Masterclass

by carl coetzee

(Author's note: This piece is part of a duo of narrative companion pieces, the first being "Masterclass" and the second being "Recording".  Both are set in a fictional violin studio and explore events as they pertain to individual students. They were written jointly as part of a Creative Writing course and are meant to be read in tandem.

The sky overhead was emblazoned in colors of pink and crimson as the small silver car zipped off of the highway and made its way through into the quiet, wooded suburb. The backseat, although slightly dirtied from years of use, was empty except for a violin case and small bag filled with sheet music. In the front, Emma gazed out of the passenger’s window and listened passively to the muted murmur of a static-laced radio broadcast, which was drowned out intermittently out as her mother talked to her from the driver’s seat.

“Remember, you have orchestra practice after the rehearsal today. And tonight’s the recital, which means you should probably practice for an hour or so after that.”

“Do I need to? I feel fine for tonight.”

“Of course you do. Your brother always did.”

“Hmm.”

“Oh, and at some point we have to go to the store and get the cake.”

“The cake?”

“For tonight. Ms Law explicitly said she wanted a certain type of cake for the recital. I volunteered.”

“Didn’t June’s dad volunteer?”

“June’s dad was told to bring casserole. Plus, this is quite a cake. It’s kind of breaking the bank, to be honest.”

“Really? How much is it?”

“Three hundred fifty.”

“WHAT? Mom, why are we buying such an expensive cake?”

“This was the one she asked for. Plus, we want to be in her good graces.”

“That much money, for good graces?”

“She helps out out the students she likes. Orchestra positions, special opportunities, lesson times. She liked your brother. Now he’s at Yale.”

“Oh, great, another excuse to mention Yale.”

“You know what I mean.”

-----

As he waited for the rest of his group to arrive, Pierre thumbed through the pictures inside the twelve-pound visual anthology of historical violins that Ms. Carol Law always kept atop the table in her waiting room. Seated next to him was June, a fellow violinist and another member of the ensemble. June was relatively new to the studio; she had joined last fall after a rigorous audition process and had become a part of Pierre’s ensemble during the winter.

“So, Pierre, are you playing in the masterclass?”

“Which one?”

“With Jacob Mason. First chair of the New York Chamber Virtuosi.”

“Wait, what? When was this announced?”

“Like, a few days ago. It’s in a month or so. Law’s figuring out who to let play.”

“Really? That’s huge! Where’d you hear this?”

“She told me during my lesson this week. I’m not playing for sure, though. She’s still thinking.” 

“Wow.”

The doorbell rang, and Emma walked into the waiting room, accompanied by her mother Stephanie. The latter quickly struck up a conversation with June’s father Brian, and the former walked over to the couch where Pierre and June were sitting.

“Hey, Emma, you hear anything about this class?” asked Pierre.

“Not much. I know my mom really wants me to be picked, is all.”

“Apparently, we’re going to find out who’s playing very soon. Maybe even today.” said June.

“It’s a huge opportunity.” added Pierre. “A masterclass with this kind of profile would get you places. Plus, it could make you stand out to colleges. Maybe even conservatories.”

“God, don’t tell me.” said Emma. “My brother went to Yale, and it’s all I’ve been hearing about for the past year.”

“Yeah, I heard about that. Congratulations to him, by the way.”

“Yeah. Thanks, Pierre.”

“Hey, what about you, David?” asked June, as she gestured towards the short, neatly-groomed kid walking towards them from the other side of the room. He was younger, around eleven or twelve, but he had more experience inside the studio than any of them. “Did you hear anything about this?”

“Mason, right? Yeah, I heard about it. I’m still waiting to hear if I’m playing, though.”

“You’re bound to be picked, though. I mean, it feels like every week I’m being told about some competition you won. Law loves you. Why wouldn’t she give you a spot?”

“Thanks. We’ll see.”

Just then, the doorbell rang once more, and in stepped Liam Maxwell and his father Alexander Maxwell. The parents, who were hovering around the piano bench, flocked to greet the latter; as second chair of the East New York Chamber Virtuosi Ensemble, Alex remained widely popular despite his son’s perpetual apathy towards the instrument and generally disruptive attitude. As his father joined the parents’ discussion, Liam strutted over to the other students, who were sitting around the coffee table. 

“Liam, did you hear about the class?” asked Pierre.

“Oh, with Mason? Yeah, I’m playing it.”

“How?! She hasn’t picked the students yet!”

“Yeah, plus you’ve been stuck on the same piece the entire year you’ve been here. You haven’t even won a competition yet.” added June, contemptuously.

“Well, she told my dad two weeks ago that I’d be playing that piece for Mason.” said Liam. “Maybe she hasn’t decided on anyone else.”

The students recoiled with confusion and looked at each other. However, before they could digest the news, the entrance to the rehearsal room swung open and Ms. Law’s ensemble coach motioned from inside to come in. One by one, the kids pushed aside their bewilderment and walked through the door to unpack.

-----

Later that day, Emma’s silver sedan once more swerved through the densely-wooded suburbs, with Emma once more in the passenger’s seat and her mother behind the wheel.

“So, did Law tell you guys anything else about the Jacob Mason class?” asked her mom.

“She wasn’t there at all, actually. It was just Harry.” 

“Only the assistant coach? That’s weird. The recital is tonight.”

“Yeah, she’s probably busy.”

“Do you think you guys are ready?”

“Kind of. It was a bit of an odd rehearsal.”

“How come?”

“Apparently, Law told Harry that she wants Pierre in second violins with me now, and that Liam was going to take his place on first stand.”

“Has Liam gotten that good yet?”

“No, he’s pretty terrible, actually. Plus, he can’t focus to save his life.”

“It must be Pierre, then. It’s a shame. Law tells me heard this new assistant teacher is kind of running him into the ground.”

“That’s strange. He sounded better than ever to me.”

-----

Around noon, Jason Packett looked out the window of his fourth-story New York City apartment at the bustling, crowded street below. It was mesmerizing; the push and pull of the traffic, the flow of people entering and exiting the small food market across the street, the pops and dings of his radiator reverberating across his apartment. Behind him, the buzzer rang out,and he pulled himself away from the view to let the next student into his building. Moments later, Pierre walked through the door, violin in hand. As he got out his instrument, Packett began to set up the music stand for their lesson.

“How was the ensemble today?” he asked

“Stressful.” said Pierre. “I got moved down to second violin, and now I have to learn all the other parts. I was sight-reading my way through the entire rehearsal.”

Packett frowned; he knew why his student had been demoted.

“Wow. Law can really hold a grudge, can’t she?” he said.

“I’ll say. What happened between the two of you?”

Packett winced at the memory. Nearly a year ago, when he was still new to the city, the young violinist had gotten a side job working for Law. He was an assistant teacher, which meant he taught students who belonged to Law’s studio but weren’t prioritized enough to make it into her teaching schedule. Over the years, as she made a name for herself and that name grew in demand, Law began to rely on an increasing number of these assistants. When he was hired, Packett was the seventh one working  in some capacity for the studio. However, he made an early mistake. Instead of blindly following Law’s instruction in an attempt to develop good standing, the young teacher foolishly decided to establish working trust by offering his advice on how to improve the studio. Unfortunately, this was seen as presumptuous; instead of taking Packett’s suggestions about the order of student repertoire as constructive criticism, she took it as a personal attack on both her style of teaching and her style of management. Further attempts to rectify the situation only led to more hostility from Law, and eventually she grew to despise Packett, bad-mouthing him to colleagues and shunning him from studio events. She hadn’t sent him so much as an email since October, with the final correspondence being an angrily worded message disparaging Packett’s merits as a teacher and implying that he was ‘ruining’ those whom he taught. Packett knew his students were making progress, but grew angry that his students were being kept from their true potential simply because of a teacher’s inability to move past a petty grudge.

Pierre finished unpacking his violin and walked up to the music stand.

“Hey, so have you heard about the masterclass next month?”

“No, I haven’t. Who’s coming?”

“Jacob Mason.”

“Wow.”

“Yeah. It’s quite an opportunity.”

“Are you going to try and play?”

“Don’t know. Apparently she’s still picking the students.”

Packett, knowing that Law would take every opportunity to denigrate Pierre given the chance to do so, grew frustrated at the thought of another opportunity squandered to a meaningless feud.

“Well, we’ll both be at the recital tonight. I’ll talk to her and try to reccomend you.”

“Do you think she’ll listen to you?”

“We’ll see.”

-----

That evening, Emma walked through the towering stone doorway into the recital hall. As her mother and June’s father started to set up the post-recital feast, she walked backstage to unpack.

On her way, she saw Ms. Law atop the stage, giving hurried directions to assistant teachers and students before leaving to answer a phone call.

When Emma entered the unpacking room, she saw that David, Liam, June, and Pierre had already arrived. She walked up to Pierre and began to open her case.

“So, how’s your part coming along?” she asked.

“It’s passable.”

“It’s so weird for her to drop you down so suddenly.”

“At least I’ll be able to play it decently. I’m not sure Liam will be able to handle the step up. Especially not with this timeframe.”

“Yeah, he could barely handle his part as it was. It really baffles me how he could have gotten that masterclass before any of us… which reminds me, did you hear anything?”

“Nothing yet, but I don’t think I’ll get it.”

“I wouldn’t be so sure. I heard you today in rehearsal and you’ve really been improving.”

“It’s more complicated than that.”

“How so?”

“It’s a long sto--”

Just then, Ms. Law entered the room, motioning for the ensemble to take their places in the concert hall. As all the students grabbed their music and moved into the hall, Law grabbed David by his shoulder and motioned for him to stay. As Emma left, she saw Law begin to tell him something -- exactly what, she wasn’t sure -- as a large smile broke out over the young boy’s face.

 

-----

After the recital, all of the guests and performers went into the next room for the post-concert reception. Sitting next to her mother at the table, Emma watched as the room filled with people. Over in the corner, a few of the younger students began to strike up a game of some kind; although loud, it seemed fun, and Emma considered joining in before her mother saw her expression and grabbed her arm.

“Emma, stay here.” said her mother under her breath. “You can’t have her seeing you as disruptive.”

Her mother motioned towards a nearby table in the center of the room, where Ms. Law ate and celebrated amongst her closest friends and assistant teachers. Well, all except one. From across the room, Emma saw a younger, well-dressed, bespectacled man -- isn’t that Pierre’s teacher? -- nervously approach the spot where Law sat talking to June. After June walked off, the man went up to Law and tried to talk to her about something seemingly important. However, it was clear even from a distance that Law did not take him seriously; in fact, it looked as if he were being shunned. After about a minute of trying in vain to get her attention, the man walked away. Emma saw him walk off, but her attention was diverted as June came running up to her.

“Hey, what happened? Did you get in?” asked Emma. “I saw you talking with Law earlier.”

“I don’t know yet. When I asked her, she said she was still thinking about it, but I still have a chance. She wants to talk to you, though.”

“Really?”

“Yeah, she told me to come get you.”

 

Quickly, Emma rose from her seat and followed June across the bustling room towards Ms. Law’s table.

-----

Dejected, Pierre sat hunched over on a small wooden bench straddling the side of the room, his fine clothes wilted from a day of wear. On his face, he wore a quiet frown -- the kind that came when one was uncertain of their future. Out of the corner of his eye, he saw Emma walk up and sit next to him.

“Guess who’s playing for Jacob Mason next month?”

“Really? Wow, congratulations!”

“I know, she just told me.”

“Are you in?”

“No, I’m not.”

“She told you?”

“No. But I just know.”

They both paused for a second.

“Hey, I saw your teacher talking to Ms. Law.”

“Yeah?”

“Yeah. What’s going on between them?”

“It’s a long story, again.”

“She doesn’t like him, does she?”

“Evidently.”

“Well, it’s just one masterclass. Yeah, it sucks, but it’ll be fine. You’ll get it next time.”

“I don’t know about that.”

“How do you mean?”

“This is the last recital of the semester; the year ends in a few weeks. Jason’s contract is going to expire. Which means she’s kicking him out of the studio. Which means she’s kicking me out of the studio. Which means I don’t have a future here.”

“Wait, you’re done? Why would she do that to you? You’ve been doing so well!”

“That’s not really the matter here. Progress is great, but she wants something else.”

“Like what?”

“Loyalty. Usefulness. Important parents. I don’t know. It’s different for everyone. But it’s clear that neither my talent or usefulness outweigh how much she hates Packett.”

They fell silent for a minute, their conversation giving way to the deafening roar of a busy room. Outside, Pierre saw a blue station wagon park just beside the hall.

“Look, I have to go.” said Pierre. “But I’ll be fine. I’m learning from Packett now. And I’ll still be doing the competition circuit, so I’ll still see everybody. But it… just didn’t work out here, I guess.”

“Then I guess I’ll see you around.”

“Yeah, I guess I will. Enjoy playing for Mason. You earned it.”

Emma watched as Pierre walked silently through the maze of tables, past Ms. Law, and out the door.

© 2020, Carl Coetzee