Every Note Played

Every Note Played

Lisa Genova

Why do you stay in prison when the door is so wide open?



Richard is playing the second movement of Schumann’s Fantasie in C Major, op. 17, the final piece of his solo recital at the Adrienne Arsht Center in Miami. The concert hall is sold-out, yet the energy here doesn’t feel full. This venue doesn’t carry the prestige or intimidating pressure of Lincoln Center or the Royal Albert Hall. Maybe that’s it. This recital is no big deal.

Without a conductor or orchestra behind him, all audience eyes are on him. He prefers this. He loves possessing their undivided attention, the adrenaline rush of being the star. Playing solo is his version of skydiving.

But this entire night, he’s noticed that he’s playing on top of the notes, not inside them. His thoughts are drifting elsewhere, to the steak dinner he’s going to eat back at the hotel, to the self-conscious examination of his imperfect posture, criticizing the flatness of his performance, aware of himself instead of losing himself.

He’s technically flawless. Not many pianists alive today could traverse this demandingly fast and complex section without error. He normally loves playing this piece, especially the bombastic chords of the second movement, its power and grandiosity. Yet, he’s not emotionally connected to any of it.

He trusts that most, if not all, of the people in the audience aren’t sophisticated enough to hear the difference. Hell, most people have probably never even heard Schumann’s Fantasie in C Major, op. 17. It forever breaks his heart that millions listen to Justin Bieber all day long and will live and die without ever hearing Schumann or Liszt or Chopin.

Being married is more than wearing a ring comes to mind. Karina said this to him some years ago. Tonight, he’s just wearing the ring. He’s mailing it in, and he’s not sure why. He’ll get through this last piece and have another chance here tomorrow night before flying out to LA. Five more weeks of this tour. It’ll be summer by the time he gets home. Good. He loves summer in Boston.

He plays the final phrasing of the third-movement adagio, and the notes are gentle, solemn, hopeful. He’s often moved to tears at this point, a permeable conduit for this exquisite expression of tender vulnerability, but tonight he’s unaffected. He doesn’t feel hopeful.

He plays the final note, and the sound lingers on the stage before dissipating, floating away. A moment of quiet stillness hangs in the hall, and then the bubble is punctured by applause. Richard stands and faces the audience. He hinges at the waist, his fingers grazing the bottom of his tuxedo jacket, bowing. The people rise to their feet. The houselights are up a bit now, and he can see their faces, smiling, enthusiastic, appreciating him, in awe of him. He bows again.

He is loved by everyone.

And no one.



If Karina had grown up fifteen kilometers down the road in either direction north or south, in Gliwice or Bytom instead of Zabrze, her whole life would be different. Even as a child, she never doubted this. Location matters in destiny as much as it does in real estate.

In Gliwice, it was every girl’s birthright to take ballet. The ballet teacher there was Miss Gosia, a former celebrated prima ballerina for the Polish National Ballet prior to Russian martial law, and because of this, it was considered a perk to raise daughters in otherwise grim Gliwice, an unrivaled privilege that every young girl would have access to such an accomplished teacher. These girls grew up wearing leotards and buns and tulle-spun hopes of pirouetting their way out of Gliwice someday. Without knowing specifically what has become of the girls who grew up in Gliwice, she’s sure that most, if not all, remain firmly anchored where they began and are now schoolteachers or miners’ wives whose unrequited ballerina dreams have been passed on to their daughters, the next generation of Miss Gosia’s students.

If Karina had grown up in Gliwice, she would most certainly not have become a ballerina. She has horrible feet, wide, clumsy flippers with virtually no arch, a sturdy frame cast on a long torso and short legs, a body built more for milking cows than for pas de bourrée. She would never have been Miss Gosia’s star pupil. Karina’s parents would have put an end to bartering valuable coal and eggs for ballet lessons long before pointe shoes. Had her life started in Gliwice, she’d still be in Gliwice.

The girls down the road in Bytom had no ballet lessons. The children in Bytom had the Catholic Church. The boys were groomed for the priesthood, the girls the convent. Karina might have become a nun had she grown up in Bytom. Her parents would’ve been so proud. Maybe her life would be content and honorable had she chosen God.

But her life was never really a choice. She grew up in Zabrze, and in Zabrze lived Mr. Borowitz, the town’s piano teacher. He didn’t have a prestigious pedigree like Miss Gosia’s or a professional studio. Lessons were taught in his living room, which reeked of cat piss, yellowing books, and cigarettes. But Mr. Borowitz was a fine teacher. He was dedicated, stern but encouraging, and most important, he taught every one of his pupils to play Chopin. In Poland, Chopin is as revered as Pope John Paul II and God. Poland’s Holy Trinity.

Karina wasn’t born with the lithe body of a ballerina, but she was graced with the strong arms and long fingers of a pianist. She still remembers her first lesson with Mr. Borowitz. She was five. The glossy keys, the immediacy of pleasing sound, the story of the notes told by her fingers. She took to it instantly. Unlike most children, she never had to be ordered to practice. Quite the opposite, she had to be told to stop. Stop playing, and do your homework. Stop playing, and set the dinner table. Stop playing, it’s time for bed. She couldn’t resist playing. She still can’t.

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