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The Debut and the Audition


It was the big day—the day of Sophia’s Carnegie Hall debut. This time I’d really gone wild. I’d spoken to Jed, and we decided to forgo our winter vacation for the year. Sophia’s dress for the event was a charcoal satin floor-length gown from Barneys New York—no David’s Bridal for this one! For the reception afterward, I’d rented out the Fontainebleau Room at the St. Regis New York, where we also took two rooms for two nights. In addition to sushi, crab cakes, dumplings, quesadillas, a raw oyster bar, and iced silver bowls of jumbo shrimp, I ordered a beef tenderloin station, a Peking duck station, and a pasta station (for the kids). At the last minute I had them throw in Gruyère profiteroles, Sicilian rice balls with wild mushrooms, and a giant dessert station. I’d also printed up invitations and sent them to everyone we knew.

Each time a new bill came, Jed’s eyebrows shot up. “Well, there goes our summer vacation too,” he said at one point. My mother, meanwhile, was horrified by my extravagance; growing up, we’d only ever stayed in a Motel 6 or Holiday Inn. But Carnegie Hall was a once-in-a-lifetime opportunity, and I was determined to make it unforgettable.

For analytical clarity, I should probably point out that some aspects of my behavior—for example, my tendency to show off and overdo things—are not characteristic of most Chinese mothers. I inherited those flaws, along with my loud voice and my love of big parties and the color red, from my father. Even when I was growing up, my mother, who’s very muted and modest, would shake her head and say, “It’s genetic. Amy’s a clone of the oddball.” The latter referred to my father, whom it’s true I’ve always idolized.

Part of the deal I’d arranged with the St. Regis was that we’d have access to a piano, and the day before the recital Sophia and I practiced on and off throughout the day. Jed worried about me going too far and tiring out Sophia’s fingers; Wei-Yi had told us that Sophia knew her pieces inside out and that being calm and focused was more important than anything. But I had to make sure that Sophia’s performance was flawless, that she didn’t leave out a single brilliant tiny nuance Wei-Yi had taught us. Contrary to everyone’s advice, we practiced until almost 1:00 A.M. the night before. The last thing I said to her was, “You’re going to be great. When you’ve worked as hard as you have, you know you’ve done everything you can, and it doesn’t matter now what happens.”

The next day when the moment came—while I could barely breathe, clutching the armrest of my seat in near rigor mortis—Sophia played brilliantly, jubilantly. I knew every note, every silence, every witty touch like the back of my hand. I knew where the potential pitfalls were; Sophia blew past them all. I knew her favorite parts, her most masterful transitions. I knew where thank goodness she didn’t rush and exactly when she began to bring it home, allowing herself to improvise emotionally, knowing it was already a total triumph.

Afterward, when everyone else rushed to congratulate and hug her, I hung back. I didn’t need the clichéd moment where “Sophia’s eyes sought out mine in the crowd.” I just watched my cute little grownup girl from afar, laughing with her friends, piling up with flowers.

In moments of despair I force myself to relive that memory. My parents and sisters attended, as did Jed’s father, Sy, and his wife, Harriet, and many friends and colleagues. Wei-Yi had come down from New Haven for the performance and was clearly proud of his young pupil. According to Sophia, it was one of the happiest days of her life. I had not only invited her entire grade, I rented a van to transport her schoolmates both ways between New Haven and New York. No one applauds as loudly as a bunch of giddy eighth-graders let loose in New York—and no one could possibly eat as much shrimp cocktail (which the St. Regis charged for by the piece).

As promised, here’s the ending of Sophia’s essay on “Conquering Juliet”: I didn’t quite understand what was happening until I found myself backstage, petrified, quaking. My hands were cold. I couldn’t remember how my piece started. An old mirror betrayed the contrast between my chalk-white face and my dark gown, and I wondered how many other musicians had stared into that same glass.

Carnegie Hall. It didn’t seem right. This was supposed to be the unattainable goal, the carrot of false hope that would keep me practicing for an entire lifetime. And yet here I was, an eighth grader, about to play “Juliet as a Young Girl” for the expectant crowd.

I had worked so hard for this. Romeo and Juliet weren’t the only characters I had learned. The sweet, repetitive murmuring that accompanied Juliet was her nurse; the boisterous chords were Romeo’s teasing friends. So much of me was manifested in this piece, in one way or another. At that moment, I realized how much I loved this music.

Performing isn’t easy—in fact, it’s heartbreaking. You spend months, maybe years, mastering a piece; you become a part of it, and it becomes a part of you. Playing for an audience is like giving blood; it leaves you feeling empty and a bit light-headed. And when it’s all over, your piece just isn’t yours anymore.

It was time. I walked out to the piano and bowed. Only the stage was lit, and I couldn’t see the faces of the audience. I said good-bye to Romeo and Juliet, then released them into the darkness.

Sophia’s success energized me, filled me with new dreams. I couldn’t help noticing that the Weill Recital Hall, where Sophia played—while quite charming with its belle epoque arches and symmetrical proportions—was a relatively small venue, located on the third floor of Carnegie Hall. I learned that the much larger, magnificent hall that I’d seen on television, where some of the world’s greatest musicians had played to audiences of nearly three thousand, was called the Isaac Stern Auditorium. I made a mental note that we ought to try to make it there someday.

There were a few shadows on the day. We all felt Florence’s absence, which left a hollowness that couldn’t be filled. It also stung a little that Sophia’s old piano teacher Michelle didn’t come; our move to Wei-Yi had not been taken well, despite our efforts to maintain a relationship. But the worst thing was that Lulu got food poisoning the day of the recital. After practicing her audition pieces all morning with Kiwon, they’d gone to a deli for lunch. Twenty minutes later, Lulu was sick to her stomach, convulsing with pain. She managed to make it through Sophia’s performance before staggering out of the hall; Kiwon took her by taxi back to the hotel. Lulu missed the entire reception, and during the party Jed and I took turns running up to our hotel room, where Lulu vomited all night, with my mother attending to her.

The next morning, with Lulu white as a ghost and barely able to walk, we took her to Juilliard. She was wearing a yellow and white dress and a big bow in her hair, which only made her face look more drawn. I thought about canceling the audition, but we’d poured so many hours into preparing that even Lulu wanted to do it. In the waiting area, we saw Asian parents everywhere, pacing back and forth, grim-faced and single-minded. They seem so unsubtle, I thought to myself, can they possibly love music? Then it hit me that almost all the other parents were foreigners or immigrants and that music was a ticket for them, and I thought, I’m not like them. I don’t have what it takes.

When Lulu’s name was called, and she walked bravely into the audition room by herself, my heart almost broke—I almost gave it all up right then. But instead, Jed and I plastered our ears to the door and listened as she played Mozart’s Third Concerto and Gabriel Fauré’s Berceuse, both as movingly as I’d ever heard her play. Afterward, Lulu told us that Itzhak Perlman and Naoko Tanaka, the famous violin teacher, had been among the judges in the room.

A month later we got the bad news in the mail. Jed and I knew the contents of the thin envelope instantly; Lulu was still at school. After reading the formal, two-line rejection letter, Jed turned away in disgust. He didn’t say anything to me, but the unspoken accusation was, “Are you happy now, Amy? Now what?”

When Lulu came home, I said to her as cheerfully as I could, “Hey, Lulu, honey, guess what? We heard from Juilliard. They didn’t accept you. But it doesn’t matter—we didn’t expect to get in this year. Lots of people don’t get in their first time. Now we know what to do for next time.”

I couldn’t bear the look that flashed over Lulu’s face. I thought for a second that she was going to cry, but then I realized she would never do that. How could I have set her up for such a disappointment? I thought to myself. All those hours we put in were now big black stains on our memory. And how would I ever get her to practice—

“I’m glad I didn’t get in,” Lulu’s voice interrupted my thoughts. She looked a little angry now.

“Lulu, Daddy and I are so proud that—”

“Oh stop it,” Lulu snapped. “I told you—I don’t care. You’re the one who forced me to do it. I hate Juilliard. I’m happy I didn’t get in,” she repeated.

I’m not sure what I would have done if I hadn’t received a call the next day from—of all people—Naoko Tanaka. Miss Tanaka said that she thought Lulu had auditioned wonderfully, showing unusual musicality, and that she herself had voted to accept Lulu. She also explained that a decision had been made that year to downsize the Pre-College violin program; as a result, an unprecedented number of applicants had competed for unprecedentedly few spots, making it even more difficult than usual to get in. I was just beginning to thank Miss Tanaka for her considerate call when she offered to take on Lulu as a student in her own private studio.

I was stunned. Miss Tanaka’s private studio was famously exclusive—almost impossible to get into. My spirits soared, and I thought quickly. What I really wanted was a great teacher for Lulu; I didn’t care that much about the Pre-College program. I knew that studying with Miss Tanaka would mean driving to New York City every weekend. I also wasn’t sure how Lulu would react.

I accepted on Lulu’s behalf on the spot.


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