Before it begins

Note: This was a short piece I wrote in response to the Marc-André Hamelin concert. I had seen him perform once before when I was a young girl in Canada. It was beautiful then. It’s beautiful now. 

The moments he is most proud of are when his friends come to see him in performance. They cannot tell between good or bad. They could never know that it took years of skill and technique and musicianship, but when his fingers flutter across the keys faster than the eye can follow, he can tell that they are impressed. For that, he might give himself an approving grin.

But tonight is different. Tonight, he has been given the simple and humble task of tuning Mr. Marc-André Hamelin’s piano. It is the minutes of intermission and no one will notice him. They certainly didn’t come to see him play. They didn’t drive for miles or run to catch the train to see him check if an A-flat was still an A-flat. And yet, his fingers play their part with particular care — even more so than when he’s showing off for his friends.

After all, Mr. Hamelin would know.

For these few minutes, as time washes by, the patrons will stretch their legs in the lounge and the young man will tune the piano. He knows that with this simple task, he too holds everyone’s evenings at the tips of his fingers.

Perhaps I have spent too long thinking about this, but I wonder if Mr. Hamelin was ever that young man for someone that he himself admired. I wonder if he put his ear to the hammered strings as diligently as this young man did, in order to ensure that there would be no wrong note if he could help it. A silly thought for sure, but isn’t music also about the preparation for the art? Doesn’t it also find itself grow in the moments before a key is even played?

But the bell has rung and the crowd is pulled in.

We look at the program — a Schubert sonata, one of his last. Some will know it; others will look onto page seven.

“An ominous trill on the low G-flat provides an atmosphere of suspense,” it says. So, the audience now knows that they should expect to be in suspense. They will wait for the soon-to-come “sweet parallel thirds,” hold their breaths for the “series of striking modulations” and later find themselves within “a lively tarantelladance.”

Just as the program instructed, I was ready to wade through majors and minors, bridges and dominants, with Mr. Hamelin leading me away and toward the home key. Yet from the meditation in the seconds before he began Molto Moderato to the last lift of his finger in the finale, I didn’t feel any of this.

No, when he started, I heard a young girl wandering along a trail on the outskirts of Ottawa. Every time he disturbed her calm walk with the underbelly grumble of the low G-flat trill, I saw her look back with worry to make sure her mother was still there. She was and so, the girl kept walking.

Mr. Hamelin soon reaches a sequence of repeated chords, each pressed more deeply and more vigorously into the keys. I see the young mother call for her child, warning her not to stray too far out of sight. The girl skips playfully behind a tree, peeking out once in a while to see if she’s fooled her mama.

Her mother hopes that it will always be this easy — as easy and whimsical as the switch from F major to D minor and B. As easily as Mr. Hamelin recalls the beginning in Schubert’s wandering coda, she hopes that they will always be able to return to this round around the park. Her heart shudders within this hope, but lets go so that she may enjoy the moment as it is right now. Mr. Hamelin lifts his fingers and it’s over.

Andante sostenuto, or as I’ve heard it called, the “tonally remote” section. I don’t see that either, but I do see the mother alone, her baby nested parallel to her breast. The melody seems somber and yet propelled into the momentum of a gentle rocking.

The young mother wills her newborn daughter to sleep. She traces the soft flesh of her index fingers along the baby’s temples as if pushing imaginary curls away from her daughter’s eyes. She is this moment. No one will notice what she made in this intermission of sorts. No one will know how she prepared for it and yet, she could meditate in this moment forever.

I wonder if she regrets giving up graduate school for this. To be a mother. Perhaps she does. Perhaps it shows for a bit, whenever that low G-flat trill tries to seep back in, but then it doesn’t. Instead, she thinks, everything beautiful in the world was made from scratch. Every good art was made from scratch and her art would grow. Her daughter would grow and she would be there to see it — to make it — to will it. She wonders if her daughter too will have the heart of an artist. She wonders if her daughter will have the sensibility of one — of being carried away by beauty like the tripping upper notes of the middle melody. She worries at everything that she will have to wonder. Then realizes this is something to smile about.

The music wanders in the moments before it itself begins, even in the moments before Mr. Hamelin reminds us of why we drove for miles or ran to catch that train. It finds itself within the preparation of the young man tuning the piano, of the girl on the trail and of her young mother.

The music is there.

Even before the bell rings and the crowd pulls in.