My heart sank. The score looked disappointingly sparse, a few staccato notes here and there, not a lot of density or vertical range. And such a short piece: six scruffy xeroxed pages.
Sophia and I were in Professor Wei-Yi Yang’s piano studio at the Yale School of Music. It was a large rectangular room with two black Steinway baby grand pianos standing side by side, one for the teacher, one for the student. I was staring at “Juliet as a Young Girl” from Sergei Prokofiev’s Romeo and Juliet, which Wei-Yi had just proposed that Sophia play for an international piano competition that was coming up.
When Wei-Yi and I first met, he explained that he’d never had a student as young as Sophia, who was barely fourteen. He taught only Yale piano graduate students and a few Yale undergraduates of unusual caliber. But having heard Sophia play, he was willing to take her on with one condition: that she didn’t require any special treatment because of her age. I assured him that this would be no problem.
I love being able to count on Sophia. She has wells of inner strength. Even more than me, she can take anything: exclusion, excoriation, humiliation, loneliness.
Thus began Sophia’s baptism of fire. Like Mrs. Vamos, Wei-Yi had expectations that were of an order galactically beyond what we’d been used to. The stack of music he handed Sophia at her first lesson—six Bach inventions, a book of Moszkowski études, a Beethoven sonata, a toccata by Khachaturian, and Brahms’s Rhapsody in G Minor—stunned even me. Sophia had some catching up to do, he explained; her technical foundation was not what it should be, and there were some gaping holes in her repertoire. Even more intimidating was when he said to Sophia, “And don’t waste my time with wrong notes. At your level, there’s no excuse. It’s your job to get the notes right, so we can work on other things during the lesson.”
But two months later, when Wei-Yi Yang proposed the pieces from the suite Romeo and Juliet, I had the opposite reaction. The Prokofiev didn’t look demanding all—it didn’t strike me as a competition winner. And why Prokofiev? The only thing I knew about Prokofiev was Peter and the Wolf. Why not something hard, like Rachmaninov?
“Oh, this piece,” I said aloud. “Sophia’s old piano teacher thought it was too easy for her.” This wasn’t entirely true. Actually, it wasn’t even a little true. But I didn’t want Wei-Yi to think I was challenging his judgment.
“Easy?” Wei-Yi boomed contemptuously. He had a deep baritone voice, which was strangely inconsonant with his slight, boyish frame. He was in his thirties, of mixed Chinese and Japanese descent, but raised in London and Russian-taught. “Prokofiev’s piano concertos hold up the sky. And there is nothing—not one note—that is easy about this piece. I challenge anyone to play it well.”
I liked this. I like authority figures. I like experts. This is the opposite of Jed, who hates authority and believes that most “experts” are charlatans. More important, the Prokofiev wasn’t easy! Hurray! Professor Wei-Yi Yang, an expert, said so.
My heart skipped a beat. The first-prize winners for this competition would perform as soloists at Carnegie Hall. Until now Sophia had competed only in local competitions. I had gone crazy when Sophia played as a soloist with the Farmington Valley (all volunteer) Symphony. To jump from there to an international competition was daunting enough, but a chance at Carnegie Hall—I could hardly stand to think about it.
Over the next few months, Sophia and I learned what it was like to take piano lessons from a master. Watching Professor Yang teach Sophia “Juliet as a Young Girl” was one of the most amazing and humbling experiences I’ve ever had. As he helped Sophia bring the piece to life, adding layer upon layer of nuance, all I could think was, This man is a genius. I am a barbarian. Prokofiev is a genius. I am a cretin. Wei-Yi and Prokofiev are great. I am a cannibal.
Going to lessons with Wei-Yi became my favorite thing; I looked forward to it all week. At every session I would religiously take notes, the scales falling from my eyes. Occasionally, I felt out of my league. What did he mean by triads and tritones, and making harmonic sense of the music, and why did Sophia seem to get it all so quickly? Other times, I picked up things that Sophia missed—I watched Wei-Yi’s demonstrations like a hawk, sometimes drawing sketches in my notebook to capture them. Back home the two of us would work together in a new way, jointly trying to absorb and implement Wei-Yi’s insights and instructions. I no longer had to yell at Sophia or fight with her about practicing. She was stimulated and intrigued; it was as if a new world were opening up for her, and for me too, as a junior partner.
The hardest part of the Prokofiev was the elusive Juliet theme that formed the backbone of the piece. Here’s what Sophia later wrote in a school essay about “Conquering Juliet”: I had just played the last notes of “Juliet as a Young Girl,” and the basement studio was dead silent. Professor Yang stared at me. I stared at the rug. My mom was scribbling furiously in our piano notebook.
I reviewed the piece in my head. Was it the scales, or the jumps? I had nailed them all. The dynamics, or the tempo? I had obeyed every crescendo and ritard. As far as I could tell, my rendition had been flawless. So what was wrong with these people, and what more could they possibly want from me?
At last, Professor Yang spoke. “Sophia, what temperature is this piece?”
I was tongue-tied.
“It’s a trick question. I’ll make it easier. Consider the middle section. What color is it?”
I realized I had to give an answer. “Blue? Light blue?”
“And what temperature is light blue?”
That was easy. “Light blue is cool.”
“Then let the phrase be cool.”
What kind of instruction was that? The piano is a percussion instrument. Temperature isn’t part of the equation. I could hear the haunting, delicate melody in my head. Think, Sophia! I knew this was Juliet’s theme. But who was Juliet, and how was she “cool”? I remembered something Professor Yang had mentioned the week before: Juliet was fourteen years old, just like me. How would I act if a handsome older boy suddenly declared his undying love for me? Well, I thought to myself, she already knows she’s desirable, but she’s also flattered and embarrassed. She’s fascinated by him, but she’s also shy and afraid of looking overeager. This was a coolness I could comprehend. I took a deep breath and began.
Shockingly, Professor Yang was pleased. «Better. Now do it again, but this time let Juliet be in your hands, not your facial expressions. Here, like this—” He took my place on the piano bench to demonstrate.
I will never forget how he transformed the little melody. It was Juliet just as I had envisioned her: alluring, vulnerable, a little blasé. The secret, I began to realize, was letting the hand reflect the character of the piece. Professor Yang’s was cupped in the shape of a tent; he coaxed the sound from the keys. His fingers were sinewy and elegant, like ballerinas’ legs.
“Now you,” he ordered. Un fortunately, Juliet was only half the piece. The next page brought a new character: lovesick, testosterone-fueled Romeo. He posed a completely different challenge; his tone was as rich and muscular as Juliet’s was ethereal and slender. And of course, Professor Yang had more questions for me to grapple with.
“Sophia, your Romeo and Juliet sound the same. What instruments are they played by?”
I didn’t get it. Uh, piano? I thought to myself.
Professor Yang continued. “Sophia, this ballet was written for an entire orchestra. As a pianist, you must reproduce the sound of every instrument. So what is Juliet, and what is Romeo?”
Bewildered, I fingered the first few bars of each theme. “Juliet is . . . flute, maybe, and Romeo is . . . cello?”
As it turned out, Juliet was a bassoon. I was right about Romeo, though. In Prokofiev’s original arrangement, his theme really is played by the cello. Romeo’s character was always easier for me to understand. I’m not sure why; it definitely wasn’t real-life inspiration.
Maybe I just felt bad for him. Obviously he was doomed, and he was so hopelessly besotted with Juliet. The slightest hint of her theme had him begging on his knees.
Whereas Juliet eluded me for a long time, I always knew I could get Romeo.
His moodiness required a number of different playing techniques. At times he was sonorous and confident. Then, just a few measures later, he was desperate and pleading. I tried to train my hands like Professor Yang said. It was hard enough being both a soprano and a prima ballerina for Juliet; now I had to play the piano like a cellist.
I’ll save the conclusion of Sophia’s school essay for a later chapter.
The competition Sophia was preparing for was open to young pianists from all over the world, anyone who was not already a professional musician. Somewhat unusually, there was no live audition component. The winners would be chosen solely on the basis of a fifteen-minute unedited CD containing any piano repertoire of our choosing. Wei-Yi was emphatic about our CD opening with Sophia playing “Juliet as a Young Girl” followed immediately by “The Street Awakens,” another short piece from Romeo and Juliet. Like the curator of an art exhibition, he carefully chose the other works—a Liszt Hungarian Rhapsody, a middle-period Beethoven sonata—that would complete the CD.
After eight grueling weeks, Wei-Yi said Sophia was ready. Late one Tuesday evening, after she had finished her homework and practicing, we drove to the studio of a professional audio engineer named Istvan to record Sophia’s CD. The experience was traumatizing. At first, I didn’t get it. This should be easy, I thought to myself. We can redo it as many times as it takes to get a perfect version. Totally wrong. What I didn’t understand was
· pianists’ hands get tired;
· it’s extremely hard to play musically when there’s no audience and you know every note is being recorded; and
· as Sophia tearfully explained to me, the more she played and replayed her pieces, trying her hardest each time to pour emotion into them, the emptier they sounded.
The hardest part of all was invariably the last page—sometimes the last line. It was like watching your favorite Olympic figure skater who looks like she might actually win the gold medal if she can only land her last few jumps. The pressure mounts unbearably. This could be it, you think, this is the one. Then the crash on the final triple axel sends her bouncing and sprawling all over the ice.
Something similar happened with Sophia’s Beethoven sonata, which just wouldn’t come out right. After Take 3, when Sophia omitted two entire lines near the end, Istvan gently suggested that I go outside for some air.
Istvan was very cool. He wore a black leather jacket, black ski cap, and black Clark Kent glasses. “There’s a café down the street,” he added. “Maybe you can get Sophia a hot chocolate. I could use some coffee myself.” When I returned with the drinks fifteen minutes later, Istvan was packing up, and Sophia was laughing. They told me they’d gotten a Beethoven that was good enough—not error-free but very musical—and I was too relieved to question them.
We took the CD containing all of Sophia’s attempts at each piece and gave it to Wei-Yi, who made the final selections from all the takes (“the first Prokofiev, the third Liszt, and the final Beethoven, please”). Istvan then cut a submission CD, which we FedExed to the competition.