A Recital Evening

“Hurry up, Mara! You’re always so slow. Mrs. Smith wants us there at 7 o’clock so we can warm up and go over the parts of the Mozart sonata you keep messing up. You’d better have practiced that. I’m leaving in five minutes with or without you.” My sister’s directives are not to be taken lightly.

“Erica, I’m almost ready.” I plead for a few more minutes. “I just have to pick a barrette and fix my hair. Does my dress look okay?” Erica shrugs her shoulders, seemingly not wanting to answer my question honestly. She abhors my tastes (or lack thereof) in fashion. Only a year older, she always seems incredibly Parisian in her clothes, her walk, and her demeanor. I secretly want to be more like her – stylish and confident. Yet, I know I haven't the foggiest notion how, why or where to even begin this transformation. A quick look in the mirror always reminds me that such a task would most assuredly be monumental, and coupled with the fact that I am partly unsure of what it is I so desperately want to alter, I never venture beyond the wondering stage.

I am quite comfortable in my cotton shifts with Peter Pan collars from the sale rack at JC Penney. Erica has outgrown Penney's and repeatedly explains to me that their merchandise is cheap, ugly, and most importantly, people do not shop at such a store by choice. Given this fact, I always feel rather odd to say the least, especially since I can never admit that I actually like the store. I love the clothes selection, the shoe department with those neat devices to measure your feet, and the wonderful ten cent popcorn that comes in a cylindrical white and red bag and tastes like puffed lard. If I ever inadvertently display some pleasure in my Penney's experience, I am always reminded that the only thing more devastating than being seen at Penney's is having lunch at the Woolworths counter, another one of my favorite places.

I clip on my blue bow-shaped barrette, comb my hair, and take one last look in the mirror. I am clad in a new recital outfit. My dress is made of a white cotton fabric, patterned with tilted sailboats of various nautical colors, with a contrasting navy blue collar. The style is a basic a-line with short sleeves. I’m wearing new white nylon anklet socks with little bows on the cuffs and pilgrim style black patent leather shoes with square golden buckles at the toes. My overgarment is a navy blue cotton-knit cardigan, both plain and versatile. My outfit looks exactly as expected and while this is not terribly comforting, I decide that my ensemble matches; my clothes are clean, pressed and presentable. (I had not yet come to understand the meaning of “glamour donts”. This concept was made clear to me a few years later, about the time I was retiring my sailboat dresses and other similarly cheerful clothing such as my citrus fruit-patterned ensemble. With this, I wore matching bright blue boat shoes —another favorite outfit, which equipped me for both the classroom and the jungle gyms.)

I check my handbasket to make sure all my music is in order, properly marked with reminders like: up bow, down bow, slur, slow down, sustain, crescendo, fluent—NOT choppy. I grab my violin. I proudly announce that I am in fact ready: “Okay, let’s go.” Erica seems less irritated, having watched me amply prepare for the evening’s performance.

I am not an expedient girl, but I'm always prepared. I often carry a book bag, a backpack, or a basket with provisions such as candy, tooth-picks, a deck of cards, scratch paper, pens of a few colors, bandaids, tissues and at least 50 cents in change. Erica shudders at my stash of goods, yet knows that I am prepared for those extreme arctic treks to places such as downtown Berkeley.

We head toward the site of our evening recital, Mrs. Eleanor Smith’s apartment, just a few blocks away above a small parking garage. The proximity and bargain basement rate were all the incentives my mom needed to approve our violin lessons. One day after school each week, Erica and I walk to our joint lesson with Mrs. Smith. I love her eclectic décor, especially her bookcases made of cinder blocks and 2X4’s which line the walls of her apartment. Her life is music, books, and her family, most of whom have passed away. She was reared in Iowa and exudes a beautiful blend of Midwestern values and an appreciation of music, art and expression.

“Hello, girls. You look so darling. Where is your mother?” Mrs. Smith greets us with an understanding smile. She seems to welcome the opportunity to teach us and embraces us with the utmost of care. I love going to her apartment for lessons, recitals and snacks.

“She’ll be here at 7:20 with the juice.” Erica answers confidently. I seldom answer questions if my sister is around, unless they were directed specifically to me. I particularly dislike answering questions about my family.

“Erica and Mara, let’s tune and practice the Mozart sonata. That’s the only piece I’m worried about. You girls do such a nice job of practicing, but I know there are some hard passages, so let’s run through it a few times.” Mrs. Smith is most gracious in her recommendation. I understand perfectly that this practice session is for my benefit and my lack of musical development. My sister is becoming quite accomplished on the violin and increasingly intolerant of my inability to play and perform at her level. It is now unquestionably apparent that I am by far the lousier of the two.

am a little shaky through the Mozart piece, but manage to play quietly through the difficult parts, the rationale being that if I mess up, at least it will be less noticeable, if at all.

“Hello everyone. I’ve got the juice. It sounds lovely. I could hear the girls practicing from the street.” My mom is standing behind the screen door, obviously tired, but trying her best to be cheerful. She has her signature alert and distant look, which usually follows smoking a bunch of cigarettes and drinking a lot of coffee. She is wearing her Friday work clothes and smells of Aqua Net hair spray.

“Hello, May. We’ve been practicing and it’s going to be a lovely recital. Why don’t you put the juice on the table with the snacks?” Mrs. Smith and my mom seem to have an understanding; they both know that Erica and I cherish our violins.

The girls’ father is on a business trip, so he won’t be joining us tonight. He’ll be here next time.” My mom is proficient at creating upstanding excuses for my dad’s absence to ensure that folks believe that we are a nice Japanese-American family. Mrs. Smith knows that my dad really isn’t on business trips, but politely acknowledges the excuse. Erica shudders in disgust, rolls her eyes, and displays a look that says why don’t you just tell everyone Daddy is getting drunk somewhere and you don’t even know where. I quietly wait for the moment to pass, feeling completely uncomfortable and unable to do much about my mom’s lie, Erica’s disdain and the unquestionable fact that my dad would not be attending our next recital or any other performance for that matter. I sometimes like the idea of both my mom and dad watching me play, but knowing that my dad would inevitably embarrass me makes me comfortable with his business trips. It does not matter that my mom knows nothing about music; she would never embarrass me in the same way as my father. I am strangely comforted by her lies.

Mrs. Smith welcomes the guests and I am poised to begin.

Wolfgang Amadeus Mozart was born on January 27, 1756, in Salzburg, Austria. He was a child prodigy and completed his first minuets at the age of 5 and his first symphony when he was 9. He died in 1791, having lived only 36 years. We will be playing the Sonata in D for violin and piano. Thank you.” As I read verbatim from my notes, my voice is soft, timid and hurried. I quietly place the 3X5 index card behind the music on my stand.

One, two, three, four; one, two, three...” Mrs. Smith is nice enough to count almost two entire measures for us. My sister begins at the appropriate pick-up. For some reason, I am fumbling with my bow and notice the bows on my socks are on the wrong sides of my ankles. I am slightly forlorn. I miss my entrance. I try to catch up but it is quickly evident that I have blown it. My unplanned improvisational harmony clearly has issues. Mrs. Smith stops the piano accompaniment.

Let’s try that again. Girls, are we both ready?” Mrs. Smith politely addresses Erica and me; the small audience laughs politely. I am utterly embarrassed. I know I am musically challenged, but I decide that I will not screw up again and risk Erica’s glares turning into something more permanent.

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