“Again! And sit up straight! You’re slouching.”
Naledi repositioned herself on the stool in front of the piano. Her legs, dangling, were starting to go numb. As best as she could, she straightened her back, placed her fingers in position on the white keys, and began to play Für Elise from the beginning. She felt her fingers hit every note to the tempo. Dunk Dunk Dunk. Behind the music, she could hear the dull wooden sound of the key instructing the hammer to hit the string. She tried hard to distract her mind from the sound and focus on the melody she needed to perfect. She’d played all four pages of the melody tens of times. She’d practiced for hours, every single day, but for some reason, today, she’d think about her next move, and fumble over the note, destroying the tempo, and ultimately having to stop.
Mrs. Perry, thankfully, wasn’t the kind of piano teacher to use a tool to inflict pain for obedience. Her pinched pale face was stern, and her thin translucent skin conveyed her avoidance of the harsh African sun. Her veins were visible through her skin, and Naledi always knew when Mrs. Perry was frustrated because a vein in her temple would bulge and pulsate.
Naledi managed to get to page three of the piece before stumbling over the notes again. She sighed and caressed her fingers before resting them on her lap. Naledi fixed her eyes on the piano pedals as she waited for the reprimand.
“Okay, let’s play a duet,” said Mrs. Perry instead, moving her chair closer to Naledi and sifting through the stacks of books piled on the top board of the piano. She found the book she wanted and pulled it out. She opened the pages to a piece that Naledi enjoyed: ‘Down By The Riverside.’ They played the duet twice, changing playing positions on the piano each time. Then they heard a knock on the door that signaled the end of Naledi’s piano session.
“How did she do?”
“She is almost perfect, but she needs more practice. The event is only two weeks away.”
“Thank you, Mrs. Perry. You hear that Naledi? We keep telling you to practice more.”
Naledi kept her eyes fixed on her Mary Jane school shoes. Her socks had a brown tinge, except for where the strap crossed the top of her foot. Her mother ushered her to the car and opened the back door. The ride home was in silence, so Naledi counted all the red cars she saw. By the time they got home, she’d counted twenty.
Every day was the same routine. Change out of school clothes. Bathe. Eat dinner. Finish Homework. Prepare the school bag for the next day. Practice on the piano. Bed.
Naledi sat on a piano stool for the second time that day, and positioned her hands on the white keys. The black Yamaha Studio piano was against one wall in their dining room. The only room that could accommodate such a grand piece of furniture in their two-bedroom house. A single mother, Lerato had channeled the money she’d saved for a leather living room set, into the second-hand piano. Couches looked worse as they aged, but her daughter’s musical gift could only get better with time. Knowing her daughter to be prone to distractions, she made sure the piano was facing a blank white wall.
“Are you ready?” her mother asked, as she sat on a dining table chair behind Naledi.
For the fifth time in the same day, Naledi started Für Elise from the beginning. The pages were all laid out in front of her so that she didn’t have to turn them while playing. She finished page one, and was playing page two, she looked down, looked up, looked down, looked up. She thought of positioning her thumb on the ‘B’ at that point. She missed a note and stopped.
“What happened?!” shouted her mother. “Start again,” she said more calmly. And so Naledi did. She got as far as the bottom of page three, when she watched her fingers fly over the keys as the tempo quickened. Her little pinky finger struggled to hit a note hard enough, and she missed another two notes.
Naledi ducked, and her hands instinctively flew to cover the sides of her head when she realized that something had flown past her left ear and collided with the white wall in front of her. Shards of glass were strewn on the floor, and on the piano. No one spoke, and Naledi realized the pieces were once part of the drinking glass her mother had held.
“Don’t move,” said her mother, who wiped the piano and swept the shards of glass off the floor. When she was done, she once again took her seat behind Naledi. “Again,” she said.
This time, Naledi decided to do what came naturally. She closed her eyes and played from the beginning.
At her next piano lesson, Naledi’s mother escorted her to Mrs. Perry’s mahogany door. On the way, Naledi hopped on each step stone that demarcated the walking path from the gate, across the front lawn, to the verandah.
“Hi, Naledi. Ready for your lesson? Go sit in the piano room. I want to chat with your mother for a second.” Mrs. Perry smiled.
Naledi did as she was told. She mentally traced the familiar pattern on the runner rug that led to the piano room.
“Look, Lerato, I know Naledi was meant to play the Für Elise piece, but I was thinking that perhaps she could play something different.”
“The one she worked on 6 months ago?”
“Yes. I think it’s such a charming piece, and she really enjoys playing it.”
“But she’s been working very hard on Für Elise, and you said she’d be very impressive playing Beethoven. Isn’t Für Elise the main feature of the event?”
“Yes, and Naledi is my best student. It’s just that I really want her to be happy and to do well. It can be a very overwhelming crowd for her, and she may fare better with a piece she’s already familiar with.”
Lerato walked back to the car. Mrs. Perry watched her go.
Dressed in a bright yellow dress, with white stockings and black hush puppies, Naledi took her seat beside her mother in the Hall. The Hall was packed with parents, students, and paying guests. Being a player, Naledi and her mother had seats close to the wide polished wooden stage, along with all the other players, and their parents. She was excited to play.
“I think you’ll enjoy playing ‘Dangerous Storm’ more,” she remembered Mrs. Perry saying to her at the end of their last lesson.
On her seat, she swung her dangling legs back and forth, as one after another student began to play their pieces. She nervously waited her turn and took to picking at the patterned hem of her bright yellow dress.
A woman to the right of Naledi’s mother leaned forward to briefly glance at Naledi. “Is that your daughter?”
“Aw, she is so cute! Is she playing something?”
“Yes she is.”
“Oh, how lovely! I didn’t know you people do this kind of thing. You must be proud. I’m sure she’ll give it her best.”
Naledi felt her mother’s body stiffen, and saw her nostrils flare as she silently looked straight ahead at the stage.
Then Naledi heard a familiar melody, and she stopped swinging her legs. She dropped the part of her dress she was picking and sat up straight.
Sitting on the stage at the shiny black Grand Piano was a girl. Her feet didn’t dangle. They touched the floor. She wore a pale blue dress with black stockings, and shiny white shoes with block heels. Her golden hair was tied into a neat tail at the back of her head, that fell to between her shoulders. Her skin was pale and translucent. As she was playing, a vein bulged and pulsated at her temple. When the girl got to the third page of Für Elise, her tempo slowed as she tried to keep up with the notes. Naledi counted four mistakes before the girl suddenly stopped playing. Even though the girl hadn’t finished the piece, she got up, bowed, and ran off the stage. The audience clapped for her, and a woman in the front row stood up while clapping.
Two more people played before Naledi was called up. All Naledi thought of were the four mistakes and an unfinished melody.
She sat on the piano stool, and swung her legs back and forth. She positioned her fingers carefully on the white keys. She decided to do what came naturally. She closed her eyes and played from the beginning.