Helen Silverstein tried to fight back tears as she sat in the passenger’s seat of her mother’s sleek, blue Dodge. Despite the fact that Olivia Roi Silverstein, her mother, was almost breaking the speed limit, Helen felt that she could never be far enough away from her viola teacher’s house. The woman’s harsh words still rang in her ears: “You need to work on this! It won’t just come to you one day, you know.” Helen had spent weeks perfecting the Bach sonata and three-octave arpeggios that she had just played flawlessly, or so Helen thought. Obviously, her teacher thought that the performance was far from flawless. In fact, she seemed to find a fault in every note: the pitch was flat or sharp, her bow was crooked, her instrument wasn’t high enough, or worst of all, her vibrato was wrong. Why did everyone else seem to think her vibrato was so beautiful while her teacher considered it to be sloppy and terrible?
Because, thought Helen, everyone who likes my playing knows nothing about music. This wasn’t quite true; after all, her parents were both excellent musicians, but did they truly enjoy her playing? Sometimes it was hard to tell.
The radio cut sharply into Helen’s thoughts, and the monotonous voice of a man droning on and on about the stock market was like a needle jabbing into her temples again and again. “Mom, do you mind turning off the radio?” she asked. “I’ve got a headache.”
“You know, I’m entitled to listen to something I like once in a while,” said Olivia, turning off the radio. “Did you finish your French homework yet? You said you’d do it on the way to your lesson!”
“Oops! Sorry I forgot. Do you have a pen?”
“It’s in my purse, and I don’t have a free hand right now! You’ll have to get it yourself!” snapped her mother.
Please be calm. Take a deep breath, begged Helen silently, but she said, “I don’t mind getting the pen. Sorry to bother you.”
“I just don’t see why I have to do everything for you, Helen,” sighed Mrs. Silverstein. Helen felt a lump rise in her throat. Now her mother was angry with her. Could this day possibly get any worse?
She arrived home to find her house dimly lit and quiet. This was to be expected, as her dad loved privacy and conserving energy. Sighing, Helen pushed in the doorbell. After a few seconds, her dad rushed to open the door, a plate of freshly cooked chicken paprikash in one hand. A towel was tucked into his shirt collar, and his silver-gray beard and mustache glistened in the blackness of the night. His large, warm brown eyes pierced through the milky strands of moonlight that clung to the sky With a tight smile on his face, he asked, “Why’d you have such a long lesson?” Helen could hear the stormy annoyance in his voice, and she couldn’t bear to see him upset, too.
“I’m going to get ready for bed,” said Helen, kissing her father. “I’ll meet you upstairs.” She jogged up the stairs to her room, changed into her pajamas, and started in on the tedious task of running a brush through her hair one hundred times.
* * *
Helen strode confidently down the hall on her way out of the Harrisburg School of Music (H.S.M.). She had just finished her last orchestra rehearsal of the year, and it had ended early. Helen hoisted her viola strap higher on her shoulder as she watched the other violists chatting happily Amy, Sara, and Katy were inseparable. In fact, the only student from Helen’s orchestra who would speak to her was her stand partner, Allysa.
She hated to sound like a typical moody, depressed teenager with social problems, but sometimes Helen felt like no one liked her. Even Tori Peterson, a girl from her math class and the only other person from her grade who attended H.S.M., refused to talk to her. Instead, she and her snotty, popular friends, Quinn Wallace and Astrid Amberson, completely ignored Helen. The only time Helen felt comfortable at H.S.M. was when she was playing viola. The power of being the principal, the leader, the best violist, was invigorating, and the pure joy and love of playing rich, beautiful music enlightened her and filled her with pleasure. Helen’s only regret was that she wasn’t in the most advanced orchestra.
A hot-pink flyer startled her, and Helen peered at it more closely. It was information about the advanced orchestra. Scanning the list of audition requirements, Helen popped it into the side pocket of her purple case. She also flipped through the thick stack of excerpts. Every student auditioning had to play the required excerpts, or small sections of pieces. Violins had to play Mozart, Bach, Beethoven, and Prokofiev; cellos were required to perform Haydn and Schubert. Finally, Helen’s hands found the viola excerpts. There were only two: Mozart and Haydn.
Carefully sliding the excerpts into her case, she continued down the hallway. Adrenaline pulsed through her body at the thought of auditioning. It was an exciting, educational experience that always made Helen feel proud, and since performing never made her nervous, she looked upon auditions as rare opportunities to test herself and push her limits. Besides, joining this orchestra might be the key to improving her playing.
* * *
Helen anxiously flipped through her two books of pieces. The Bach sonatas all seemed too difficult or too basic to play for her audition, and she knew the judges would be annoyed to hear the same Suzuki pieces over and over again. At first, she had thought of asking her teacher to help her choose a piece, then decided against it. Helen’s teacher would only select a piece like the Seitz Student Concerto in C Major, a concerto played by nearly every violin and viola student in the world! How could she stand up in front of three professional judges and play the same piece that they had heard from sixty other talented students? It would be humiliating; Helen had to pick a less common piece.
“Hey Dad!” Helen called to her father. “I’m biking over to H.S.M., OK? I should be back in an hour!”
“OK, honey,” replied her father. “Be careful! Call me if you need a ride back for some reason!”
Helen scooped up her white faux-suede purse, checked to make sure her hot-pink cell phone was working, and studied her reflection in a small compact mirror. Her wavy, black hair was perfectly neat in its ponytail. Clipping on her gray helmet, Helen hoped that she would find what she was seeking in the enormous, beautiful H.S.M. library
* * *
Ten minutes later, Helen was standing in one of the brightly lit aisles of the Heidi East Freedman Library at H.S.M. Music for various instruments covered the walls; orchestra and chamber music pieces were organized neatly into bins in the middle of the room. Tucking a strand of her dark hair behind her right ear, she sighed. She wasn’t having much luck; most of the viola music was either etudes or books of music for beginners. Only a few more difficult pieces could be found, and those were mostly far too difficult.
As she glanced at a violin serenade transcribed for viola, Helen spotted Chris Schwartz entering the library. To hear his name, no one would guess that Chris was Chinese; it would also never be guessed that he was the most talented high school violinist at H.S.M. and the concertmaster of the advanced orchestra. The slender, tall sixteen-year-old boy waved to Helen and smiled brightly. Helen smiled back and was suddenly filled with determination to be in the same orchestra as Chris. Maybe she could even work up the courage to ask him out!
Filled with new resolve, Helen snatched a thin, red book from the shelf and glanced at it. F. Seitz. She moaned and hoped that this wasn’t some kind of omen that she was meant to play the Seitz C Major Concerto. As she prepared to place the music back on the shelf, three sheets that looked like copies fell to the floor. Helen stared at the title: F. Seitz, Concerto in G Minor for Violin, Transcribed for Viola. It was a different piece, not the one so many students played. Scanning the pages of notes, Helen decided that it was perfect: very difficult, but within her abilities. There were ten weeks before the audition, and if she worked hard, she thought she could learn to play it well enough to insure her entrance into the advanced orchestra.
* * *
Frustration tore through Helen as she struggled to play the difficult passage. Fast notes, double stops, and tricky bowing were too difficult for her. Still, she couldn’t skip any notes, for every note was part of the foundation of the piece. If she left out some of the notes in the chords, it would be like ripping away the bottom of a building and expecting it to continue to stand.
This piece marks, thought Helen with a grin, one small step for man, one giant leap for Helen Silverstein. A leap into the realm of the viola. Once she could play this piece, Helen decided, she could continue to improve until she was the best; she ignored the part of herself that told her that she had been doing that since her first viola lesson.
“Mom! Could you play this passage for me?” called Helen. Her mother, a professional violist and violinist, played the notes perfectly. Thanking Olivia, Helen heard her mother’s performance repeat several times in her brain. Gritting her teeth, she set her bow on the string and began to play.
* * *
The clock read 3:15 AM when Helen opened her eyes. She had awakened about an hour ago but had lain silently in the darkness, waiting for the sun to rise. Stifling a groan, she realized that her dad probably wouldn’t get up for three and a half hours and her mom not for almost six hours! That meant she had to wait for six hours to practice for her audition, which was at eleven o’clock.
For a moment, Helen entertained the possibility of riding her bike or even walking to the local high school and using a practice room to warm up and work on her piece. After all, Rita Maria and Koalas, her two best friends, would not hesitate to do just that. Still, Helen shook it away as an exciting but unrealistic idea. There were too many what-ifs: what if her parents woke up early and found she was gone? What if she accidentally broke or lost her viola? What if there were ax murderers and thieves stalking the night? With a smile, Helen realized that it was highly unlikely that murderers and thieves would be wandering around in her neighborhood. Still, Helen would rather be safe than sorry.
* * *
Helen didn’t run downstairs to practice the minute her mother awoke. She was still asleep, in fact, sitting upright on her bed with her head leaning against the wall. When her mother shook her awake, annoyance at herself overwhelmed Helen. How could she have fallen asleep and wasted time that she could have used to practice?
She jumped out of bed and pulled on her lucky black loafers, an oversized black T-shirt, and a pair of banana-colored jean flares. Brushing her hair and teeth, she ran downstairs and quickly flipped open the latch of her viola case, lifted out her bow and tightened it, and adjusted the shoulder pad on her instrument. Helen’s fingers quickly raced up and down the fingerboard as she practiced scales. After opening her music and scanning the pencil marks that covered it, she began to play the piece for the last time before the audition.
* * *
“Helen Silverstein? The judges are waiting for you.” A tall, overweight woman with hot-pink cat’s-eye glasses, a salmon-colored suit, knee-high white stiletto-heeled boots, and platinum-blond hair cut to her earlobes called to Helen in a loud voice. Her voice was so sugary sweet that it brought the tastes of rich chocolate and overly sweetened candy to Helen’s taste buds, and her southern drawl hummed like a swarm of buzzing bees.
Her hands shaking, Helen stood, her music and bow in one hand and her instrument in the other. The woman led her into a large room; the white walls and floor had the sterile look and smell of a doctor’s office, and the room was completely bare except for a small table behind which sat three judges. Two young brunettes and a gray-haired elderly woman watched critically as Helen adjusted the metal stand that had been placed in the center of the room and laid her music on it.
She flew through the required scales and arpeggios, then paused for a moment. Images of Chris, her parents, and her teacher filled her head. They would be proud if she played well, but they wouldn’t feel any disappointment if she didn’t. Helen was playing only for herself; she was the one who truly cared about the results. With that in mind, she set her bow on the string and drew it gracefully out in a long arc. The first slow, rich notes of the concerto poured from her viola, and the beautiful, deep tones resonated throughout the room, carrying with them Helen’s hopes.
* * *
A broad grin stretched across Helen’s face as she stood up to take a bow with the rest of the advanced orchestra; they had just finished a flawless performance of a piece by Haydn. As the members of the orchestra left the stage, Helen thought back over her experiences in the orchestra and was filled with joy. The audition, the rehearsals, and the concert had all helped show her the true meaning of music and life.
When she had finished packing up her viola, Helen spotted Chris. He was staring at her with his narrow, black eyes, and his pale skin glistened with sweat.
“Congratulations!” cried Helen to Chris; he had played a concerto in the concert.
“Thanks. You too; I’m so proud of you!”
At first, this struck Helen as an odd thing to say, but the joy of the moment enveloped her and she realized that it was the simple truth. Chris admired her dedication. She felt a blush creep over her face. “Well, I guess I’ll see you at our next rehearsal, after winter break,” she said softly. Smiling, she began to walk away as, on stage, the college orchestra began to play a slow piece by Beethoven.
“Wait!” hissed Chris. “I mean . . . um, do you want to . . . you know . . . um . . . do you want to go out with me sometime?” He spoke quickly, and his face was flushed.
“I’d love to,” whispered Helen, and suddenly, all of her worries slipped away. Life was, for a moment, perfect.