Fear in D Major©
Averyell A. Kessler
Army Brown’s music store on Capital Street, was across from the federal courthouse and a few doors away from Deposit Guaranty Bank. Its huge display window featured a concert grand piano as well as various brass instruments, all for sale. It was an important element in Jackson’s once thriving downtown business community. Who knew that an authentic torture chamber was located on the second floor? I did. I called it the recital hall.
Every spring, hundreds of parents flooded into his store, fully prepped for the impending ordeal. They passed long aisles of vinyl records, 45’s and 78’s mostly, with a few newer LP’s thrown in. Then three listening booths, for sampling the goods before buying the latest Perry Como, Frank Sinatra, or Julie London. At the back of the store, stairs lead to the second floor. Parents followed dutifully as their children climbed those stairs up to the recital hall guillotine and took seats in front of a low dais displaying two battle scared baby grands. The stark aroma of fear permeated the air as music teachers hustled their students backstage. Abandon hope all ye who enter here.
For three years, I’d taken piano lessons in Mrs. Cowan’s Myrtle Street home every Wednesday afternoon, learning the difference between a half and a whole note, a treble, and bass clef, and mastering Three Blind Mice, as well as Comin’ Thru the Rye, and The Ballad of Davy Crockett. Many of my friends took lessons also, each spending a brief half hour at her mahogany spinet as a methodical metronome tick tocked. My best friend Martha took lessons also and we sympathized with each other, often breaking into a rousing duet we learned from One Piano Four Hands or worse, the kid’s version of Heart and Soul. We played as loudly as we could until my pet spaniel howled piteously.
In January, Mrs. Cowan announced plans for the annual recital. It would occur in May, shortly before school let out for the summer. Brown’s was the venue, as always, and she’d planned a special treat. Martha and I would play a duet at the recital, and we would be able to use our music instead of relying on our terror plagued memories. Oh joy! Maybe this wouldn’t be so bad at all. I envisioned Martha and me walking off stage to smiling parents and enthusiastic applause. We’d perform English Country Garden. Martha would play the melody, while I pounded out the accompaniment.
On the evening of the recital, Martha and I walked towards Brown’s entrance dressed in our Sunday School best, clutching sheets of music in our desperate hands. We were rarely allowed to stay up late, let alone accompany our parents downtown for such an august occasion. It was a lovely evening, and Jackson’s street lights were just beginning to blink on. However, the condition of my stomach was not lovely. I was already in full blown stage fright and swallowing the urge to run. The next minute, we were inside and climbing the stairs to the recital hall. There was no choice now, I was caught, held tight in a spring trap of despair. There would be no escape. I managed a weak smile when Mrs. Cowan beckoned Martha and me backstage. The end was near.
When our turn came, we walked onto the stage, dutifully sat on twin piano benches and arranged our music on the piano desk. Mr. Brown had done it up right, and overhead spotlights flashed in our eyes as a sea of adults waited on uncomfortable chairs. Then we began.
How many kinds of sweet flowers grow in an English Country Garden? We’d rehearsed this duet ad infinitum. So far so good. We were doing fine. My terror was fading, the cords in my neck relaxed. Suddenly Mr. Browns aggressive air conditioner kicked on, blasting out a whirlwind of cold air. Martha’s music fluttered to the floor. She was horrified. Not knowing what else to do, I kept playing deep bass accompaniment chords – boom, boom, boomity boom. Martha was now on the floor, scrambling under her piano on her hands and knees as she searched her music. I had no idea what was happening in the audience or to Mrs. Cowan, all I saw was Martha rooting around under our pianos like a hungry puppy searching for a bone. Boom, boom boomity boon. There was no tune, no rollicking melody. I felt as if I was playing drums. When Martha surfaced with her music, I had almost finished. Somehow, she managed to join me for the last few measures and we played the final chords together. When I looked up, no one moved. Martha was as still as a concrete block; her eyes were bolted open. I remained frozen on my bench. Thankfully, Mrs. Cowan intervened.
“Well, girls,” she said, “sometimes accidents happen, don’t they? Let’s give them a big hand.” The audience burst into applause.
I took lessons from Mrs. Cowan again in the fall, and every fall until her husband was transferred to California. When recital time arrived, we always talked about that night. “I’m glad you kept going,” she told me. “Always keep going, even if it just the bass.”
Martha decided to take voice lessons instead.