2013: Seunghyun Angela Yeo: “Seeing Music”

Seeing Music
Seunghyun Angela Yeo
New Hampshire High School Prose Winner

Bright lights obscure my vision as I walk onto the stage, awkwardly clutching my violin. Careful not to bump into the other musicians, I make my way to my stand, safely nestled within the many rows of chairs. I look out across the expanse of dark shadows. A chill slithers down my back. My fingers nervously tap on the fingerboard, the strings pinging softly.
I remember the first time I picked up a violin, a present from my parents. I ran my fingers over the glossy wood and plucked the shiny strings. Turning it over and over in my hands, I marveled at the way the light bounced off the varnish. I crowed in delight as I claimed it as my own. I had my own instrument now, my own talent. I set bow to string and sawed away.
Every recital would be the same. I would perform a piece, my fingers laboriously clambering over the fingerboard. In my head the tick of the metronome dictated the beat as I struggled to play each note in tempo. With a final jerk of the bow, I would end the piece. As I bowed, finally, the applause would come. The smiles and compliments that would ensue were my rewards, the fruits of my labor. They assured me that my work was worth something, that I had done well. In that moment I knew that this satisfaction I felt must be music.
Once, I played for a group of retired musicians. For this recital, I had selected one of my hardest pieces, a fast allegro. That day, I played my best. Intensely concentrating on each note, I overcame each difficult passage. When I finished without having made a single error, I felt so proud of myself. I looked at my audience, their faces graced with gentle smiles. I allowed myself to smile, too. But their first words were not of congratulations but of criticism. Labeling my playing as mechanical, they talked on and on about the beauty of a piece and instructed me to find that beauty. As they continued to lecture me, my face grew hot and indignant tears threatened to spill over. I glared at the score, but I saw no beauty. I saw only failure. I didn’t understand. Was the piece not fast enough or hard enough? Why weren’t they impressed? Why didn’t they praise me, telling me that I had done well?
At the auditions for the AllState festival, there were so many people. The waiting room was filled with the happy hum of talking and laughing. People from the same schools congregated, sharing tips and stories of past auditions. Standing in clusters, they exuded such a sense of familiarity and camaraderie that for a moment I wished that I had people from my own school to talk with. I set up my own stand in the back and restlessly ran through my scales. The notes sounded stiff and off-key. I set the instrument down and sat in silence, waiting for my name to be called. When the proctor finally did, I went to the audition with such relief, glad to be gone from that room.

During the practice sessions for the concert, I was in the last row for my section. Since my stand partner was missing, I could only crane my neck forward, catching snatches of the conversation in front of me. The girl in front of me abruptly turned around. A condescending look smeared on her face, she asked me to please move back. I was making her feel uncomfortable. Quickly scooting my chair back, I retreated further into the shadows. Resting my cheek on the scroll of my violin, I stared at the music in front of me. The black marks offered no comfort, lying dead on the white sheets. As the others chatted with their stand partners, I sat alone. The dull sound of my fingers tapping the rhythm seemed to echo around me.
The conductor kept on talking about how triumphant and great the Sibelius piece was. He told a charming story about how the piece meant so much to the Finnish people because it symbolized their final acquiring of a national identity. I saw other musicians in the orchestra nodding their heads and making marks in the music. They all seemed to know something that I didn’t, to share a secret that I was not a part of. I looked at the music again, trying to understand, but I only saw rhythms and melodies. I looked up, confused. On his face was a look of such excitement and elation that I had to look away, embarrassed by his sincerity.
Now, during the concert, the conductor raises his baton, his eager face wearing the same euphoric expression. We are about to begin the Sibelius. A fellow violinist in front of me shifts his chair just enough to put his head in my line of sight. Trying to shift positions so I can see again, I accidentally bump into the person next to me. There isn’t any room to move. My hands start to sweat, and I am jerked abruptly out of my meandering thoughts. Unable to follow the baton, I have no choice but to listen with ferocious concentration. I hold my breath, waiting for the beginning of the piece.
The cellos begin with a trembling note that increases in intensity, sending vibrations through the floor. As the violins start their slow scale of quarter notes rising in pitch and volume, I am swept along by the massive wave of sound. Without the baton to center me, I am lost in the sea of noise. I start to hear the violas’ counter melody, moving underneath ours and throughout it all the timpani thunders the beat. I am losing myself in this rush of music that swirls all around me. Gone is the need for the spotlight, gone is the metronomic tick in my head, gone is the girl who plays only to garner admiration. Instead, I am a water droplet lost in the ocean that is the Sibelius symphony. Thrumming with the pulse of the deliberate eighteenth notes, the phrase starts building in intensity, rearing up to its full height. Higher and higher it reaches until finally, like a wave crashing on the shore, the crescendo hits its peak. The sound bursts forth and my violin is singing with all the other instruments, forming one enormous voice. I can hear the joyous celebration, the long awaited elation that has come after years of adversity and hardship. I can hear the exultant Finnish people, laughing and crying, their voices woven into the music.
The sound engulfs me, filling my entire being. I vibrate with its intensity, pouring out fluid sound with my bow, aware of all the others doing the same beside me. Although I don’t know these people, I feel as if we are all part of each other. In that moment I am not a separate individual stuck in my music stand following only the baton. I am part of the music, of the magic that we are making. The notes thrum throughout my whole body.
Triumphantly, the last chord rings out and I feel as if I am pouring out my very essence in that note. For a moment, it reverberates in the auditorium, lingering in the air. My heart pumps wildly in my ears. I feel spent. My hand slightly trembles. The last echo dies away, and I exhale. I look down again at the score resting on the music stand, and finally, finally I see music.

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