Amanda’s violin complemented her. It seemed the perfect size, as if it had been made for the space under her chin. “It fits you so well,” I’d told her once. “You could be, like, a violin model.”
She’d shrugged at this comment and continued to hash out another peal of scales. Amanda was always practicing. “Five hours a day,” she’d told me when I asked. “But that’s a minimum, you know? If I have time I’ll practice more.”
The scholarship competition was today, at a college half an hour away, and her parents were busy, so I’d offered to drive her there. She’d told me not to bother watching her perform, but I insisted.
“Don’t you want moral support?”
“Moral support? Really?”
“Sure. I mean, you’re gonna do great, though. You don’t even need moral support.”
She rolled her eyes. “Then don’t watch me, ‘cause I’m gonna suck. I haven’t practiced this enough.”
“You already practice a hundred million hours,” I said, turning into the parking lot. “And you’re good at this. You’re talented.”
“I mean I’m not really, but thanks,” she said, staring out at the gridlock of cars. “I guess.”
She was so modest.
The college had practice rooms. Tiny, windowless closets. A muffled cacophony came through the walls: the clamor of piano keys, the high-pitched whistle of flutes, the low rumble of basses. I lounged on the piano bench in the room Amanda had taken, picking absentmindedly at the peeling layer of black nylon to reveal a layer of sickly yellow foam.
She pointed at a key on the upright piano (“That’s A,” she said, “no, not the black one. The white one. There.”) and asked me to press it again and again while she plucked at each string, listening carefully and making tiny turns to the scroll pegs. I droned the A, watching how intent she looked as she tuned. I felt good about this—I was helping her tune. I was supporting her.
“Stop,” she told me. “Piano’s out of tune.” She pulled up an app on her phone and had it play an electronic tone for her, and tuned to that instead. I returned to picking at the patch of exposed foam, which looked kind of like a map of what Florida might look like if sea level rose a few feet.
“How do you know it’s out of tune?”
She shrugged. “I have a pretty good ear. It’s just something you learn to do.”
I wondered what it was like to have such a deep connection with the music. It must be spiritual, I figured. Or sexual. Could playing an instrument turn you on? Weren’t there vibrations? I’d once known some Modest Mouse songs on guitar, but all I remembered was getting blisters on my fingers.
She picked up her bow, drew tone after tone out of the violin’s hollow body; long, keening cries. I marveled at the concentration in her petite face. We were the same age, but I dwarfed Amanda. It wasn’t hard: at five foot one, she was shorter than an upright bass. And dressed up in her tidy black dress and stockings, with her straight brown hair drawn back into an immaculate bun, she seemed like a doll.
She spent ten minutes on scales, each one of them an immaculate staircase, the notes running on tiptoes to the heaven and then back down like so many ballerinas. “Why do you have to practice those?” I said. “You obviously know them already.”
“If I don’t practice them, they’ll get worse.” Her answer was terse; her chin moved against the chin rest when she spoke.
“Pff. No, it’s like riding a bike.” The bald patch on the piano bench grew bigger. I peeled away another thin strip of vinyl.
Amanda removed her violin from her chin and, holding it by her side, turned to face me. “Oh, so you can still play guitar?”
“Well, no, but I don’t have that talent. You have talent. That’s something that can never leave you, Amanda. You’re always gonna know the music, deep in your soul.”
She rolled her eyes and looked away, raising the instrument to play once again. “You really don’t get it. You’re saying runners shouldn’t stretch before a race because they already know how.”
“Okay, okay, point taken.” Amanda had to have the lowest self-esteem of anyone I knew, besides myself. How could you be so talented and not know it? Had no one ever told her before how special she was? How unique?
I was silent for a while as she began to run through her audition piece. God, she sounded like someone in a movie.
“The beginning’s still out of tune,” she griped, and I couldn’t help smiling at her. How was she so humble? How could she nit-pick herself for flaws like this? Couldn’t she see that she was making music?
Amanda was scheduled to go backstage in five minutes. “God, I’m just—I haven’t practiced this enough. I really haven’t.”
“What are you talking about?” I asked. The patch of foam was nearly the size of my palm now. “You practice five hours a day, Amanda. You’re going to do fine.”
“I haven’t gotten the cadenza up to tempo. The cadenza’s the most important part, and if I mess up the cadenza, I’m toast.” She’d been playing the cadenza for the last ten minutes. It sounded fine to me.
“But you’re talented,” I said. “Can’t you see it? You’re just… overflowing, spilling with talent. And that innate talent is going to come out just at the right moment, and the judges are all going to see how good you are and they’re going to be left speechless. Believe me.” I smiled. I didn’t have many chances to give motivational speeches, but I decided I was pretty good at them.
Amanda’s frown contorted further into a scowl. “You don’t get it,” she said. “You don’t get it at all!” And she stormed out of the practice room, leaving me alone, wondering what I’d said wrong.
I thought it was so beautiful, the way musicians experienced music. One time my buddy Mark and I were listening to Animal Collective while we were high, and I kept waiting for it to click. Mark got really into it, but I couldn’t. I mean, it was pretty cool, I guess. But I didn’t hear stuff the way musicians did. It was all just sound to me.
Anyway, Amanda had some kind of connection with the music. Something deep in her soul. I could see it when she played, and I knew, I knew she just needed to—to tune in. To tune into that connection. She was too uptight, too insecure. But I believed in her.
I took a seat in the back of the auditorium where the auditions were happening. There were only a few people in the auditorium: parents, mostly. There were a few people set up right in the middle, towards the front. They were all making marks on identical clipboards. I figured they were the judges.
The kid up first was okay, but he wasn’t really feeling the music like I knew Amanda would. He still sounded good, though. All that stuff sounds good to me.
He left, and I started to clap until I realized nobody else was. It was just dead silence in that auditorium, me and my loud hands and those judges and the big arching ceiling overhead. Then Amanda walked onstage.
I tried to give her a big two-thumbs-up, but she didn’t seem to see. She lifted her bow and began to play: long, mournful tones, thin as tightrope-wire. Every note warbled breathily. She closed her eyes, but I kept mine open, fixated on this tiny figure on the stage drawing such power from her instrument. She and the violin were one: I could feel it.
The piece became more frenzied, and her tiny face screwed up in concentration, bidding phrase after phrase to rise from her instrument. Then, she began to ascend: this was the cadenza. I recognized it. The strings seemed to vibrate into the stratosphere, all the way up, and Amanda’s fingers crept closer and closer up the board, higher and faster until—
until there was a noise like a very tiny chair scraping across a very tiny floor. She frowned, and tried again, going back down a few notes to make the ascent. The noise came again. I saw her lips move and her tiny, perfect eyebrows furrow.
She resumed playing, moving past the broken spot. The cadenza ended, and then, in its time, the piece. Amanda walked off the stage. There was silence. I felt my hands curl up where they rested on my knees.
I met back up with Amanda in the lobby, where audition hopefuls still milled about. She was staring resolutely at a spot on the floor. “You sounded great!” I told her.
“Shut up,” she said. “I ruined it.”
“Don’t be so hard on yourself,” I said as we began walking back to the parking lot. “You were really, really good.”
“I flubbed the cadenza,” said Amanda, her voice breaking. “I flubbed the cadenza. I knew I hadn’t practiced it enough.”
“Don’t worry,” I told her. “I barely heard it. I doubt anyone noticed. Judges probably missed it.”
“Shut up!” she said. “You don’t get it at all. I had scholarships riding on this.”
“It’s not that bad,” I tried again.
“No,” she said, louder, the word breaking off into the beginnings of a sob. We arrived at my car. “Just don’t talk anymore, okay? Just—just don’t talk. Please.” She buried her face in her hands.
I drove us home in silence, wondering what I’d said wrong.
Caroline Galdi is trying really hard. She reads your tweets as @cyclostome