At first, when I heard the crackly voice over the PA calling my name, I thought I might be hallucinating. Over the last thirty days, I’d flown to Boston, to Cincinnati, to New York; I’d explained to dubious airport officials that a French horn was a musical instrument and that no, my conical wooden mute was not for cheerleading. I was starting to hear my audition pieces in car alarms and the inflections of people’s voices.
The day before the ten-minute audition that would determine the rest of my life, I wanted to go straight home from school, listen to a few Beethoven symphonies, and eat a pint of mint chocolate chip ice cream. Instead, I was called to the principal’s office.
The stares and giggles of my classmates alerted me that the scratchy PA voice was real. “Iris Clark,” it repeated, “please report to the principal’s office. Iris Clark. Please report now.”
I sighed and shuffled toward the office, jealous of everyone else bolting for sunny freedom beyond the school’s doors. Even a few minutes’ delay felt like a terrible imposition after a full day of imprisonment.
Mrs. LaFolle was waiting for me. She was wearing a navy blazer and a sheer ivory blouse with a tie at the neck. Her brittle smile looked like it might crack and drop off her face.
“Hello, Iris,” she said, folding her hands primly on her desk.
“What is it?”
I dreaded what she would say. Although I’d done nothing wrong, she had hated me ever since I missed the National Honor Society induction for a Youth Philharmonic rehearsal.
“Well, Iris.” She shuffled some papers and pretended to study them. “It appears that you’ve missed nine days of school so far. Tomorrow will be your tenth absence.”
“Yeah, I’m auditioning for music schools. My mom called. Didn’t you get her message?”
Mrs. LaFolle looked at me over her glasses. “If any student has ten unexcused absences, that student automatically gets five points docked from their average in each class.”
I inched forward to the sharp edge of my chair, clenching my fists in my lap. “But this is for college. My mom called. How is that unexcused?”
“If it’s an optional activity,” Mrs. LaFolle said, “it’s not excused.”
“Auditions are not optional. Not for schools like Juilliard and Eastman.”
“It’s simply my duty to inform you of the consequences,” Mrs. LaFolle said serenely. It was clear from her tone that she didn’t know what Juilliard was, nor did she care to learn.
I felt like an empty glass that had been filled with hot lava. If I sat in that office for one more second, molten rage would come spilling out my eyeballs.
“If you dock my grades for this,” I said, standing up and heading for the door, “My parents are going to sue.”
I drove home faster than I should have, blasting the angry part of Beethoven’s Fifth as loud as my speakers would go. My car hurtled down the curves of the narrow road, past the organic dairy farm and the golf course, past the driveways and mailboxes and chemically-enhanced lawns. I hated this little town, hated it, hated it. I wanted desperately to leave. I couldn’t stand its provincial inhabitants, its five churches, its tiny library that never had the books I wanted. Its bland adults were flattened mediocrities: helicopter moms, doughy dads, teachers who’d gone to Norton High and come right back to reign over students asleep at sticky desks. I vowed never to succumb. I would never be downtrodden and pale. I would always be like Beethoven, steeped in art, shaking my fist at the thundering sky.
It was outrageous and unfair that Mrs. LaFolle should occupy any sliver of my mind. But I thought of her disdainful face as I vomited my lunch in the music building bathroom, just one hour before my audition. As I retched, I held back my own hair, trying not to splatter my audition blouse. Once my stomach was empty, I stared at the toilet in dismay. I felt sorry for the delicious lunch I’d eaten a little while ago. Mom had taken me to a cafe with blue gingham tablecloths and the menu written on chalkboard. The seared sirloin steak, mashed potatoes, and brownie should have been the perfect thing to eat before the taxing task of playing the horn. Now their service had been rendered vain.
I stood up, feeling cold. There was a damp patch on my back where I’d been sweating. My throat ached and my teeth were coated in sour residue. I felt weak and shaky. I didn’t know how I’d lift my horn in this state, especially not to perform difficult music in front of strangers.
I checked my phone. There were still thirty minutes before the audition—just enough time to wolf a granola bar and brush my teeth. It would be rushed, but that was better than playing on an empty stomach.
I exited the bathroom stall and spotted Juliet Jaeger, my ex-best friend, standing at the sink. I’d hoped to get through audition season without seeing her—a foolish hope, given that we both played horn.
Juliet’s back was to me. I darted my eyes toward the door, wondering if I could escape without confrontation. But it was too late. By the way she adjusted the mess of curls hanging down her back, with a little too much of a theatrical touch, I could tell she’d heard me.
I moved to leave, but she spun around. She was wearing tight black pants, heels, and a black long sleeve blouse with a strip of sheer fabric at the top. Her hair was messy yet alluring, and she had put on dark, smudgy makeup around her eyes. She gave me a sinister smile.
“You didn’t strike me as a purger.”
I stiffened at her insinuation. “I ate something bad.” Immediately I hated that I felt the need to explain to her.
She laughed. “Right.”
I decided not to let her affect my behavior. I marched up to the sink next to hers and washed my hands, resisting the urge to rinse my mouth. As I turned to go, my eyes snagged on her growing smirk. She was staring at my chest.
I looked down and saw that, despite my efforts, some vomit had spattered on the front of my audition blouse. Not bothering to dry my hands, I strode out of the bathroom, pretending that I still had some claim to dignity.
The horn auditions were held in a small classroom. The student desks had been pushed to one side. The blackboards had musical staves printed on their surface, ghosts of semi-erased notes floating amidst the lines. A few bookshelves held tattered theory texts and busts of famous composers.
The horn teacher sat in a chair on one side of the room, one lanky leg crossed over the other. He smiled at me as I moved toward the chair in the center of the room. It was a plastic scooped chair with a dip in the center, the kind I hated. It would be impossible to sit flat in it like I needed to.
“Hello, Iris,” the teacher said. “Play some notes, empty your slides. Get comfortable.”
I lowered myself into the chair, perching uncomfortably on the edge. I worked my valves a few times, all four of them in quick succession. Although it had never happened, I was terrified that one of my valves might stick during an audition. I lifted my horn and played a few notes. There was a slight, disconcerting echo in the room.
“Okay, why don’t you play a couple of scales?”
“Choose your favorites. Major and minor.”
I hesitated, wondering if this was a trick question. Most teachers specified the scales you should play. I could pick easy scales in a comfortable range, but that might make me seem like a slacker. On the other hand, it was probably best not to reveal my weakness by venturing into the upper register.
I chose to start with D-flat major. The two-octave range of this scale lay in the safe low to middle register, but he’d be impressed with a scale that had five flats. I also preferred this scale for reasons intuitive and mysterious. I couldn’t quite explain it, but D-flat major had always appealed to me.
I took a breath and dropped my jaw, letting a mellow D-flat emerge, round and low. I slid up and down the scale with ease.
“Great,” the teacher said. “How about minor?”
I chose to play C-sharp minor, knowing the four sharps would impress him.
He smiled at my selection. “It’s unusual to hear the parallel minor. Most people go with relative.”
I hoped that would make him remember me.
“What did you bring for your solo?”
“Haydn’s Second Concerto. First and second movements”
“Interesting. Let’s hear it.” He adjusted his chair and sat back, as though settling in at the movie theater.
I flipped to my photocopied music. The Haydn concerto was a show piece for low horn, featuring a section with fast, tricky jumps between the upper-middle and pedal registers. Keeping my horn in my lap for a few seconds, I mentally rehearsed the first few measures, planning the tempo and mood. Prepared, I lifted my horn and felt a surge of dizziness. Hunger and weakness returned in a wave, washing away the small confident foothold I’d gained with my scales. I rested my horn on my leg, looked down, and shook my head.
“Are you all right?” the teacher asked.
“Um,” I said, trying to resist the nausea rising in my throat. “I’ve been sort of sick lately.”
“Sorry to hear that.” He looked like he was trying to keep a neutral expression. I hoped he hadn’t decided that I couldn’t manage the pressure of being a performing musician.
Determined to prove that I could handle it, I launched into the Haydn. Usually I navigated the short, skipping notes with aplomb, but my nervousness made me rush. I started too fast and missed nearly half the notes. I blinked at my music, surprised that it had betrayed me so unexpectedly.
“Why don’t you try that again?” the teacher said, not unkindly. “Take your time with the tempo.”
I started over, trying to follow his direction, remembering that Suzanne said some teachers liked to test you for instructability. But I over-compensated, taking it too slow and running out of breath too soon. I had to breathe at a spot I wasn’t used to and missed several notes as a result.
“Don’t rush into playing after a breath,” he said. “You’re the soloist.”
I kept failing, and he kept stopping me. The audition extended like a horrible dream. When it finally ended, I felt a rush of vertigo as I left the room. I reached for the door frame to steady myself. I thought of Bruce, who’d call me a wuss for how easily I’d been thrown by a little physical discomfort. I thought of Kintaro, who’d find not an ounce of music in my performance. I thought of Mom, who’d paid for years of music lessons. It was $65 a week for an hour-long lesson with Suzanne. It was $2,450 for Youth Philharmonic, plus $ 1500 for camp and $3,775 for this summer’s tour to Germany. That didn’t include the $75 to apply to each music school, the travel, the hotels, the various sundry costs—tuner, metronome, mutes, mouthpieces, valve oil, slide grease, snake. She had paid all this money, driven all these miles only for me to prove my mediocrity. My throat tightened and my eyes felt hot. I cried rarely, but I recognized this as the perilous prelude to tears. I moved quickly down the hall, determined that no one should witness my humiliation.
As I exited the music building with Mom, I saw that it was snowing hard and fast. Already there was a thick white inch on the ground, with more snow whirling down like some cosmic down blanket had ripped open. When we got in the car, flakes coated the windshield so quickly the wipers could barely clear a path for Mom to see. We came to a turn and Mom edged forward cautiously, but without effect. Our car slipped toward the intersection with steady, silent intent. Mom didn’t speak, only gripped the wheel so hard her knuckle bones stood out white against her skin. Another car waited on the other side. I had time to look at the driver’s face: a man in his sixties, with dignified white hair and thick eyebrows. He watched us with a touching look of concern, and for a moment my heart felt quiet as we slid with slick grace toward his vehicle. What did it matter, really, who got into Eastman and who didn’t, when it all came down to this: ice, two cars, a deadly slip on the road? A thought whispered in the corner of my mind: maybe it was better for things to go like this, while I still had indeterminate promise. Better than to keep going and prove myself wrong. Then friction snared our tires, and we moved in the right direction once more.
Emily Eckart is the author of Pale Hearts, a story collection. Her writing has appeared in The Washington Post, Nature, Potomac Review, and elsewhere. She studied music at Harvard University. Read more of her work at www.emilyeckart.com.