Wednesday, July 14, 2010

The Sense

It's time to make a little music together for Wednesday Story Time! Today's piece is an excerpt from a novel, The Sense. The author, Ben Spendlove, is a friend of the blog who's been sharing his writing with us in the form of comments. So, I am very happy that he decided to submit his work! 

Ben says of himself that he "survived adolescence... only to find himself writing about similarly afflicted characters ten years later." He lives with his wife and kids on a "noxious weed farm" in far northern Utah. Hope you enjoy his excerpt!

The Sense
By Ben C. Spendlove

“Remember, Claire—scherzo.”
I smiled thinly and adjusted the strap of my dress. Dr. Frank, my violin teacher, sat at the piano. He clenched his hands into fists, stretched them wide, and began playing—playfully, as a scherzo should be. I stood with the piano to my left, the audience to my right, my feet planted carefully, and my bow raised in anticipation.
I’ll give you a scherzo.
I nailed the entrance and the first six staccato echoes. The next six were a little off, and Dr. Frank glanced up at me. I narrowed my eyes as I punched through the first run. He didn’t look up again, so I scolded myself.
Piano, Claire!
I dropped the next six echoes a fraction late, and Dr. Frank raised one eyebrow. I wished he’d concentrate on his own playing. I didn’t need to be handheld through a Beethoven sonata. Yet, I never got the rhythms exactly right, even on the repeat.
Come on, Claire. You’re better than this.
After Dr. Frank raised both eyebrows as high as they’d go when I didn’t crescendo the long run, I decided not to look at him anymore. I finally got the rhythms right after the da capo, but I sensed that he wasn’t satisfied. I hadn’t played with feeling.
A few people in the audience clapped when I lowered my bow after the movement. Dr. Frank charged right into the Rondo to silence them.
I was ready to sit down. I’d shown off to his other students and their families as much as they wanted, I could tell. They didn’t need another six minutes of Claire Martin showing off her expensive instrument, perfect intonation, and uncanny ability to make Beethoven sound like elevator music. Give me Paganini or Sinding, a million fast notes to play, but don’t ask me to play with “feeling.”
Fortunately, the fourth movement kept Dr. Frank occupied enough that he couldn’t make faces when I played dryly. I didn’t miss a note or rhythm for fifty measures, and stole a glance at the audience during a long rest. A young girl on the front row was staring at me in awe, with no idea how badly I was slaughtering the piece. No one out there knew, least of all my parents. They weren’t there with me in lessons as Dr. Frank showed me how great music was meant to be performed, with precision but also verve. They missed the subtle changes we worked on to turn my playing from good to great.
So did I.
Whenever I tried to put it all together, entire compositions flew by while I remembered everything I was supposed to do about two notes too late.
I plowed through the next section without even trying to play beyond the written notes. My teacher stretched out a rest and looked up at me. He played the interlude slowly, no doubt hoping I’d learn something about musicality from his example. I lowered my violin and looked down at the floor.
I’ll never make it as a pro. I should be making a debut with a symphony or winning competitions, and I can’t even handle a stupid sonata.
I raised the violin, resigned to losing my career before it began. When I started playing again, all the notes felt stillborn. Dr. Frank nodded his head, urging me to keep trying.
Fine. You want feeling? I’ll give you feeling. How about some magic, too?
I had no idea what Alley and Esha were talking about with their open-your-mind-and-let-it-in crap, but if there were ever such a thing as magic, I could really use it. With another performance quickly fading and my teacher practically begging me to pull something out, I didn’t care how silly it seemed.
No one in the audience cared how I played. They thought everything was just great, but Dr. Frank ached for me to make it as a professional. I felt it hitting me like bass drum beats.
“You have real talent, Claire,” he always said, “More than anyone I know. You could be great.”
Fat lot of good it did me. I’d started about six years too late to make anything of it.
I played the angriest pizzicatos ever heard, and Dr. Frank looked up in alarm. I almost laughed.
You want more? I’m just getting started. Let’s see, how do I let that power inside?
The base of my skull burned, shooting heat down my shoulders to my arms. I didn’t know what it was at first, and it startled me so much I completely missed the last two pizzicato notes.
Holy crap, that’s it!
A burst of heat filled my body right to my toes. The next three notes came out a little late, but almost played themselves. The mistake didn’t phase me; I was too overcome by the power flowing down my arms and out through the violin. I smiled and let it flow.
Dr. Frank soon noticed the change and looked up. I looked away from him. I wouldn’t miss another cue. I knew exactly what he wanted to hear.
Every note came out just the way I imagined. Every nuance of tempo and stroke of the bow carried a feeling that I’d always known existed, but had never summoned. I played joy, and a few measures later touched it up with solitude. A melancholy note fed a heavy rest and then a happy flourish, and it all came out so perfectly I wanted to cry.
My feet broke loose from where I’d planted them a hundred and seventy-five measures earlier. It almost felt like they left the floor, and I closed my eyes. I didn’t need to see my accompanist at all—we played as one, anticipating every move the other made, following every lean and hop.
I became more and more aware that the driving force behind my playing came from Dr. Frank. The interpretation of notes and phrasing was his, not mine. The feelings I conveyed were what he needed to feel, not what I found in the music. It didn’t make the experience any less sweet. Dr. Frank knew better how Beethoven could sound, and as we neared the end, I knew I’d fulfilled the very wildest of his dreams for the performance.
I tossed the last note to the audience and sank into a deep bow. Only then did I realize I was about four feet from where I’d started. I stood up, grinning. The people in front of me were standing, smiling and clapping enthusiastically. I bowed again.
Dr. Frank came over and put his arm around my shoulders, squeezing me hard. If I hadn't been holding the violin, I’m sure he would have bear hugged me.
“That was amazing!” He released me and stepped back. “You came alive, Claire! The first half was good, but I’ve never heard the end played better by anyone, not even Heifetz.”
“Thanks,” I said, still grinning.
Can I do magic? Hell, yeah.
Sitting in the back of my dad's Mercedes on the way home, I tried to comprehend what had happened.
“I’m proud of you, Claire,” Mom said, and Dad agreed. “I don’t think you’ve ever played so well.”
"It was like magic," I said.
"Yes, Claire."
"It felt warm back here.” I placed my hand on the back of my head. "And then it spread. I think it really was Dr. Frank's desire for me to play well."
"Of course he wanted you to play well. Why wouldn't he?"
"No, I mean I think he's the reason I did so well."
"He is your teacher."
I sighed and leaned my head back. Dr. Frank had wanted me to play a certain way, and I had used the power of his desire to do it. But was I simply playing what he wanted to hear, or satisfying something deeper? 

When it came right down to it, he needed validation of his own career, a sense of accomplishment. That’s what I’d given him with the music.
But if I couldn’t be at my best without someone else, could I really take credit for playing like Heifetz? On the other hand, wasn't it that way for all musicians? The best performances happen when it really clicks between the musician and her audience.
I smiled to myself in the back seat. I could be much better than most musicians. I could be great.
I took my cell phone from the side pocket of my violin case, and sent a text message to Alley:
Got it, did it. Now what?


  1. Wow, that was fantastic! I love literature that incorporates elements of music, and thoroughly enjoyed THE SENSE. I loved the crisp, clear writing style, as well as the intriguing story.

  2. Love your style Ben! Also, my mother was a violin teacher, so this really touched me in a personal way.

    Great work!

  3. Wow, that was awesome! You really pulled me into the story. So when can we expect to see it in print? ;)

  4. I'm a huge music lover, and had I any musical ability whatsoever, I'd have aspirations of becoming a rock star rather than a novelist. Instead, I have to settle for attempting to weave music into my writing--no easy task. You, however, pull it off beautifully.

  5. I once tried to write a short story about a violin player, but I've only ever played a French horn and Guitar Hero, so it didn't turn out. This, however, was excellent. I kinda want to know what composition the author had in mind so I can compare it with how it played in my head.

    I'm intrigued by the magic hints. Spellcraft is not a fair way to build a musical career.

  6. I play sax, so I consulted with a violinist. She even picked the piece Claire plays, which is Beethoven's Violin Sonata 5, mvts. 3 and 4. I sat down to write with the score and a recording of Szeryng playing the piece.

    Thanks for the compliments, everyone.

    Oh, and Claire ends up as a rock star, Gregg. Who could resist, given the opportunity? :)