A Cappella

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The love between a trumpet player and a pianist is not as harmonious as it seems when one of them finds the courage to step onto the stage and performs a solo without accompaniment.

A Cappella

When Taylor had told her mother about her change of major, she expected ridicule and perhaps a touch of sarcasm. She hadn’t expected full blown thermonuclear war.

“What do you mean, “trumpet major”. What the hell does that mean?” she hollered. Taylor was the first in her family to get into university and everyone had hoped she might become a teacher. Or maybe a lawyer or accountant or a nurse.  Something  that would make the world a better place or if not, at least something that would pay back the student loan as quickly as possible. Taylor had looked down at her bitten nails. If it didn’t work out, she could be a Music teacher. Taylor’s mother had ranted on and on before she got to her point.

“It’s that Spencer, isn’t it?” Her mother’s eyes bore straight into hers and the room temperature plummeted from tropical atomic to Arctic. Spencer had been Taylor’s lover for just over two years and to say he and her mother didn’t have much to say to each other was the understatement of the century. It was true Spencer was an influence on her decision—how could it not be? But he didn’t twist her arm. In fact, he had spent six months trying to convince her that she didn’t have what it would take to be a professional performer. It had been just the impetus Taylor needed to prove him wrong. She began practising several hours every day and even joined the school’s church choir to improve to her aural comprehension. Of course, she became a much better player. So good she managed to procure and keep first chair for two semesters, impressing the professors that had written her off but more importantly, Spencer himself.

“Taylor, answer me, dammit,” her mother persisted. “It’s that Spencer, isn’t it?”

Taylor could see where her mother was coming from. Before she had met him, it was true she never would have thought to even dream of being a trumpet major. But Spencer was a piano prodigy, well respected in the department, bound for a life as a concert pianist. She looked back at her mother, sitting in her house apron and without make up, still waiting for an answer. Spencer’s mother was an opera diva. A real diva! Her mother took Taylor’s hesitation as confirmation.

“That tight ass, stuck up—“

“Mom,” Taylor began. Her eye caught the plastic magnets stuck to the door of the refrigerator, the cheap linoleum beneath her feet and fake wood paneling around them and understood. This was a class war. Taylor sighed. Hadn’t she known this all along? Hadn’t she heard the snide marks from the rich kids who had private lessons all their lives accusing Taylor of sleeping her way to first chair?

“You know what, Taylor?” Her mother asked as she stood up and turned her back on her daughter. “I get it. You’re going to do whatever you’re going to do. It doesn’t matter what I say or think.” Her voice cracked pitifully and she threw a mug in the sink to hide it. “But I guess you’ll be back when he breaks your poor heart.” With that, she dried her hands and left Taylor standing in the kitchen with only plastic fridge magnets to bear witness to her frustration.

 

“So how did it go?” Spencer asked as he warmed up. Taylor could hardly keep up with his fingers as they moved up and down the piano. He had just turned down a lucrative offer to substitute for a sick rock band keyboardist because he thought it was too far beneath him.

Taylor sat down cross-legged on the floor next to him, carefully changing her valve oil. The valves on her trumpet were getting far too worn to move as silkily as she would have liked. One day she would have a silver Bach but for the moment she would have to settle for a gold, slightly dented Conn.

Spencer stopped playing and looked over to her. “Well?” he prompted.

“She took it well,” Taylor lied. “Said she’d come to my recital too.” Her heart turned over as she thought of the impending recital. The recital would determine whether or not she would get into grad school. If she didn’t get in, her mother would get her way and Taylor would end up as a Music teacher. The thought of teaching music to ungrateful children made her queasy. It made her want to practice. She rattled her valves and belted out an F major scale, followed by a G major three octave chromatic scale, holding the high G until her head felt like it might explode.

“Did you tell her I was accompanying you?”

Taylor began practicing the most difficult part of her recital piece and shook her head. Spencer easily picked up where she was and began playing along.

“Why not?” he asked.

Taylor shrugged as best she could and then lost her place. Spencer played on without out her.

“Catch up,” he told her. “It might happen in the recital and you’ll have to find your place.”

Taylor played a few bars but lost the rhythm.

 Late!” Spencer barked. Taylor adjusted and the intensity of the piece pared down to the far more lyrical bridge. Taylor had always found this transition the most difficult. It seemed impossible to be wailing in the upper register in triple tongue to drop to legato pianissimo.

“That is so crass!” Spencer scolded.

Taylor stopped playing, puffed out and discouraged. Her breathing was ragged. It didn’t seem that crass to her—not enough to have a conniption fit over it anyway.

“And you weren’t breathing right,” he observed. “Try it again from section C.” He counted her in and she was off again, triple tonguing perfectly and not missing a note. She was pleased. But then on the legato section, she cracked several notes.

“Crass!” Spencer shouted.

Taylor’s chops were getting tired. She needed a break and stopped.

“You’re going to have to really work on that section,” he told her pointlessly. “It sounds awful.” He switched over to his own recital piece and played the same 8 bars over and over again while she wiped down her trumpet. There were sections of gold finish that were beginning to wear thin from all the recent practice. She might have to resort to wearing gloves even though she knew that would look pretentious. It would be better than appearing to have a shoddy instrument at a recital

Spencer swore and re-practiced the troubled measures again and again until they were perfect. Then an odd thing happened: on the third or fourth run through, he missed several notes. Swearing under his breath again, he played them several more times until he was happy. Sighing with relief, he looked up and saw Taylor watching him curiously.

“I hope that doesn’t happen on the night,” she giggled nervously.

“Me too,” he agreed, pretending to wipe sweat from his forehead. Taylor had never seen him nervous before and it amused her.

“I gotta go,” she told him, checking her watch. “Choir practice,” she said as she blew him a kiss.

 

The choir room was deserted and for a moment, Taylor thought practice had been cancelled. Hearing singing voices from the stalls, she went in to take her place. There was one voice that soared above all others and Taylor knew before she squeezed in between two begrudging altos that she had committed some sort of faux pas. Worse, she knew the soaring voice could only belong to the only diva she knew: Spencer’s mother.

Of course, she was dressed. A designer gown that shoved her heavy bosoms so far upwards they looked like they could obstruct her breathing, false nails (Taylor guessed she never had to wash a dish in her life), and make up so heavy and teeth so white and straight she barely resembled a human being. And the hair! It looked painful. She met Taylor’s eyes as her voice reached its crescendo and held a note so clear it might have broken glass. On and on the note went until the choir members began to make startled noises.

“How does she do it?” someone asked incredulously.

Spencer’s mother held the impossible note for a few more seconds then ended it with such grace it brought tears to Taylor’s eyes. “I do it,” she answered the incredulous inquirer, “Because I want to.” And with that, the applause thundered.

Spencer slipped in next to her.

“Hey,” he whispered, giving her a noisy peck on the cheek. His mother’s expression clouded over when she saw this. Taylor knew she thought his choice of girlfriend was completely flawed.

An encore had been requested and after nearly a minute of protesting she had come to hear the choir, not perform herself, Spencer’s mother again took centre stage. This time the lights dimmed and a spotlight shown on her as Spencer tiptoed to the piano. After calling out a few indecipherable instructions, Spencer began playing, his eyes bright and shining with awe as his mother’s voice filled the large room as it swirled in perfect beauty and impossible elegance. He stopped playing so the listeners could concentrate on her even though she nodded her encouragement for him to continue. Spencer understood it was her moment and he merely served as an obstacle to her performance.

“My God,” someone whispered, “That’s how you do it a cappella.”

 

Spencer’s recital was upon them before they knew it. Taylor sat on the bed watching him adjust his bow tie, not having any idea how to help him. He was nervously humming the tricky part of his recital. Taylor had become so familiar with it she was able to pick out individual lines on the trumpet.

“That doesn’t help,” he had scolded her.

But she hadn’t done it to distract him but to show him how good her listening ear had become.

On the performance sheet outside of the hall where Spencer was performing, it called his recital a “Master Class” in piano performance. Taylor’s heart filled with unbelievable pride. Her man, the very one she had slept with the previous night was a master performer. Of course he was! There was champagne waiting on ice in the green room for the party afterwards. Crystal glasses caught the lights and splashed rainbows on the walls. All of which Taylor took as a good sign all would be well. When the overhead lights flashed off and on, she went to the hall.

A hush filled the crowd as Spencer took the stage. He took a quick glance at Taylor, smiled then returned his attention to the keys in front of him. Taylor heard him take a breath and just like that, he was off as if the recital was just an ordinary walk in the park.

Taylor had become so entranced that she was unconsciously humming along. It was coming, Taylor thought. The really tough bit. She sat back in her seat, telling herself to relax. He had practiced the part so often there was no way he was going to mess it up. Only he did. It was a subtle mistake but a mistake all along. Taylor looked around her. It seemed no one else noticed. All were watching Spencer intently without a hint of hearing a mistake. Taylor couldn’t believe it. After the hard time he gave her about sounding crass and he blows the scherzo! Taylor wanted to giggle but kept herself together. She was hardly in a position to tease when her own recital was also coming up.

By the end of the evening, Taylor dearly wished she had remembered that but after a few glasses of celebratory champagne, she had completely forgotten her position.

“Spencer!” called the Head of Music after the performance. Spencer and Taylor were sipping their champagne from flute glasses, something Taylor had never done before. The Head of Music looked as if he had had an early start on the champagne. He thumped Taylor just a little too hard on the back and sloshed a bit of the expensive liquid on the floor as he re-filled her glass.

“What did you—“ started another professor but his foot slipped on the spilled champagne and he thudded painfully to the floor on one knee. Getting up quickly, he said, “Now that is going to hurt tomorrow! What did you think of your man’s performance?”

All around her glasses were raised to Spencer’s performance. The professor who had slipped on the champagne drained his glass and not knowing any better, Taylor did the same.

“Taylor!” said Spencer, aghast. “Slowly!” He motioned for her glass to be replenished.

“That’s the way,” said a different professor. “Drink the champagne, don’t play with it!” He too finished his glass.

“Pssst!! Taylor!” There were several members of the orchestra standing by the table of champagne. “Over here!”

Taylor had never felt completely comfortable in the orchestra but somehow she knew their invitation was just the start of a better relationship amongst her fellow bandsmen.

“Well done!” said a French horn player who had always been decidedly unfriendly. He motioned for her to finish her drink. She swigged the champagne and was rewarded with a fresh glass.

“I say when it’s free champagne you drink it before it runs out.”

Taylor laughed louder than she intended to. She was feeling decidedly tipsy.

“Here’s to you!” said a trombone player, toasting her.

“Me? I didn’t do anything,” Taylor giggled again.

“Drink up you lightweight,” teased a musician she didn’t know. Taylor was feeling a bit dwarfed by the attention the musicians had never given her before. “Chug!”

Another cork was popped and again Taylor’s glass was filled.

“You turned that miserable, snotty SOB into someone we can talk to!” said the musician she didn’t know.

“Chug!”

Taylor saw Spencer approaching through the bottom of her empty glass. She burped delicately and giggled again.

“Are you okay?” he asked with a look of concern as he counted the empty bottles.

“Just getting to know my fellow bandsmen!” To her surprise, she remembered all their names and instruments.

“I see,” he smiled.

“Spencer! Spencer!” someone Taylor recognised as a timpani player called out. He had his hand held out for shaking well before he reached Spencer. “Flawless performance! Flawless!!  By God you are one talented son of a—“

“Thank you,” Spencer said quickly.

“Flawless!” said the timpani player again.

Taylor burst out laughing before she could stop herself. Everyone turned to look at her. Spencer suddenly straightened as if giving a warning.

“What’s so funny about that?” asked the trombone player. There was a twinkle in his eyes.

As if on cue, the audio technician came out of the sound booth to join the party. “It’s in the can,” he said to everyone as he took a glass of champagne.

“C’mon Taylor honey. Share the joke!”

Calling her “honey” was what had done it. Before he left, her father called her honey if he wanted her to do something she was unsure about. It gave her permission as well as confidence.

“Well, strictly speaking, we couldn’t call it a “flawless performance”, she confided. “There was a mistake.”

“Ho ho! What’s this? The child prodigy made a mistake?”

And suddenly it was as if an explosion had sounded and everyone scattered to what seemed to be pre-arranged positions. The sheet music was found, the audio technician took his place in the booth.

“Well where?” asked the trombone player.

“In the scherzo section.” She hunted through her memory. “Bar 160.”

Spencer rolled his eyes. “I’m entitled to make a little mistake every now and again,” he was saying.

The music for bar 160 was projected onto a screen at the back of the room and the entire crowd pushed their way to get a view. The sound technician played the music and all the musicians followed the music. And every single one of them was provided with irrefutable proof of Spencer’s mistakes.

For a moment, there had only been a few audible gasps. But then the laughter started. Taylor had not expected Spencer to take it so badly. But then again, she had never had a prodigy for a lover.

 

On stage, with the light shining on her, Taylor could not see her audience. She rattled the valves of her trumpet nervously as she adjusted her music on the stand. From her bag, she took a small metronome, set it and placed it on the floor. It’s steady clicking comforting her.

“No metronomes,” called out a faceless voice.

Taylor cleared her throat. “I don’t have an accompanist,” she said quietly. She was certain she didn’t have to repeat this fact after Spencer had so publically quit.

“Yes we are aware you are playing a cappella but you still can’t use a metronome.”

Quickly, Taylor turned it off and put it back in her bag. She rattled her valves one last time, took a good breath and began.

The voice of a trumpet is meant to fill the cavities of church halls with its gracious echoes. Up until that moment, Taylor had only heard herself play with other musicians or in a small practice room. It was silly of her not to realise this and too late she remembered she should have at least played the piece through a few times in this unfamiliar place. But her sound was bright and if she did say so herself, it might even be called magnificent. There was no one to say she was crass and when she came to the most difficult part of her recital, she dug a little deeper and flawlessly delivered.

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