by Paul Hanks
In June, some friends and I were at the château de Marcigny in central France, for an evening piano recital. It was only 7 :30 p.m. and still daylight, so we took the time to admire the rolling hills behind the château. We were about to go to the theatre, when I heard a someone behind me say, "Excuse me, I'm in a real jam. I'm the pianist for tonight's concert. The person who was going to turn pages can't make it. Can one of you do it ?"
One by one my friends said, "Sorry, I can't read music."
They knew I'd started playing piano just under 4 years ago, but like true buddies they kept silent about it.
I felt relieved but the stocky young man was so stressed out, I just couldn't play it safe and say nothing. Or could I ?
After several long seconds of internal struggle, I heard myself saying : "I play a little, but I'm really only a beginner."
He beamed at me and said, "That's ok. I'll signal you when to turn. And it's just for the first couple of pages in the sonata. After that I'll be ok."
"I don't know…look, if you can't find somebody else, I'll do it. But really, I'd be too nervous to be much good."
He shook my hand, visibly relieved. "Thanks for your kind offer. It makes me feel better to know I have a backup."
By the time we entered the small theatre, it was almost full. Hoping against hope that they'd find someone else for the pianist, my insides churned as we took our seats. But friends, being friends, they decided to needle me a bit. They knew that I was terrified of going on stage. The last time I'd done it was for a fourth grade Christmas play. I had the lead and loved it.
But this wasn't the fourth grade. Although the theater seated only about 150 people, they had paid real money, to see a real performance. A panicky voice kept repeating in my head, "What if the pages stick together ? What if I lose my place ? What if I pass out ? What if… ?"
"Won't be long now until you take your place on the stage. Look ! Your chair is ready and waiting," Monique said, chuckling.
The stage lights came on. "They must have found somone", I thought. But then, a small, middle-aged woman walked to the microphone. "Is there someone who can turn the pages for the artist ?" she asked.
Absolute silence followed. Nobody raised his voice or hand. Seconds ticked by. A minute. Two. Still no one volunteered.
"This can't be happening," I croaked to myself. "A theater full of music lovers and only one piano player-me !" I let the seconds tick by. Then the coup de grace came.
"Where is the gentleman in the red jacket who'd promised to help out. Is he still here ?"
Trapped. I reluctantly stood up and made my way to the stage. The woman who'd asked for volunteers quietly thanked me as I passed by.
Up the stairs and under the glaring stage lights sat the concert piano. The empty chair for the page-turner loomed before me like a medieval instrument of torture. I sat down stiffly and
looked at the music. Damn ! A Beethoven sonata for piano and violin. There were so many notes on the pages that hardly any white space showed. My palms became moist as I tried to read the music and not look at the audience.
The performers came on stage. The house lights went down. My pulse went up. The pianist held his hands poised over the opening keys. He looked at the violinist. A short nod. Hands descended on the keyboard. The concert had started. For good or ill I was about to participate in my first professional concert. Before turning the page my only thought was, "Where in the hell are we ?"
With my pulse pounding in my ears, terror subsided into mere panic as I followed the pianist's eyes and sprung into action like a marionette when he gave a curt nod. Though my fingers alternately threatened to stick to the page or slide off completely, I found to my surprise that I could actually understand the black marks dancing before my eyes. Thankfully, I made it through the first hour without missing a cue.
But the ordeal wasn't over yet. During a brief pause in the wings, the pianist asked me if I could hang on until intermission. By this time, I'd felt as though I had gone ten rounds with the Terminator, but I gamely nodded.
The next segment was over before I realized it. The pianist took his bows and thanked me in the wings. He assured me that he wouldn't need me any longer. I'd done it ! Feeling like a drowning man who'd just been fished out of the sea, I stumbled off the stage. Then I heard Robert's baritone voice cutting through the polite applause.
"Bravo, Paul. Bravo, Paul ! !" he shouted.
Properly mortified, I slunk back to my seat and into blissful anonymity.