No one recites at a spring recital. Beyond a word of welcome, concert halls are hushed as the season of the solo cycles round for children faint with fear.
"But you know your piece," whispers the mother as she and the child approach a doorway into a hall where rows and rows of chairs are already filled with parents silently paging through programs.
"But I should have brought it," the child whispers back. She doesn't say the unspeakable -- "What if I forget?" -- but, crossing the threshold, shoes polished, hair ribbons new, she feels her knees grow weak at the sight of a stage whose steps she far too soon will ascend, her accompanist (holding her music) just behind. The accompanist will go to the piano, the child and her instrument to the front of the stage where, alone, she will turn and face a sea of faces and, above all else, never ever look at a single face, staring instead at the door or a fresco, at a vase of peonies on a ledge or a crack in a white plaster wall. Programs will rustle and her own ruffled skirt and the pages that her accompanist arranges and rearranges as the child faces the petrifying prospect of playing her piece from memory.
On this sunny afternoon, streets green and leafy, roses in bloom, she is to play Bach -- 1,078 notes of Bach; she knows because one night she counted each and every note. Through autumn and winter and early spring, she played and replayed each and every note. Now, as spring glissades into summer and she slides into a seat, she wonders where those notes are. In her fingers? In her head?
They ought to be somewhere, for, note by note, she and her teacher have gone over and over the concerto. Measure by measure, they have planned fingering, phrasing, dynamics. "Think about repeats," her teacher mused. "Loud, then soft? Soft, then loud?" She has thought about repeats. Her thoughts are less subtle. Will she remember to repeat? To stop repeating? Without the beat of a metronome, will she careen out of control?
The weight of things to remember is heavy, and her head feels very light. She absently polishes her instrument with the hem of her dress. As strains of a cello sonata drift by, she really cannot recall her music: The notes have faded as irrevocably as markings on an antiquated map.
But a curious sense of destination remains. Beyond bare technique, there has been more to seek. In the weeks before the recital, she and her teacher have explored a text bright at the beginning, dark within, in one passage stately as caverns in sunlight, in another dancing "like goldfish darting through water rippled and deep."
She smiles at the thought of pools of shimmering fish. She looks down at the program she is clutching in her lap. She is next. As applause for a triumphant trombonist dies around her, she rises and slips past her parents to move through a great gulf of silence down the aisle and up the steps to center stage. Awaiting the opening bars of the piano, she looks beyond the VTC rows of faces at a marble bas-relief. Heart pounding, she senses the first sounds of her concerto. She lifts her instrument.
And then, as though her fingers were slim, bare feet, she sets them down, one by one, in spots that feel familiar -- that beckon like a faint trace of footprints down an oft-trodden path. Note by note, measure by measure, she finds her way, more and more sure-footed, reassured that should she slip, she will not falter. Like endless others who have preceded her, she does know this piece! Song soars behind her -- and before her lies a golden world of glorious music, cited and recited by every age as memorable terrain.
Barbara Mallonee teaches writing at Loyola College.