Now, its silence took on a life of its own – less a promising vessel of sound, more a shapely artifact. I refused to sweep the bow across the strings and feel the delicious buzz under my fingers; I refused to create tones that resonated in my blood and swept out into the atmosphere. No. The last time that happened was the day I performed for the revered Hungarian cellist János Starker here at Indiana University.
Music students at Indiana were graded on their performance before the acclaimed ‘maestros’ who taught at the college. These performance exams, called juries, required us to play for an audience of one: the maestro. Playing for Starker would be daunting, humbling and thrilling at the same time, and I plunged into endless hours of practice, as did every student preparing for their juries at the esteemed school.
In the circular music building on the Bloomington campus, three floors of practice rooms were occupied around the clock as students sacrificed eating and sleeping to feed their obsession for a flawless performance. Each floor reverberated with clashing sonorities bubbling out, like an orchestra scattered randomly throughout a cacophonous honeycomb. You were assigned a practice room for just one hour before the next student swept into the airless, sweat-steamed space. “Repetition is imperative!” my teacher said, imploring me to work and rework difficult passages to infuse muscle memory with total accuracy. The student waiting right outside scrutinized my every note, judging me as I hammered out melodious passages that had sadly become tactile gymnastics rather than a lovely solo.
Was this any way to live? Even as a young cellist I knew a musician’s life could be tough and nerve-racking but that didn’t deter me. I knew that without the cello, life was empty. Music invigorated, impassioned me. There was always a melody playing in my head, like a friend lightly skipping alongside me everywhere I went.
The competition among music students was fierce, with an undercurrent of one-upmanship. We all acknowledged this to ourselves but rarely to each other, even when something terrible happened.
And something terrible did happen.
A promising young vocal student had been rejected after she auditioned for a leading soprano role in an opera. Performing a major role at the school’s opera house usually guaranteed a student’s future success. But not in this case. The day after her audition she leapt off the roof of the music building, plunging to her death. The musical rotunda became a spiral of silence. We were reminded that our methodical pursuits, swirling in an aura of sound, could suddenly crash into a low hum of despair.
A few days later a lone oboe was heard practicing. Life went on while sadness and denial played off one another.
As the day of the jury approached, my cello teacher, one of Starker’s accomplished students, was like a nervous stage mother. His teaching skills would be judged as well.
“Practice!” he urged. “Learn all twelve scales by heart! Maestro will ask to hear three perfect octaves!” I despised the monotonous sequence up and down the fingerboard; it gave me aural brain freeze. I rarely practiced the scales. I would wing it.
I lacked the confidence to play a fast, flashy piece, so I chose ”Lamento,” a slow, solo movement written by the twentieth-century British composer Benjamin Britten. I was drawn to the edgy tonalities, how its musical arc begins with a long, soulful low note, then releases into a plaintive song of gradual intensity that steps its way to higher timbres. At the pinnacle, a long high note sings out from the stratosphere before a retreat of tonal descent back to the first note, a deep resolute tone whose story has been told. I prayed my sophisticated interpretation would impress the formidable Starker.
János Starker was celebrated in the classical music world, his dazzling technique and ingenious musicality offering impeccably played, beautiful music. But behind the scenes he was a narcissist, a misogynist, hard-edged. The music world overlooked his temper and snooty attitude. Ours was a culture that tolerated prima donnas with abrasive, reckless egos. It was a world where no one ever dared talk back. No one ever refused a maestro.
“And dress nice,” my teacher said. “You know what I mean.”
Yes, I knew. It meant either a skirt or low-cut dress. And, honestly? If placing the cello between my legs might offer some prurient appeal to the master, well, that was just too creepy.
When the day, a Wednesday, arrived, I pulled on black concert pants and a long-sleeved, high-collared white shirt. I entered the small studio with its steely fluorescent light, getting the look from my teacher when he saw my outfit.
The maestro himself, a gargoyle, icily gazing at nothing, was sitting a few feet away from my chair. Bald with sharp features, the great man nodded at me glumly, his face propped up with two fingers. In his syrupy Hungarian accent he asked my teacher, “Vat is she playing vor me today?”
“She is playing a movement of the Ben Britten piece, maestro,” my teacher said. I sat down and took a breath, locking my eyes on the sheet music where the notes seemed to be swimming. My teacher tapped me on the back to get going. I gripped my bow too tightly, even knowing this would rob me of a relaxed sound. The first low note cracked as I pressed the bow into the string too hard. I got stuck there as I tried to ground myself in the deep, bass vibrations. Long held notes with watery vibratos were sonic mantras, begging one to ponder what would come next while soft chromatic passages had to be lilting, tantalizing, to pull the listener in.
By the second line, Starker crossed his legs and glanced around, reaching for something on a small table to his left. My bow arm wobbled; it felt like my hands were baseball mitts. The piece modulated to a different key, which created a sense of melancholy as it became louder and bolder, preparing for the climax. Starker shifted in his seat as I reached the loftier registers, tackling a difficult passage of hurried notes I had worked on over and over. And finally there I was, aloft, levitating on my high note, holding, savoring.
Starker lit a cigarette.
I froze, holding the high note (now a plea for my place in the music world) as a puff of smoke wafted over me. His insidious exhaust slowly dissipated, snuffing out something deep inside me.
My teacher hissed, “Go on!”
I abandoned the high note and moved too quickly through the remaining passages (sorry, Mr. Britten!) forfeiting the sorrow and resignation of the finale. Who was this person playing? I was no longer a vibrant, passionate artist offering beautiful music, but a dismal, inert conduit for sound. I shortened the last note and Starker took another long drag.
I stood up quickly, sweaty, flushed, ready to flee, but the maestro said, “Vie don’t you play voor me a C-sharp minor scale? Three octaves.”
It was one of the hardest scales in western music and, undoubtedly, I would fumble through, shaming and humiliating my teacher and myself. I looked at Starker, my heart pounding, and said, “Sorry. I don’t play scales on Wednesdays.”
My teacher’s mouth dropped open. I lifted my cello, left the room, and headed aimlessly down the curved hallway wanting to dematerialize. My teacher was at my heels, screaming. “Are you CRAZY? No one ever refuses the maestro!”
“Sorry,” I said, quickening my gait. “I’m not going back there – the man’s a monster.”
The János Starker moment with the fatal high note dramatically redefined my place in the school. Students I thought were friends now held me in disdain, landing me on a social blacklist. I was ignored, stared at, talked about behind my back. From that day, I delegated my cello to its corner where it remained, untouched.
I changed my major to journalism, where the emphasis was on thinking critically, where students weren’t pushed to chase perfection but to accept human frailty as a part of learning. I avoided the music school at all costs, carefully choosing different routes around campus so I didn’t have to look at the circular tomb. Listening to classical music was off limits – I imbibed hard rock, blues, jazz, even some heavy metal. The whanging of rhythm and blues in my head was good accompaniment to a changed life of new sounds and fresh faces.
I relished the congenial connection with teachers and students who were encouraged to speak their minds. My defensive armor lifted away as I became comfortable in my own skin.
But a request to submit my final transfer papers demanded a brief visit to the rotunda. Inside I passed the recital hall where a string quartet was rehearsing a stunning late Beethoven quartet featuring an exquisite cello solo. A voice inside me murmured, “Remember me?”
Back in my room I stared at the dusty cello. Since the jury, my desire to make music had been choked off and paralysis had set in. But now, as I inched closer and saw how thick the layer of dust was, I took a cloth and quickly wiped it down out of respect, finding the sheen of the wood. My resentment fell away. The strings whispered as I cleaned off the fingerboard. They were badly out of tune and the dissonance soured the air.
The least I could do was tune the thing.
The ebony pegs wouldn’t budge at first; I clenched my teeth, tightened my grip on the pegs and jerked the strings until they reached the grounding clarity of perfect intervals. I placed the cello back in its corner and stared at it. My teeth were still clenched.
Had the smoke-infused high note indelibly marked a fissure between me and the music world?
Cautiously, I reached for the cello. I felt its familiar weight, recalled school auditions, the thrill of acceptance, standing ovations at youth symphony performances. Could I still make the cello sing? I plucked the strings loudly and the reverberations rang out.
Author's Comment“The High Note” freezes a moment that was a turning point in my musical life. In retrospect, that moment taught me humiliation that strengthened me and has kept my passion for music alive to this very day.
5 thoughts on “The High Note”
A wonderfully-written story with such powerful description that I could feel the author’s apprehension and pain during her cello performance.
Thank you for this wonderful piece that so resonates with me, and– I’m sure– both music majors and professional performers. Too often both the public and the musicians themselves are robbed of the pleasure their talent was meant to provide, simply because of a surprising rigid, punitive competitive culture and hierarchy in the world of classical musicians.
I love this essay. As a singer who has about given up on singing, I appreciate how you have captured the delight of making music along with the agony of trying to make it perfect.
A strong, honest and needed appraisal of an era of musical pedagogy that had lost sight of the real meaning of music.
This is an absolutely beautiful piece. Given the harmonious strains of Ms. Luby’s writing, her cello playing must be superb. A loss for the music world is journalism’s gain.