In the Spotlight

A memoir about the first time I had to play a solo for my orchestra, in sophomore year.

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I shifted restlessly in my seat, my bow gripped in my sweaty right hand. Every few minutes I would press the home button on my iPhone with my left hand, checking the time. I played the section over again, my fingers shifting jerkily on the blank, black ebony fingerboard of my cello, while the bow sawed left and right.

I took a deep breath and looked over, seeing that, to my embarrassment, the fingerboard was shining with sweat. Quickly, I wiped it off, closing my eyes for a moment, summoning that voice inside my head to calm myself down.

You can do it. You’ve done it a hundred times before, in class in front of all your friends. Why should this time be any different?  

It was the night of the orchestra concert, the night of my first solo. We were going to be playing a concerto by Vivaldi, and I had managed to nab one of the solo parts for the cello. I sat in the rehearsal room, in the principal chair, watching my sectionmates lug their cellos past me and to the sides, unpacking and settling in behind me, talking leisurely. They would be watching, and I would be feeling their eyes on me, waiting for cues, when we would be on stage. It was my job to lead them as the first cellist, but I couldn’t help but feel that they were also watching for mistakes. Competition was tough in orchestra. This solo could determine my future.

Don’t worry about other people and their opinions, the voice chided. It was my mother. Just do your best. You’ve practiced. You know this piece. Why should anything else matter?

I swallowed. The orchestra director hurried in, clomping onto the podium in front of me and raising his baton, yelling at us to settle down so we could squeeze in some last-minute rehearsal on some parts of the music.

When we got to my solo, I played it perfectly despite my being nervous. It wasn’t the actual performance, and rehearsing it again quelled my anxiety somewhat, though I could feel it rising again after I finished. Finally, he stopped us, and looked around, smiling in satisfaction.

“You’re all going to be great,” he exclaimed, his eyes sweeping down towards the soloists. I gulped and nodded, trying to convince myself of that. How could he be so sure of us? I had never been more scared. “Let’s do this! We’re starting in ‘five. You know what to do. We’re all going to sit on the right half of the auditorium, and cellos will be placed in the pit in the front of the stage. You can get them when we’re it’s our turn to play.”

This was really happening.

We shuffled out, instruments in one hand and phones clutched in the other. My friends chattered excitedly, but I kept silent, agitated from nervousness. Down in the pit, I set my cello down and rushed to join the others in their seats.

The first orchestra performed. I flipped through my music in my seat, imagining the what the melody would sound like on my cello while moving my fingers up and down in the air, trying to recreate the sensation of actually playing through the solo. It was dark, and thankfully no one paid me any attention. I probably looked like a nervous wreck (which I was). 

When it was our turn, I jumped up, clutching my music folder to my chest, tapping my foot and waiting for the outside sitters to clear the row. “Good luck, Jessica,” one of my friends said, patting me on the shoulder. I jumped at the contact, too deep into my own stress.

I smiled tightly. “Thanks,” I replied, and swept towards the stage, heaving my cello from the pit and making a beeline for the stairs. I plunkered down into my seat, the first chair of the cello section, directly under one of the shining spotlights. I could feel the heat upon me, as if it were a light from heaven, choosing me to be the next in line, like I was something special. Was I?

Our concert began faster than I’d anticipated. Within minutes of us settling down, our director was walking out again, and we stood up as the audience politely clapped. The teacher stepped onto the podium, gave me wink, and raised his baton. The audience quieted down. 

The piece began, and my heart pounded. My arms were slightly shaking, and my fingers were skimming up and down the fingerboard almost mindlessly, solely by muscle memory. I forced myself to focus on the piece, and lead the section properly, pushing aside my inner turmoil for now. It was coming up, on the next page, my solo. I could hear the notes, anticipate the tune… there was going to be a ten-measure rest for me before it.

I stopped playing and balanced my bow on my knee, counting the beats in the pause, watching the director’s baton’s movements as if my life depended on it. Finally, two measures before I was to play, I placed my bow on the strings. It would just be me and the principal second violinist Gina playing together, blending our solos into what was supposed to be the concerto. The director bent towards us, and raised his baton, and I moved with him, cuing our entrance. My fingers pressed down, and my bow moved…

And suddenly, I wasn’t scared anymore.

The familiar melodies flowed out from my cello and from Gina’s violin, back and forth, as we were conversing jovially. I let myself become immersed in the music, and the audience, director, and the rest of the orchestra ceased to exist. My fingers glided up and down the smooth fingerboard, and my bow moved gracefully back and forth, and I felt a warmth in my chest at the familiar tune. In that moment it was just me, Gina, and Vivaldi, three friends enjoying an old song together. 

Ten measures my solo was done, and everyone else joined in, and we became one under our director again. And too soon we ended, with a neat upward stroke of our bows as the director swept his baton swiftly to one side to cue the cadence. For a moment we paused, and let the sound reverberate out into the silent auditorium. Then, the room exploded into applause.

The director dropped his hands to the side, grinning and nodding in approval. Then, he gestured towards me to stand up, and I did, still feeling exhilarated, though my solo had ended a while ago.

I faced the listeners, plastering on a smile. The audience was a faceless mass under the glare of the bright stage lights, but in my mind’s eye I saw Vivaldi give me a thumbs-up, and my smile split into a grin. I’d done it, without a single mistake, and I was ready to do it again.

Mother was right, I recalled, as the audience continued to clap and whistle. I did my best, and I did enjoy it. Nothing else matters. There’s nothing scary about it. The spotlight above my head continued to shine down upon me as the rest of the orchestra stood up, and for the rest of the night I did feel special.

 

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