the ‘status quo’ for piano players.
The competitors I see are about 80% Asian. I feel bad noticing something like that, but that’s how it is. These families come in packs as if this piano competition is a graduation or a holiday extravaganza complete with expensive cameras to capture the moment. The parents come equipped with heavy-duty gloves to keep their children’s fingers warm and calming words to reassure them that the only thing riding on this competition is their entire college career.
The rest of the crowd has on clothes that range from prom dresses to 1920s-inspired floor length skirts; those were the two extremes. My father jokes around to tame my nerves even to the point where I laugh so much I’m crying. “Oh loving the gloves they’re wearing. Next competition, I’m getting you a pair with little pianos on them okay?” As I laugh, I see parents stare at me like my sounds of happiness are one of the seven deadly sins.
I wipe my tears of laughter and head towards the room as my time to perform is almost here. I stand outside the room with my music in one hand and my stomach at my throat. The competitor before me sprints out the door with her hands clinging to her face as she bawls to her mother. I cannot tell if this makes me even more terrified or gives me a vote of confidence.
Shining? More like sinking. I grasp onto my music for dear life and enter the room apprehensively. I shut the door behind me, leaving my father, my one source of relief in this situation, outside. I glance around the room and find the piano, the stool and the silver fox judge sitting at a table ready to be entertained, or so he thinks.
The judge and I exchange glances and small smiles as we both know the drill. Sitting down on the unevenly cushioned stool, I place my fingers on the piano and begin my warm up. Man, this piano is really out of tune. After I finish my warm up I glance at the judge as he shuffles his papers, grabs a pen and gives me the “I’m ready” head nod.
I begin the piece and my nerves fly away. As my fingers fly over the keys, my stomach descends from my throat and I relax. I can officially say I experience butterflies as I can feel happiness and the feeling of bright colors inside again. For two and a half minutes, I zone myself out of the room back to my living room fiddling with the scales. I end the piece and smile. Leaving the room, I’m excited and smile at my Dad. He knows not to talk or ask about the performance but just drive to Dairy Queen.
One week later, when I arrive at my next piano lesson, Tatiana cries tears of joy as she tells me the judge loved my piece, my musicality, and my composure. She hands me a trophy and tells me the judge enjoyed listening to me make music. My competition outfit was not wasted on a bad day or a bad experience but a rewarding experience and a good day.
The big trophy and the Dairy Queen didn’t hurt either. Even though Tatiana was right about the pure joy in making music, I still secretly despised her for the next six piano competitions and the six future trophies.
Looking back on the experience, even though these competitions are full of agony, they are completely worth the two and half minutes of happiness I experience through making music.