Tuesday, May 13, 2014

(Prose) - Paino

Paino

And so she made her case, her bluish-white eyes looking earnestly and unwavering at me. I twiddled the pencil I was holding between my fingers, studying the little girl closely. She was definitely no younger than ten years of age, her face hardly bearing the weathered scars of age or the weariness of worldly toil. She spotted the plain uniform of a lesser known primary school, and its whiteness had been diminished by the faint dirt marks that seemed to have given up on after several rounds of vigorous bleaching. It was lunch time when she turned up at the doorstep of the music school, presenting me with her tiny request.

Of course, I could not reject her; but it was not because of her adorable appearance, but because it was my life motto to allow any child who wanted a try at music to get one. Leading her across the now silent music school, for all the other music teachers had already gone for lunch; I nudged her fragile frame into one of the rooms. Her eyes widen as the sight of the black gleaming concert piano greeted her. It was one of the school’s only Wilhelm Tell pianos: a prized procession from a generous benefactor on which only the best of students were allowed to play on it. I was in a good enough mood however to allow her to let her see it. She froze at the entrance of the room, unsure of what to do.

“Go on,” I nudged her. “Try it out.”

Taking small uncertain step by step, she slowly and nervously approached the piano, the soft whine of the air-conditioning accompanying the mystical silence of the room. This was it. This would be how music would enter the life of this young girl.

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As the smooth flurry of unhurried, even notes ring through the room, I closed my eyes and allowed them to take me on their musical journey. Of the great unknown her music went, transposing to bleak despair before ending with a brief moment of pure happiness. It was beautiful, just beautiful.

Then the slip came.

I fought to keep my jaw from twitching in reaction to the jarring mistake, but one mistake came after another and soon I could only cry out for her to stop. The room fell silent again, and the girl stared up from the piano, a guilty look written on her face.

“You didn’t practice again, didn’t you Ying Mei?” I questioned her, to which her face reddened and she returned her gaze back to the keyboard; I sighed. “You do you know that you need to practice right? Lesson time isn’t the time for that; it’s the time to polish up how you should practice!”

“Y…yes, Mr. Clements. I do know that. It’s just…”

“There’s no such thing as having no time to practice! You just have to make time for it. You have a piano exam in six months and a concert shortly after that to perform in. You really need to keep up with your practice Ying Mei!” I exclaimed, pacing around the room agitated.

Normally such excuse would have been accepted as I have came to realise that students in Singapore had a heavy workload since coming to this small island fifteen years ago. However, I had decided to make this girl an exception. Since her appearance at the doorstep of the music school twelve years ago, Ying Mei had blossomed from a stumbling novice to a graceful meister of the piano. Having aced her graded exams ever since she took her first, I had high expectations of her. Little did I know that I would regret my slackness in understanding her situation…

It was during one of my lonesome nights (I was single you see) when I was on my way home after locking up the music school. I was passing by a bus-stop when I spied a familiar figure. Deciding to see who it was, I walked briskly and silently, so as not to catch the attention of him, or her as I found out when I got closer. Alas, the hunched figure turned and noticed me. She must have recognised me, for she had hastily gotten off her seat and began to run. Yelling for her to stop, I gave chase, easily catching up with the frail figure.

It was Ying Mei. She had been crying, her red, swollen eyes betrayed her vain effort to keep a weak smile in front of me. Her left cheek had the faint red marks of a slap, and her unusually messy black hair immediately invoked concern within my heart.

“Who did this to you?” I demanded, desperately trying to contain her sobbing figure from falling apart.

“Parents…cannot…piano…no more!” She said between large sobs, which did not aid me in my confusion and concern.

Calming her down, I got her to relate to me her problems to me, trying my best to prevent her from entering into another teary stream of incomprehensibility. It was then I realised my folly at assuming that her poor performance had been because of a lack of practice. It was not because she did devote time to practice, but that she could not practice.

Her parents would be filing for a divorce soon. She would have to stay with her mother; away from her father, away from the little white cherry wood piano that she had cherished. Her parents bought it for her as a gift when she decided to pick up piano lessons at my music school, and it had always been a dear possession close to her heart. She had begged with her parents earlier that night not to file for divorce, for she had wanted their family to stay together, to continue to play on that piano for them. However, her mother had became peeved at her insistence and eventually delivered a stinging slap to her left cheek. Outraged and upset, Ying Mei had ran away from the now broken ties which she had so endearingly called family since the day she had been born.

I chewed on a piece of gum as I sat beside her. After hearing her story, I was indeed ashamed for my lack of understanding, but I also wanted to find a solution for this young girl. She had been one of my best students, and it would indeed be a waste if she’d quit playing the piano altogether.

“I have a different goal now,” she said in a confident yet quavering voice, cutting me off from my train of thoughts. “But will you still accept me as your student, Mr. Clements?”

“Do I have a reason not to?” I replied, slightly amused at her question. “You may not have your own piano to practice on, but you can come over to the school whenever you feel like it and we’ll see if we can accommodate a piano for you.”

A glimmer of hope arose within Ying Mei and she burst out into tears again, not of sorrow this time, but of joy and relief.

                                                            ********
A single crisp staccato; a slow and gradual ascend up into the high F, the last note’s piercing timbre singing a sad, unfulfilled lament. She paused, and the audience waits in awestruck silence. Then, slowly but surely, the series of quick semi-quavers came, succeeding one after another as the tempo reaching an almost unbelievable speed. Her fingers flew across the keyboard in a blur of pulsating vigour, her eyes fixed on the score in an unspeakable sorrow.

I was backstage, hiding behind the side curtains away from the audience. As I stood and watched her play, I reminisced the day she first appeared at the door of the door of the music school. She was just a small girl then, nervous and uncertain about the future that lay ahead of her. Now she was now a young woman, full of confidence and vitality; riding on the very waves of musical inversions which she had nary a clue about twenty years ago.

She had told me on that unforgettable night twelve years ago that her name, Ying Mei, was Chinese of ‘beautiful music’. It had been a name that she wanted to live by ever since she knew the meaning of it, for it held many wonderful memories of her childhood; of her father dishing out popular tunes on his harmonica and of her mother accompanying it with the smooth bows of her violin. Her name reminded her of the beautiful music they made together as she listened on with great and innocent delight.


And so she makes her case, even now as she plays; the sad lamenting quality of the nocturne echoing through the concert hall, and sparkling tears rolling down her cheeks. She now plays not for herself, but for her family, the loss of a happier past and the small glimmer of hope of reunion in the future.

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Yes, the title's spelling is intentional :P. A second story that I wrote for the RCS Youth Essay Competition back in 2011. I didn't use it in the end, though.

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