I sit, frozen and rigid, on a cold bench as I stare at the stringed instrument that taunts me with its very existence.
So you are a prodigy, the voices whisper in my head.
No, of course not, I tell them right back.
I am not a prodigy. I am just Lara.
The voices are relentless, whispering that dreaded word in my ear, mocking me with its weighty meaning. Fame and exploits, wealth and power: all of these things come with being a prodigy.
Lara is not a prodigy. She is just a dabbler, a little girl playing pretend in a world full of people much better than her.
She is a fraud, not a prodigy.
My mother always desired a musical child, so when I reached the tender age of four, she offered me a choice: play the piano or play the violin. I don’t know whether it was some stroke of luck or God’s intervention that made me pick the former over the latter, but either way, I was soon toted off to a teacher twice a week and expected to practice at least an hour on the days in between. This I accomplished with some ease those first few years; I reveled in the delicate tinkling of the ivory and ebony keys, the way a chord hit just right seemed to fill the air with magic.
I always tried to grasp this fleeting, fragile fairy dust. This magic had to be crafted by only the most experienced, expert hands. There would be no place for error. In those early days, I would imagine that the edges of my upright piano were a cassette player and I was creating a new tape. Every time I made a mistake, hit an F when I should have made an E — I panicked. That was not suitable for my fictitious public. So I would rewind in my brain — perhaps pretend to hit a button on the wood — and start the song again.
There was no room for error.
And I found, in my life, that was not so often the case.
Errors abounded. I seemed mistake-prone. I did not have perfect pitch, like some of my fellow pianists. What might come easily to my peers took repetition and hard work for me. I suffered from terrible stage fright. The first few times I was asked to play in an ensemble were magnificent, the embodiment of the fugacious fairytale I pursued. It was wondrous to experience the way the conductor could orchestrate us to create some ethereal, ephemeral sound for the soul. But as the years trickled on, my fingers shook. What if I was be the one that would create some false note, some off-key monstrosity that would displease my audience? They were much less fictitious than those that purchased my tapes. They had real minds and souls and opinions that I had to appease. Perhaps my fear was multiplied when I caught other students laughing or giggling at some inside joke while stealing glances my way…or so it seemed. In retrospect, I have no way of proving that they were laughing at the “prodigy” sitting three keyboards ahead of them, but in my young soul, I believed it.
When caught in duress, the human brain will do anything in self-preservation. Mine convinced me to only pantomime playing the notes.
I learned very early on that you could act like you were playing with gusto if you turned your keyboard off or the volume down.
But worse even more so than the ensembles were the recitals and competitions.
First came the traditional, rite-of-passage Christmas recital. I was dolled up by my mother the year I turned five — my birthday falls well before Christmas, so I had a whole six months of training under my belt — and sat down at the bench. My feet couldn’t even reach the pedal at that age, but I gave a rather entertaining rendition of “The First Noel.” And then, when another student showed up sick, I stepped in and played “O Little Town of Bethlehem” for them as well.
The student in question came before me in lessons, and I’d heard him rehearse it for over a month.
Perhaps that wasn’t when they first started calling me a prodigy, but maybe that was when they started calling me exceptional.
Then, I suppose, they decided to see how truly exceptional I was.
My lessons became every day. I practiced more and more. I memorized. I listened to Bach, Mozart, and Pachebel and tinkered around on my piano by ear. It was all so exciting, this new world, this label of “prodigy,” the six- and seven-year-old who could do so much. This was before the ensemble, before I learned how terrible the laughter and mocking eyes of others could be.
I won my first competition.
That trophy seemed to be my most prized possession. “Look at me,” it boasted. “I am proof of your excellence. You are a prodigy.”
Then came the first ensemble. My mother said it was jealousy that made the other students peck at me, laugh at me, but the voices came to me that day. They said that I was not a prodigy. That I was just Lara, and that everyone else was better than me.
I lost my second competition.
I came in fourth. This time, I could hardly stand to look at the trophy. Its shine and luster mocked me. The voices, too, added that this was a pity trophy. That no one had liked my performance, that I had not been quite perfect enough.
I imagined the trophy with a smug smile on its face, as if its personal delight was to torment me.
For some reason, I kept it displayed right next to my first place trophy. Maybe I was too scared to hide it, to have someone notice its absence and ask me why I wasn’t proud of it. Then I would be forced to spill my weakness, that I was not perfect, not a prodigy. Or maybe I wanted it as a reminder, as fuel for the fire, so that I could go forth and never again be humiliated by inanimate objects.
This spite drove me on a winning spree. For the next several years, actually, I won many competitions. The only one I lost was one where I had to enter my own composition.
I suppose the metaphor of artistic expression being the baby of its creator is cliché. But I poured over that piece, fantasizing the compliments of the judges and my audience, the same audience I once dutifully created tapes for on my little piano. I would be the next Wolfgang Amadeus Mozart. I would be the next Ludwig van Beethoven. My name would be mentioned on the list of genius 21st Century composers: Lara Elaine Fairchild. I still shied away from the compliment that most others gave me: prodigy. I was not a prodigy. But I could, with enough hard work, be a genius. I had enough wins, enough accolades, to at least give me a slight injection of self-esteem.
So I labored over my child, not for nine months, but for three weeks. It may have taken Beethoven two years to compose his 9th Symphony, but to a fourteen-year-old girl, three weeks seemed about the equivalent. I cared for my baby. I made sure that it highlighted everything that I could do well: arpeggios up and down the keyboard, lots of dynamics, an excess of staccato because I liked the crisp sound and had been praised at my last competition for how well I played those short, bouncing notes.
In retrospect, perhaps it was a little hodgepodge, but in my mind, it was the greatest composition a young girl had ever made.
The judges did not share my estimation.
I did not place in that competition.
As soon as I entered the car, I declared to my whole family that I would never play the piano again. Perhaps they understood that this was just a fit of juvenile temper, because no one sought to convince me otherwise. When we got home, I locked myself in my room and sobbed until my pillow was soaked and I had to go change the pillowcase.
Unfortunately, “never” only lasted until the next day, when I was dragged off to lessons. My teacher made no acknowledgment of my competition. Perhaps she’d been warned by my mother, or perhaps it was her own gentle spirit, but either way, she moved on. We began memorizing the next piece for my next showcase, where I would need to show off songs from the Romantic and Baroque periods.
Though I won this competition, it never truly softened the blow of my firstborn being rejected by the people who “knew music.” I never gave birth again, too afraid that I would create something as ugly and hideous the second time as well. They had looked at my soul, my talent, and found it lacking. At least when I played other people’s music, coddled their children, my soul was never on display. I could play like a robot and still win.
The voices loved this defeat. They cheered for my agony. “Prodigy? Never. Look at all these musicians we remember — none of them just regurgitated what others had played. They created. They performed. You will never be a prodigy.”
But defeat was inevitable when you grow up among the circuits of musicians. The music was my master, and I, its servant. But I felt persecuted by it. It was a cruel master, bringing me to my knees, forcing my shaking fingers to continue their soulless songs. I was no prodigy. I was hardly even a musician. I never achieved any aspiration of being a classical pianist. I continued to play, continued to compete, to win and lose, but never hosted a concert. I never released a CD, the invisible audience in my childish head the only ones who ever purchased any records of mine. All of the other musicians that surrounded me were better, the voices assured me. I had peaked in my youth and was now a twenty-five-year-old failure, past my prime. I belonged in a musical nursing home. The hundreds of trophies and awards that littered my parents’ attic did nothing but make me mourn for the past.
Besides, look at all my friends. They had done something with their lives. They had accomplished great things, went on to be musicians in their own rights, none more so than Benjamin Murphy. Like Jim Brickman before him, he did duets with famous popular singers. He composed his own music. He wrote his own songs. He had the soul of a poet. Nothing about him was tarnished or broken, dull or fraudulent.
He was who my firstborn child lost to, all those years ago, and I hated him for it.
Until I loved him for everything else.
Ben was much more than a child-murderer. He was beautiful. He was talented. He was a prodigy, in every sense of the word. Famous, adored. He was outgoing and charismatic; I was a shy girl whose only constant companions were the evil voices inside her head. We saw each other frequently in competitions, and though I suppose we should have been natural rivals, as we were in a constant battle for first in which there never was a winner, there was never any animosity. I was too busy making moon-eyes at him, laughing at his jokes and how he would always sneak food backstage, cookies and such, and split them with me.
We never much mentioned what happened on stage besides mandatory congratulations. We were far too busy discussing books and television, religion and philosophy, and, of course, music — other than ours. We found a common bond in Broadway hits; he found my secret obsession with Taylor Swift deplorable; I thought his fanatic love of indie music snobbish.
Somehow, through these discourses and disagreements, we fell in love and got married.
You might think that Ben’s praise might silence the voices in my head. That we would be able to make beautiful music together, and, with his love and admiration, the demons would finally wither and die.
They only grew stronger.
As his career blossomed, I quietly packed mine away. I found that practicing was unbearable if Ben was in the house. He insisted on watching me. On listening to me. And, as the voices assured me, judging me.
My fingers trembled more than ever when I was in his presence. The sour notes seemed amplified, and I knew his trained ear would hear every mistake. Every faulty chord, every sharp instead of a flat, every blunder would reinforce that I was not perfect. That I was not a prodigy.
Without practice, though, a competitive career cannot flourish. So I stopped playing. The voices commended me on this. They knew that I could never compete. And when I thought about trying, they quickly shoved me back into my place with such roughness that tears burned in my eyes. I gave the piano a wide berth. It became like a monster lurking in the other room: but if it was the monster, why was I in the cage?
Then the oddest thing happened.
After murdering my musical firstborn, it was hard to believe that Ben gave life to my biological firstborn.
It soon became apparent to me that the only music I would ever need was Adaline’s angelic giggle. Or the way Ben would sing to her as he danced around in the living room with her. Or the sweet, soft sighs that she would make when she fell asleep after a long day of napping, eating, and playing. Motherhood was ripe ground for the voices as well, though. Everyone had their opinion on what I was doing right or wrong. Everything from eating to sleeping suddenly became controversial, with each camp sure that I would kill Adaline unless I followed their advice.
Luckily, I did not kill my child.
But now, as she sits upon my lap, I wonder if she will kill me.
Her bony backside is planted on my thighs. She wiggles and almost elbows me in the stomach. “Oops! Sorry, Mama.” More squirming. “Can you play for me?”
She reaches out and brushes middle C. I flinch as if a gun has gone off. She’s got me this far.
You are not a prodigy. She’s heard her father play! What makes you think that she’ll be impressed with your playing? You’re going to teach her wrong. She’ll be a failure, just like you were.
“Do you want—” I pause. Ben would teach her. Ben would play for her. He’s just in the other room, on his laptop.
I don’t know why she’s dragged me in here. I don’t know why I let her. I’m sure it had something to do with her cute, freckled face, and those brown eyes that can make me do almost anything.
But play the piano?
“Play our song. The lullaby! Stars shining.”
I’ve never played that one. I can hear it, now, in my head. I might be able to plink it out. It’s been at least six years since I’ve touched the keys, though — four since Adaline was born, the other two since I gave it up early in my marriage to Ben.
You’ll have to sound it out. It will sound terrible. The great Lara Elaine Fairchild Murphy, reduced to nothing but stumbling through a song with your right hand like a two-year-old figuring out “Mary Had a Little Lamb.” Ben will wonder what he ever saw in you.
Well, if the voices assumed that Ben married me for my talent, they were sorely mistaken. I never had any talent, so that wasn’t what he saw in me. After all, wasn’t it their opinion that I was never a prodigy? Just a lucky upstart, an imposter, the fraud.
“Teach me, Mama!” Adaline bumps my shins with her heels. “Come on!”
She grabs my hand and puts it on the keys. Her fingers cup my own, and she pushes her index finger down.
D5. My first note in years.
Tell her you’re busy. Tell her you’ll go read her a story! Put in a movie. Anything! Distract her so you don’t make a fool of yourself!
The voices rage at me. Nothing can quiet them — they’ve never been silent since the day they first arrived in my mind. My other hand shakes, my eyes fill with tears.
But something is louder than them: the softest, tiniest voice imaginable. “Please? For me?”
With my right foot, I push the pedal down and begin to muddle through the right set of notes. It only takes me a few minutes to wheedle out the beginning of the lullaby that I always sing for Adaline.
Footsteps come galloping down the hallway. I tilt my head to spare Ben a glance — I half expect him to look horrified or to wince as I hit a false note and have to correct it. The voices cackle at this.
But Ben doesn’t. He only looks…amazed.
“You haven’t played in years.”
“I know.” My voice cracks a bit.
I turn my face away and let my blonde hair fall over my eyes, as if it can shield me from his thunderstruck eyes.
Ben comes up behind me and puts his hands on my shoulders to give them a small squeeze. “You could always make the most beautiful music.”
My shoulders start to shake. Tears fall on my daughter’s head, but no one can hear the hushed cries over the sound of Adaline and Ben’s voices as they rise with the melody — and my own quavering, choked one.
Maybe I am not a prodigy.
Maybe I am.
But whatever I am, I am Lara — and that is enough.