It was late afternoon on a humid Thursday in June. The air seemed to wrap everything on Long Island up in a sticky, sweaty bundle, even despite being near the ocean. The heat certainly didn’t help my already sweaty palms and flip-flopping stomach that made me think of a beached cod. Ugh! New York City should be evacuated on days like this! I thought.
“Rachel, it’s time to go! Are you all ready for the concert? Grandma and Grandpa just pulled into the driveway and the drive will take an hour with traffic.” Mom’s voice had a slight air of impatience.
“Yeah, I’m ready!” I called down to her, stepping out of my room, music and bassoon in hand. I almost fell down the stairs wearing the high heels Mom had bought me the day before. Good thing we didn’t have to walk anywhere too far, or else I would probably break my ankle!
Everyone piled into our burgundy Ford Windstar, and we jerked backwards out of the driveway. I felt the contents of my stomach slosh around. Grandpa Solomon had insisted on driving, and with his attitude of scaring cars out of his way, it was a wonder that all of us hadn’t already been killed in an accident.
After getting on the highway to head into the city, I started feeling carsick. I tried to zone out and ignore everything around me —my brother Isaac’s humming to his iPod, the adults’ talk of how proud they were that I was playing at Carnegie Hall, me being only thirteen years old! Just how did I do it between Hebrew School and homework and lessons, they wanted to know? At least my five-year-old sister, Rebecca, was sleeping, or my head would have been exploding by now! I closed my eyes. Deep breaths, Rachel, deep breaths. My mouth tasted sour, like rotten milk, acidic and green. I felt like I was going to throw up. “Mom, Mom, I feel sick,” I moaned.
“Sweetie, just relax. We’ll be there in half an hour and you’ll be fine,” she said, very unsympathetically.
Grandma looked at me. “Helen, she does look a little pale. We won’t be late if we stop for only a couple of minutes.”
However, my mom was not going to miss this opportunity, even if that meant that we had to roll down the windows and I had to use the plastic grocery bag in the back seat. “Rachel, find a bag back there in case you need it. We can stop, but only if you actually do throw up.”
Choruses of “Ewwws!” rose from everyone except my very serious mother. Gripping my music and disfiguring the perfect black marks, I choked on bile, and quickly my grandmother grabbed my dark, shiny brown hair, opening the bag just as I let loose all the things I had eaten in the past twelve hours. Thank God there was an exit coming up.
* * *
Twenty minutes later, we were back on the road, and thirty minutes after that I was opening my heavy eyelids to the sight of the Empire State Building. Fortunately, I had slept, because that’s generally what you do when you’re sick, right?
Carnegie Hall was bathed in light, since it was early evening. The sun was dipping below the skyline, casting shadows of the tall, steel monsters that New York was famous for. Mom and I got out of the car at the entrance, where we were supposed to meet my father. He came running up to us and hugged me tightly, smelling like work offices and cologne, then planted a kiss perfectly on my mother’s lips. “How’s my gorgeous girl doing today?” he asked. “Or should I say, my two gorgeous girls?” He grinned.
I led the way up through the heavy glass doors and into Carnegie Hall. Mom walked up to an employee and asked where performers were supposed to go. “You can head right to the backstage,” he replied in a professional manner. “All the musicians are warming up back there.” He pointed us to a door labeled BACKSTAGE, painted on with neat gold letters.
Inside, everything was utter chaos. Music was lying everywhere and stands were interspersed randomly throughout the room. An Asian violinist was playing an amazing, staccato piece so high that I doubted piccolos could even beat that! He looked about my age, maybe even a little younger. I was shocked. Mom and Dad said that they had to leave now and that they would see me after the show. Each of them wished me good luck and kissed me before they disappeared out of the backstage door and into the growing crowd of people on the other side. It was all up to me, now.
It was hot inside the backstage area, so hot that beads of sweat soon dotted my forehead. As I was putting my bassoon together, the tenor joint slipped from my hands and made a terrible thud on the linoleum floor. All heads turned to look at me. I felt my face flush with embarrassment. “Sorry,” I squeak-choked. I prayed, and I mean prayed, that my hands wouldn’t slide off the keys when I played my piece. Luckily, no more awful things happened— I didn’t even spill my reed water! But by the time I was all set up to play, almost everyone else performing tonight was there. After a quick chromatic scale, the introducer and conductor for tonight tapped on a music stand to get our attention. In a second, silence had overcome the room. He cleared his throat and began.
“Hello, fine young musicians, and welcome to Carnegie Hall. My name is William Bostrovsky, and I will be introducing all of you, as well as conducting two pieces that will be played by the Boston Youth Symphony Orchestra tonight. Here is the order of performances for this evening. Up first, we have Rachel Levine on bassoon.”
My heart stopped beating. Oh. My. God. This can’t be happening. Please tell me I’m dreaming. No. It has to be wrong. I can’t be first! I’ll die! I’ll faint! It will be awful!
“… and last we have Michael Chen on cello. Any questions?” I realized that he had finished with the list and I had been so freaked out that I had missed it. I tried to raise my hand to say that I couldn’t possibly go first, except that my arm didn’t seem connected to my body anymore. I was totally paralyzed with shock.
“OK then. Miss Levine, are you all set? After I introduce the performers, one of the stagehands will call you to the stage through the side door. Is everyone all set for a great performance? We have a full house tonight and everyone is very excited to finally see perhaps the best young musicians ever at Carnegie Hall. Break a leg, everyone. Good luck!” With that, he disappeared through the side door to take the stage. I heard him welcome everyone and the crowd applauding.
“Miss Levine? Excuse me, you’re needed onstage. Make sure to bring your music. Ehhemm, Miss Levine?” The stagehand was impatient.
“Oh, sorry. Yes?” I’d only just heard the unfamiliar voice. “Could you repeat that?”
“You’re needed onstage. Bring your music now and hurry. He’s already introduced you.” The little man with a black mustache grabbed my hand and pulled me from the chair.
“I can’t do this. No! I’m not even warmed up!” I protested.
“Sorry. No time now. Go!” He thrust me through the door; the door to my death. Bright lights blinded me and all I could see were blue, oily-colored splotches. I felt myself sway, but then my vision cleared and I was able to safely walk across the polished wooden floor to my seat. I adjusted the seat strap on my bassoon, and had an almost-heart attack! My music wasn’t there! In my hurry to get onstage, I had mistakenly left my music book beside my case, even though the annoying stagehand had told me to bring it! Every swear word I knew popped into my head. Deep breaths, Rachel. You know the piece. You can do it.
But deep down, I knew I couldn’t. Shoot! The conductor was looking at me to play, yet I didn’t even remember the first note! So I guessed. I closed my eyes, took a final deep breath, and played the first note I could think of—an A. It was terribly, but wonderfully, strange what happened next. I don’t know how I did it. The note came out as smooth, yet crisp, as a freshly picked apple. And before I knew what I was doing, more notes came flowing out of my mouth and through my bassoon. Low, chocolaty, decadent Bs and high, vivid, tangy Fs. Alien, dark G-sharps and playful, naive, chirpy Cs. The whole time this was happening, my eyes were closed, but I could feel the audience watching me, hearing me sing through my bassoon, my newly found voice. I felt like I was being reborn, my spirit echoing throughout the hall, surrounding everything, encasing myself in warmth. Even melancholy notes found joy in my ears. I think that maybe what happened was that I finally realized my true need, my true love, my true best friend. What really made me happy. It wasn’t school, or sports, or even friends or family. My true passion was my bassoon. My music. My soul. I hadn’t even noticed it before, but now I knew, my voice of sorrow, had been transformed, into a voice of joy.