The Bush Concerto


The ocean swell disappears leaving the waters flat and unruffled except by the wind chop. To the south an intricate system of creeks pushes deep into the national park. The foreshores are rocky with the occasional swampy inlet giving way to dense low scrub. Here the cove is just over a kilometre wide, deep water running into rocky shores with high timber clad hills frowning down on the huddle of jetties which cling to the sheltered western edge. The bush hamlet was previously only used by holiday makers or fishermen but with the surging popularity of the outboard these ‘water access only’ properties give some families the chance to say they live on the coast in metropolitan Sydney.

The child scrambled into the tinny, hastily lifting her bare feet out of the cold salty water which seemed to live permanently in the bottom of the dinghy and she clutched the aluminium gunwale as the boat sped through the estuary. Within half an hour mother and daughter were climbing out onto the mainland and taking the flagstone pathway to the commuter car park. The back seat of the car doubled as a shoe wardrobe, dress expectations were higher on this side of the bay, and Louise pulled on the school socks striped with the prestigious colours of a private school.

The family all had the same intensely focused expression, an eye contact that halted the recipient in their tracks and demanded full immediate attention. It came from a source right at the soul, what a corporation might call its mission statement, which fuelled their minds and bodies with a kind of desperate energy to achieve only at the highest level; hubris in superb achievements fed a voracious vanity. This quest for excellence was what would give them an instant reputation replacing the anonymity of the newcomer, the migrant, the foreigner. Until now they had travelled the world to follow the whim of the international economy, taking advantage of the opportunities given to those who would work in the new civilisations growing out of the oil industry. The Middle East, South America and Asia had been the circuit of employment but now that their ‘pride and joy’ was well into school-age, roots must be put down in a place where experts could be found to mould the young mind.

Louise and her mother sat quietly on the bench outside the music studio door, listening to the piano and even more intensely listening to the words of the teacher they were about to meet. They were early; they were always early for everything. All possible preparations had been made to put her star in the ascendant, cultivating ability and genius by accessing the latest most innovative educational methods.

“Talent is not inborn, it has to be created – those are the words of Dr. Suzuki our Founder, and we must begin with the very youngest of children. However, although we have obviously missed some formative years in this case, it is never too late.”

To their irritation the teacher alluded to the cracks she saw in the material she was being given to work with: Louise at eight years of age may have metaphorically missed the boat but could possibly be salvaged. Hopes sunk slightly but an ever optimistic mother held her course and insisted that the girl commence the term of lessons. When tuition began it soon became apparent that discipline, commitment and application would overcome any predictions based on the hypothesis that children’s perceptions of themselves are already formed by the time they are three years old.

Their house sat securely on a natural sandstone platform above the ferns and palms clustered beside the steep pathway, isolated by the National Park at its back, the cliff at its side and the waterway glistening below at its front. She did not have the distractions of a suburban neighbourhood where usually grass is greener next door with the other children who watch TV instead of absorbing the bars of Beethoven. In her home the tape deck was constantly in motion with reels spooling from one side to the other providing the recorded examples, at first the simple minuets of Bach but over the months these were replaced by the sonatas of Mozart. If the girl wasn’t playing, then she was listening. Her inner voice was moulded in the image provided by the finest musicians, past and present. As she listened to the recordings of Walter Geiseking and Dinu Lipatti she nuanced her own phrasing of compositions by Mozart and Bach in a form guided by that precedent. When she played the pieces, an unconscious force took control and gave her interpretation the confident superiority of the implanted model. The precision of her implementation developed with the hours of rehearsal, each phrase or perhaps a scale passage, sometimes a progression of chords, all notched up the allocated number of repetitions. There was something illusive or intangible that had been added to Louise’s ability to absorb all facets of a musical composition. If she watched the teacher, the sway of the body, the conformation of angles formed by the shoulders, arms and hands, then she could incorporate that exactly into her own novice performance. For Louise imitation seemed normal, just as normal as it was for her to be able to speak English using the complex pronunciation and linguistic semiotics that were part of daily communication.

Perhaps it was an infancy of constantly changing social environments that had put her antennae on red alert and set her dials to sweep the horizon with the radar on its most sensitive of settings which led to this most comprehensive of all interpretations that constituted her performance. Whatever it was, it set her apart from all others even from the very earliest of her musical endeavours. Louise enjoyed the progress she could feel through the tips of her fingers as her competence grew. Possibly she needed no other source of satisfaction; however that first win was seductive.

If there is one thing the music world does well it is certainly comparison. Judging, review, and critique go hand in hand with appreciation of the artist and alongside these appraisals are monetary rewards, fame and glory. Surprisingly there are opportunities for quite young children to compete and it is in these situations that the prodigy is revealed not just to the public but often to themselves. The adjudicator moved to the front of the local hall and began to address the audience. Behind her on the trestle table were the silver trophies winking at the performers who sat in silent anticipation, almost trance like in their attention, hoping to catch the familiar syllables of their own name being called as first place:

“and the winner is competitor 17 ….”

Louise rose to accept the prize, the applause and that mantle of supremacy. The next eisteddfods would all follow the same script, their judges singing from the same song sheet:

“an amazingly mature interpretation from one so young, such precision of execution for technical aspects …”

“the honours of the evening go to the pianist. An almost flawless technique, astonishing in such a young girl, was revealed particularly in the 3rd movement of Mendelssohn’s 1st Piano Concerto. To play the entire concerto was itself a feat worthy of mention.”

Winning was addictive but the pride in it would be accompanied by her fall. Louise’s campaign was so successful that the organisers of the local concerto competition had to change the rules within three years of her first entry into the field, so exceptional was her talent. It was realised by the organising committee of the Music Festival that if rules were left as they were she might conceivably win the junior then senior section every year for the next decade. They revised the categories to institute an ‘overall winner’ section for the most outstanding of all performers, distinguished from the senior and junior entries; the beneficiary of this supreme prize would be declared ineligible to compete in any future years. Thus they filtered out the top talent. Being superb led inevitably to rejection.

High above a house on the edge of the National Park the walking tracks led to an escarpment etched with ancient Aboriginal carvings; various look-outs showcased views to the isolated beaches which could only be reached by a steep climb down through the coastal shrubbery. And on some days, sitting very quietly on a rocky outcrop, local bushwalkers could hear the call of a sea eagle, the whistle and crack of a whip bird or the caw of a crow. If the swell was strong from the southeast then the crash of the waves would drift on the nor’easter from the boulders at the base of Barrenjoey. But occasionally another cadence came sotto voce through the trees, a muted murmur, gentle, soft and faint, floating on another breeze. Ignominiously, the Steinway now whispered the slow movement of a concerto to an impartial audience in the bush.

About clareseligman

A flash fiction/short story writer with an interest in the themes of cultural studies, travel, music, teaching, sailing and snow skiing.
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