Tonight, she sits me down after the lesson and says that maybe I’m not fit to compete this year. The piece I’d been working on might prove a little too difficult.
But I know she’s thinking about last year’s competition, when the world spun as I stepped out onto the stage, and the space around me felt empty. When the walls were too far apart and the audience pressed against me, suffocating. When my shaking hands made my bow leap and my fingers imprecise.
She waits for my response. I pause, words pressed at the tip of my tongue. But in the end, I nod and say it’s okay, and I understand.
As she escorts me out, her mouth is pressed in a thin line. “Goodnight,” she says.
“Thank you,” I call back as I step out onto the street, the strap of my violin case heavy on my shoulder.
But a few days later, before the week’s lesson, she calls me and invites me over.
“What is it?” I ask when I show up at her doorstep.
She smiles. “I secured a spot in the competition for you.”
“And I found a partner,” she says.
“A partner?” I ask.
“A cellist,” she replies.
I meet him the next day.
I see him through the window of the practice room first, studying the music, eyebrows furrowed. He gets up as I enter the room, and I give a little start when he turns toward me, because he’s Michael and everyone knows him— a nationally-ranked cello player. He notices my reaction and smiles, pulling over a chair for me. Still, he says “nice to meet you” and “my name is Michael.”
“I’ll leave you to it,” she says, and closes the door as I take the seat.
“Is there anything you’d like to play?” he asks. His fingers hover over the strings of his cello.
“A— Are there requirements?”
“No, not for this round.”
“Something by Vivaldi? Debussy? Schubert,” I say.
“Schubert sounds good,” he says.
A month isn’t long at all. We meet every day, not necessarily to practice. Sometimes we talk until she walks by and gives as a teasing glare through the window.
“Tell me something about yourself,” he says as we enter the practice room on a Tuesday afternoon.
“I have stage fright,” I say. “Like really, really bad stage fright. Did she tell you that?”
“And you still said yes?”
I let my gaze drop to my violin.
“Don’t worry about it,” he says. “You’re not playing by yourself this time.”
Sometimes we just play until there’s no more music for us to unravel. By the time we’ve finished working through the piece and begun to memorize, my sheet music is completely marked up. He tells me we should both close our eyes when we play, “to feel the music.” But it’s just so he has an excuse to keep the music on the stand and peek when he needs to. I pretend not to notice.
A week before the competition, she brings us in to perform for the parents. In the rehearsal room, we sit cross-legged on the floor, the parents in a semi-circle around us.
She nods, and I take a breath and hurl myself into the music, Michael joining in. But my hands shake and the music is thin. Michael looks even better in performance than in practice, his soft and delicate bow strokes crescendoing to vigorous as we approach the climax.
After a painful minute of playing, she stops us. I drop my hands in relief and Michael pauses for a second, mid-vibrato, before relaxing. My eyes sting. She looks at the crowd and nods, and they get up to leave.
“Thank you,” they call to her as they file out the door.
She walks over to me and shakes her head. “You can’t compete like this,” she says. “If you don’t think you can do it, it’s not too late for you two to drop out. Michael can always do a solo.”
My throat constricts. “I—”
She notices my expression and says, “You play beautifully, Morgan. Up to par with my best players. You just can’t be afraid.”
“Please. Another chance”
“That was your last practice in front of the crowd,” she says. “The competition is in seven days.”
I look down at Michael, and he tries to smile, but it falters a little.
“Alright,” she says. “Good luck.”
I nod. My heartbeat flutters as I pack my violin, put on my coat, and exit with the last of the parents. When I walk out, Michael is still sitting in the same spot, playing his part. It’s beautiful, beautiful enough to be a solo.
The days fall away as we do last minute touch-ups. Throughout the week, music floods my thoughts. The only thing I can think about is the melody that winds its way into my consciousness, haunting.
The night before, I call him and say I’m so nervous I’m so nervous I’m so nervous over and over again, my voice shaking.
“You’ll be fine,” is all he says, but I can hear him smiling. “I’ll see you tomorrow.”
In the sultry lights of the waiting room, we’re all pressed too close to each other. The air reeks of confidence.
As we settle down, the boy next to me sees Michael, and they exchange a polite nod. All of a sudden I feel like an imposter, a small girl made of thin and trembling lines that pretends to play the violin, sitting between two nationally-ranked cello players. I close my eyes to calm myself.
Five minutes before we’re scheduled to go on stage, a man holding a clipboard calls us inside. We stand up together and leave the room, under the stares of the other competitors. I tune my strings and he tunes his to mine, and then we go out into the auditorium. The venue is packed, and I huddle near the steps that lead up to the stage. Michael leans against the wall, his eyes trained in the distance. He holds his cello like this performance means nothing more than another practice.
I close my eyes and run my hands over my violin again. The boy before us—the one that greeted Michael earlier—is still playing, the sound of his cello smooth and even. His melody could carry you, if you let it.
The audience breaks into applause when he finishes, and I marvel at how his notes seem to linger in the air, clinging to my memory, even as he stands and then walks off stage.
“Morgan,” I hear. “Morgan.”
The rest of the world rushes in all at once: the judges calling our names, the audience’s voices echoing off the walls, Michael’s hand on my shoulder.
I stand up, unsteady.
Michael leads the way up the stage. In the brief moment we’re behind the stage curtains, hidden from the audience, he turns back and smiles at me, the same way as he did when I first walked in the practice room. I smile back and then we walk on. The lights are blinding.
He readjusts the chair and I stay standing. His eyes are on me as I put my violin to my shoulder. And then in front of everyone—somehow, somehow—I’m still able to move. I lift my bow and he echoes my motion, raising his, and then we breathe and begin.
In the first notes, I’m shaking and the world is going under, but Michael looks at me. And in the look, I hear Michael can do a solo and him, telling me you’re not playing by yourself this time. And all of a sudden, the practice floods back to me, and I feel grounded.
The sound is no longer thin the room. His baseline resonates like a heartbeat, and I feel the energy and adrenaline thrumming through our bodies, the music spiralling around us. I don’t think—there’s only room to feel.
So this is why she wanted me to have a partner: to fill the space on stage. To widen the walls, steady my shaking hands. To keep the ground below us from spinning. I’m no longer afraid.
The deep tones of his bass fill the gaps in my melody, running through the cracks in the sound. And as we breathe the first notes to life, our song begins to form, our fingers climbing the strings, our notes bleeding into a symphony.