David Whitaker is originally from the UK though has travelled around a bit and now resides in India. He has a degree in Journalism, however decided that as he has always preferred making things up it should ultimately become a resource rather than a profession. His stories have been published with, among others, ‘Flash Fiction Online’, ‘Andromeda Spaceways’, ‘Review Americana’ and ‘The Madras Mag’. You can find him and links to all his work at wordsbydavid.com.
The studio space was quiet and still when he arrived, the lessons for the day concluded, the students dismissed. Without them the room felt hollow and empty, devoid and robbed of its soul. Only when it was filled with music did it come alive, a bubble of sound, rich, and indulgent.
He set down his case on the floor by the door. Opening the clasps he flipped the lid and delicately removed the instrument. It was a masterpiece, even when it lay silent. He knew the exorbitant amount of money his parents had spent on it, knew the time and effort they’d invested into his tuition.
Most children had wooden xylophones when were they young, then perhaps a bongo or drum, maybe a recorder or flute, before moving on to ‘adult’ instruments.
He’d had a violin.
His parents had insisted.
Other children had gone outside, picked up a football or cricket bat, played with one another, made friends, made enemies… They’d had a childhood.
He’d been inside.
Sitting under his parents’ watchful gaze, he’d learnt the violin. For hours he’d practiced, his fingers sore and blistering, whilst his parents had nodded approvingly. Every time his wrists cramped, his shoulders ached, his neck pinched, they’d nod, and say it was proof of how hard he was working; he was told to be proud of his pain, to push through. That was the mark of a champion; that was the resolve it would take to be the best.
He plucked a couple of the strings with his fingers, listening to the humming throb, then placed it under his chin and drew a smooth stroke with the bow.
His tutelage had become professional when he was three years old. He’d begin the day with his parents, and then the ‘maestro’ would arrive and be invited into their home. The maestro would tutor him for three hours or so before taking their leave. His parents would remain and pick up where the maestro left off, referring to their notes, ensuring the lessons sunk in, that he understood them thoroughly, that he absorbed their content in its entirety.
He began tuning the instrument, performing the minor adjustments required to make it perfect, as he must be.
He’d taken his first exam that year as well, practicing the same selection of pieces over and over until they were beyond reproach. The second exam had followed soon after, and then the third, and the fourth.
When he’d taken his last exam, just a few short years later, he had hoped that he’d finally be able to begin playing what he wanted, choosing his own pieces to perform. He had hoped that the maestro would stop visiting. He’d looked forward to his parents reducing the hours he was required to practice.
This hope had turned out to be in vain.
His parents continued dominating his schedule. The maestro continued to visit; they continued to give him pieces to perform, informing him in no uncertain terms what he was and was not allowed to play. The violin remained a prison for him.
Taking a seat, he placed the sheet music on a stand in front of him. He didn’t need it, having been forced to memorise the piece long ago, so it would likely remain there untouched until he packed up and concluded the session.
Adjusting himself so he was as comfortable as possible, he drew the violin once more to his chin. Rolling his spine, relaxing as best he could, he lifted his bow arm. He tried to centre himself, willing his arm to be loose and free, to move unfettered and naturally.
Placing the hairs of the bow delicately across the strings he took a deep breath, exhaled softly, and began to play.
The sound of Mozart seeped into the room, the silence intruded upon, if just for a time.
He knew more about Mozart than he did about the street upon which he lived. The same could be said of all the greats, as well as many others, whose creations had been handed to him, his instructions firm and unwavering; he was to learn, to perform, to succeed.
His first public performance had been at eight. The reviews had been steeped in praise. A couple had provided a critique, a negative or two slipped in amongst the admiration.
His parents saved them all, scanning them intently. The negative commentary had been thrown at him full force. He’d been reminded of it daily, hourly, until he could recite them by rote. His practice had narrowed, focusing on his failings. His achievements lay untended at the wayside.
His movements calculated and focused, Mozart’s great adagio of the piece arrived; a slow, serene segment, full of splendour.
He closed his eyes, concentrating on his bow arm; its motions, the lift of his elbow, the arc of his wrist.
If you asked him later, he wouldn’t be able to tell you how it happened, just that it did. He’d not experienced such a failing in years, yet somehow, on that day, in that moment, he lost time.
He knew it had happened as soon as he did it. Stunned, and frankly bemused that he could have possibly managed such a thing, on an uncharacteristic flight of fancy he decided to speed up and chase the lost time.
The bow quickened, ever so slightly. The adjustment would be unnoticeable to all but the most trained ear, but he knew he’d done it; he knew he’d just broken the rules. He was supposed to learn, to perform, and to succeed. He was supposed to play the music of the greats, but just then, in that moment, he’d departed from Mozart’s instruction. He’d changed the tempo.
It had been a tiny departure, almost ludicrously small, but something about the act sent a chill down his spine.
Feeling his heart quicken, he did it again.
A tingle raced its way across his skin.
Amused, he increased the tempo yet again, the original rhythm of the piece now noticeably forgotten and discarded.
Electricity flowed through him.
He felt an odd sensation at his ankle, and glancing down realised that his foot was tapping. It was moving on its own, keeping pace with the music, beating out the rhythm; the rhythm that he had set.
He’d never done that before. He was supposed to remain poised and professional. He was supposed to be statuesque and elegant.
Giddy, he pulled himself to his feet, the bow never ceasing, his foot continuing to tap.
Faster he played, the notes leaping free and unchained. It felt as though the music no longer belonged to Mozart; it was as if it belonged to him.
His foot tapped more powerfully, his knee swaying, his hip beginning to bob.
Invigorated, he ploughed on, Mozart racing from the strings, the music vaulting exuberantly into the room, filling the void that had lingered there.
All at once he realised the end of the piece was rapidly approaching. Dismayed, he found that he did not want to stop; he couldn’t, he wouldn’t.
Almost without thinking he bounced free of the confines of the sheet music. Shocked at his own behaviour, he realised that the music now screaming out of him was no longer Mozart’s. It was none of the greats. It was his.
Every nerve ending lit up within him, his body shaking with pleasure. He played faster still, the music alive, moving with a mind of its own, tearing around the studio.
A new ache began to grow, similar to those he felt in his spine and joints after practicing over a particularly long period, but one he’d never experienced before; it was in his face.
He was smiling.
More than that, he was grinning, his lips spreading from ear to ear, his teeth exposed, his eyes dancing with a spark that had blossomed there.
He realised too that his arm felt different. It was no longer trapped, lifeless as it moved mechanically through the motions expected of it. It had been reborn, and now it practically floated, darting back and forth enthusiastically and unashamed. It felt natural, and it felt exquisite, the pleasure delicious and nourishing after the long years of cold, methodical work.
Before he knew what was happening his foot lashed out, kicking his chair away, striking away the music stand. He began to duck and weave, his leg arcing and bouncing, his body spinning gracefully, yet violently at the same time.
It was as though he could no longer contain the feelings trapped within him for so long. Everything was rushing out, the torrent of raw emotion unstoppable. He saw his sweat flick away, flung from his body as he leapt and dived, the music exploding out of him.
He lost himself in the dance, for that’s what it became, his body singing, his soul breaking out from its oppressive cloistering for truly the first time. His movements were savage, his strokes of the bow aggressive and dominating. The music was an extension of him, the part of him he wished had always been there, the side of him that had been suppressed for so long.
It was rapture, pure and unadulterated.
He played for hours. Not because he had to, but because, for the very first time, he wanted to.
When it finally ended, the crescendo washing over him, the climax seeping into his core, he collapsed to his knees. Exhaustion overtook him, his body overcome, his heart both empty and full all at once.
He was finally free.