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Contemporary Fiction

In many ways, an orchestra is like a jenga tower, for its success rests equally on all the individual parts. A few missing pieces and it collapses. Leonard’s job as a conductor was holding together that delicate construction. He kept a clear view on each and every part at all times. Aware, that the smallest disequilibrium could bring the entire structure tumbling down.


Tonight’s program was Johannes Brahms’ third symphony. A challenging piece for a young conductor like himself. To get into the right headspace, Leonard followed his usual ritual. He arrived at the theater a little over an hour before the show, which meant he still had some time to sit down at the piano in his changing room and clear his mind. Then he took a shower, shaved and put on his white shirt, black tuxedo suit and bow tie. He sat down again, this time facing away from the piano, the sheet music on his lap as he scanned the orchestration for the more challenging parts. He settled on a selection of passages to rehearse. While he acted them out with his eyes closed, the first bell rang—fifteen minutes until the beginning of the concert.


He closed his eyes again, now it was crucial not to hurry. The conductor is the one who decides when the concert starts after all. As the second bell rang, he rose from his seat, did some light stretches and went to the restroom. The third and final bell rang, while he was washing his hands in the sink. He took a deep breath and winked at his reflection in the mirror. Then he calmly approached the concert hall, Leonard could hear the musicians tuning their instruments through the thick, wooden doors, a smile spread on his face. He opened the door and stepped into the hall. The audience’s whispers turned to silence. As he walked toward the podium, the audience now applauding, he caught a glimpse of his father sitting in the first row, smiling right at him. Leonard panicked, his face flushed red, his throat constricted. In that split second, his composure dispersed.


He stepped up to the podium, shook the concertmaster’s hand, turned around and bowed down to the audience. As he turned back towards the musicians, he closed his eyes for an instant, if this was a dream, he’d like to wake up right about now. Nothing happened—he sighed and grabbed the baton. Why? I never use the baton. Too late to set it down now, isn’t it? Leonard lifted his arms hesitantly. His hands were trembling.


What followed is the most overlooked aspect, when it comes to conducting. The moments of silence before the music start are just as important as whatever follows. A frown encroached on his face, but he immediately regained his composure. The musicians needed to put their complete trust in him now. They had their own ways of reaching the state of togetherness, that they needed to hold throughout the entire performance. The last thing they could use right now, was to pick up on his insecurity. He took a deep breath and gave the brass and woodwind section the signal to start. The second his hands moved, his heart dropped into his stomach. This buildup is way too slow. It was going to be a long, difficult battle.


Brahms’ third symphony builds to an imposing climax within the first three notes, by which point the orchestra beams in its full brilliance. Now that he’d initiated at such a snail-like pace, he had to stay committed. He could speed things up after the peak, any sudden overcorrections would throw off the musicians.

Maybe it wasn’t actually his father watching in the front row? Wasn’t he supposed to be living somewhere in Belgium or Sweden? He fought to keep his mind clear, but the thoughts kept pushing at the veil of his consciousness. He noticed he was now crawling through the orchestration. The baton in his hand felt unusually heavy. If this is my dad, why would he show up now? Oh crap—. He’d forgotten to signal for the oboe players to start their phrase, a few of them had begun playing regardless. For once he was thankful to the individuals that never seemed to care much about his instructions. He signaled to the others players that they should join in on the next phrase. Leonard worked his hardest to stay focused. If this was in fact his father was watching, he wouldn’t let him have that power over him.


It must be him. Although he had never seen his father, he knew exactly what he looked like. Leonard closed his eyes before launching the next movement, he tried to give himself up to the flow of music. He must’ve noticed my mistakes, being a concert pianist and all. Leonard felt rage build up in his chest. His father’s gaze was like a knife in his back, draining him of attention. Why would he sit in the first row of all places? He should know that would distract me. How could he be so inconsiderate? My father never cared for me when I was young, why would he care now? Did something happen? Was he sick? Leonard drew his attention back to the orchestra. Oh my god, I’m playing way too fast now. He needed to get it back together. With the music so quiet, he couldn’t afford another mishap. Pearls of sweat dripped down his temples.


By the third movement, Leonard’s Anger had subsided. Only a heaviness remained in his chest. Leonard remembered his piano recitals when he was a child, at the end of which, he always expectantly scanned the audience, hoping he would see his father. Every single time he ended up with his head hanging low on the car ride home. Good thing he didn’t show up to any of those recitals, I can barely handle it now. Oh shoot—. He almost missed a French horn entrance. His left hand gestured hastily. Perhaps he should’ve chosen to mess up one of my recitals, not this performance with the symphony orchestra. Leonard wasn’t going to let himself be distracted any longer. His father was just another audience member. In fact, if by chance one of his many babysitters was watching tonight, he would be in the presence of someone, that’d actually cared for him, as he was growing up, and they surely didn’t make him nervous. He pushed through the third movement with a resolve to enjoy the music and nothing else. Okay I’m playing super slowly now. Time to pull himself together for the final movement.


Leonard managed to keep a somewhat clear mind for a few minutes. His face wore a blank expression and a lump lodged in his throat. He could’ve at least called me before showing up here. Why didn’t he try to contact me earlier? His mother had fought hard to bring him through. He never even had a stepdad. He’d blown on countless eyelashes and birthday candles as a child, wishing for a father. Any father would’ve done. His mother must’ve been too hurt to find a new husband. His sense of the symphony was completely broken at this point. He couldn’t establish a proper connection to his players. It felt like he was stuck in between a boulder and a cliff, unable to express the musical sentiment through his gestures. He was used to his coaches telling him to tone it down, that he shouldn’t be taking the attention away from the music. So naturally, he tried to hold himself back. But he couldn’t help himself. He just naturally moved to music. Now that he was experiencing the other extreme, he just wanted to go back to his own eccentric style of conducting. This felt way worse.  


At the end of the concert, Leonard was panting, bathed in sweat. He gave a shallow bow and shot a glance towards his father, who sat in his seat, weeping. Leonard's heart raced as he scrambled off the podium. The baton still in his right hand. A quick shower later, he sat in the changing room, absently jingling on the piano to calm his mind. His heart was still beating loudly in his chest. He sighed and decided to rise from the chair. He grabbed his bag and walked towards the theater’s exit, nodding absently in response to the greetings he received. The moment he stepped outside, he froze abruptly.


His father was standing on the sidewalk, holding a bouquet of flowers. Leonard stared at him in disbelief, he returned an awkward smile. Leonard had spent hours contemplating what he would say in the unlikely event his father ever showed up. Regardless, he was unable to open his mouth to speak.

“Congratulations, it was wonderful.” His father stammered, as he walked up to Leonard. He extended his hand to his son, who shook it wordlessly. His father looked much older than he’d envisioned. Leonard raised his eyebrows, “Why are you here?”

“Lenny,” his father sighed. “I understand, if you don’t want me here. I’m sorry. I can’t give you an apology that excuses my behavior.”

His father pulled a business card from his breast pocket. “Please take this, if you ever want to reconnect, I just wanted to let you know how proud I am.”

Leonard accepted the card and the flowers. He flashed a weak smile, as he turned and walked away hurriedly. Tears streamed down his face, he could no longer hold them back. Leonard chuckled at the fact his father thought of him as Lenny. He was still conflicted about his father’s sudden appearance. He’d quite badly thrown him off his game tonight, but whether he liked it or not, without his father’s absence, Leonard would never have worked so hard to become a conductor in the first place.


In many ways, life too, is like a jenga tower, it’s unpredictable and the missing pieces eventually add up and decide your path for you. But who’s to say you can’t pick up those pieces and carefully slide them back inside? Ultimately, in life—unlike in a game of jenga—you set your own rules.

February 05, 2021 12:55

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4 comments

Drew Lane
22:26 Feb 10, 2021

Hi Philip, Very nice story and very nice style - it's fluid and enjoyable. A couple of suggestions: *the jenga tower mentioned at the beginning could probably be tied in more to the experience of Leo to make it personal. So for instance keeping your beginning and adding something like "that was, at least, the conclusion Leo had reached." and then diving into his activity. Because it works really well to close the text with that same image and it would potentially be even stronger to see how it plays for him - the guy who sees his job/pa...

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Philip Hedges
23:14 Feb 10, 2021

Hi Drew, I appreciate your extensive comment, thank you very much. Lots of very valid critiques. Good idea, making the jenga analogy more personal. I see how the wink might have thrown you off a little. I could've considered the orchestra's actions more, or the individual blocks of the jenga tower, if I may. Keeping the orchestra flowing realistically, around the turmoil of his inner world, was definitely a challenge. About the beginning, I thought I'd made it clear that he sees his father as he walks on to the audience’s applause. I will ...

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Drew Lane
11:54 Feb 11, 2021

Great! Glad it helped. I saw you liked my story about the Toy Theater - curious to know what you liked about it. And if anything in the story resonated with you as an artist. Also feel free to browse through my stories when you get a chance as some characters are dancers (Ay de mi Lorona is one of them) - curious to hear your thoughts. All the best :D

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Philip Hedges
12:39 Feb 11, 2021

I liked the rawness of your protagonist. His struggles felt tangible, even though the alcoholic artist is a kind of trope I like to steer clear of. The relationship with his mother added to the tension nicely. In general the tone of the narration followed the somewhat loose, chaotic character well.

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