When I was five I decided I was going to sing Twinkle Twinkle Little Star in front of the whole school during assembly. I marched up to the stage and sang into the microphone. By the time I came to ‘Up above the world so high’, I realised what I was doing. There was a sea of heads down below, thousands of eyes, all staring at me. I stopped.
I couldn’t say ‘above’. Avove, avove I stammered. The headmaster gently guided me along to finish my poem. I was applauded, but I felt such shame. I couldn’t sing such an easy song properly in front of my school.
I learnt to play the piano as a child. I hated those music lessons. My teacher would breathe hotly down my neck, long pencil in hand, ready to smack my knuckles as I stumbled over the keys. He’d rage in my ears and scratch my book with angry lines where I just couldn’t get the notes accurately. Saturday mornings used to be such torture. The whole week would be a build-up to that one hour in the morning when I would have to face him. At home, when I practised, I was fine. Monday, my scales would be perfect. Arpeggios melodious. Then it would all go downhill till on Friday the scales would be a shamble of sounds and my piece totally unrecognisable.
Finally, after four years of torture and a complete hatred for music, I quit. I revolted against my music lessons and swore never to return to it. But I realised I missed it. I’d play the piano at home, but wanted to learn more. My parents looked around for another tutor. A kinder one. Someone who could re-instil the love and confidence I had lost over the years.
Soon, I was attending music lessons again. There were no foot long pencils to rap my knuckles with in this place. My books were no longer vandalised with red pencil and shame. Slowly, I learnt to love and play music again.
I performed even. The local music ensemble evenings, every three months, was where many musical talents had built up their careers. I’d play my little pieces. Then I graduated to Beethoven and Bach. On one such night, we were performing on the big stage. The annual music concert. I was playing Mozart’s Fantasia in D Minor. My most difficult piece yet. I waited in the green room, fingers stretched and nervous. Heart beating erratically. I had to pull it off without any mistakes. I shut my eyes, trying to get myself in the mood. I was going up soon.
When I opened my eyes, I saw him. He had brought along his student to perform. I cannot describe the feeling in my stomach. Fear? Hatred? Disbelief? Why was he here? Those memories came gushing back. I didn’t want him here, spoiling my night.
He recognised me. It had been years since we had last met. It had been a very negative last meeting. He had told me I was no good anyway, so teaching me was a waste of time. He smiled at me. But somehow, he too seemed unsure how to react. He looked older now, frailer. I looked at his students fingers automatically. Were they raw and sore as well? Not really.
He smiled at me and asked me what I was playing. I answered. But all the while I wanted to run away. I heard the applause as the performer on stage finished her piece. I heard my name being announced through the speaker in the greenroom. I gathered my music sheets and left, knees shaking.
I had to do it. Now my performance needed to be perfect, not just for me or for the audience. But to put right all the accusations put forward against my name. For my sore knuckles and torn books. For those pair of ears in the greenroom to listen and take back his hurtful words. There was a lot at stake when I placed my fingers on the keyboard.
Softly, I began. My best loved piece of music. I paused at every pause and raced through every run and trill. Adagio. Pianissimo. Allegro. I was lost within the fantasy created by Mozart.
When I stopped, there was silence in the hall. Then thunderous applause. I curtseyed, quite unaffected by the response. My mind was blank. I couldn’t believe that those were my fingers that had created the magic. I couldn’t believe that I had actually sat there on the stage and performed. I stepped back into the greenroom.
He was still there. His student was fidgeting nervously with his music sheet. I gave him a tiny smile. I felt like an eight-year old again, running back to my teacher, waiting for words of praise or admonishment.
“You were very good,” he finally said. His voice was softer than I had imagined.
“Thank you,” I replied.
Very good, he said softly and then busied himself with his student. I left the greenroom and walked out into the courtyard. The cool breeze hit me and I smiled. I noticed I was lighter on my feet. I felt I was shedding old skin.
He said I was good. It didn’t really matter so much now. It mattered so much to me.