Grace Duprey was nervous as she sat in the rear of the stage in the McCarter Theater. She wondered if she would be able to perform. She looked down at her hands. Thus far they had held steady. However, today was the most important day of the competition. Grace closed her eyes. She tried to envision the notes of the music she was to play today. Instead her mind drifted back in time to her last public performance.
She was barely 10, when her father told her that she had been selected to play the piano at the graduation ceremony of the local school. The news sent Grace running into her private sanctuary. Once in her bedroom, she locked the door.
Father had been absolutely furious at her reaction. He pounded on her bedroom door, yelling, “Open that door now!” Her small body shook with fear in anticipation of having to perform in public. Grace hid under her bed. Then she heard her mother call out to her father, “Leave her alone. She will come out when she’s hungry.”
Her lips moved involuntarily as they shouted out, “No! I’m not going to come out for dinner.”
Grace squeezed her lips tightly together. She didn’t want to make things worse with another slip of the tongue. Silently she assured herself, she would starve before agreeing to play the piano in public. Short guttural sobs started to echo in her throat. Tears flowed down her face. She scrunched her body into a ball. She tightened her fists, closed her eyes, and prayed she would disappear. Moments later she was asleep.
A loud knock on her bedroom door woke her. She opened her eyes. It was dark. Nightfall had slipped in through the widows and surrounded her. A soft voice penetrated the darkness. It was her mother, “Grace, please open the door. I have a glass of milk, a tuna fish sandwich, and your favorite dessert. A Jelly donut.”
Grace loved the jelly donuts from the Pineview Bakery. Her father would bring home half a dozen on Saturdays. She and her brother Victor would devour them in two days. When there was only one left, she would give her brother half. Grace wondered if she would have to share this donut.
Then she heard her father’s voice. “Grace, if you don’t come out now, there will be no jelly donuts or playing with your friends after school for a month.”
Grace’s mind fixated on the one jelly donut. She spoke to her mother. “Mommy, does the jelly donut have white powdered sugar and raspberry jelly?”
“Will I have to share it?”
“No Grace, you can have a whole one.
She crawled out from under her bed and approached the door to her bedroom. She opened it. Her mother was standing in the hallway leading to the bedroom empty handed. Her father was standing next to her. His expression was that of disappointment.
Mom and Dad both stood aside as Grace exited her room and headed for the kitchen. As she entered, she looked on the kitchen counter. She saw a glass of milk, a tuna sandwich and the prized jelly donut. She climbed onto the stool in front of the counter where her dinner was sitting.
Both parents stood by the counter while she drank her milk and ate her sandwich. Just as she was reaching for the donut, her father’s hand swooped it up.
“Okay, precious. Now we talk.”
Grace looked at the jelly donut in the plate her father was holding. She saw thick red liquid oozing from the hole where the baker had inserted the jelly. She closed her eyes. She pretended to take a bite. Grace imagined the jelly sliding down her tongue to her throat. Her father watched his daughter, as she licked her lips.
“Grace, are you listening to me?
She opened her eyes and nodded. Father continued, “You are the youngest person that has ever been asked to play a piano solo for the graduation ceremony at that school. If you love me, you will do it.”
There it was. He was playing the “prove that you love me” card. If she still refused, his next play would be, “ If you don’t do this, you will embarrass me in front of the whole town.”
She looked at the donut on the plate in her father’s hand, and nodded.
He asked, “Is that a yes? You won’t embarrass me will you?”
Well there it was. His last ditch play. “No Daddy. I won’t embarrass you.” He handed her the jelly donut.
The weeks that followed were sheer torture. Her piano teacher Mrs. Coutier had decided Grace would perform Beethoven’s Minuet No. 2 in G Major. During her practice sessions, the piano teacher repeatedly admonished her. She disapproved of how Grace played the piece.
Of all the piano teachers she’d had since age three, Grace hated Mrs. Coutier the most. The woman just did not understand music. The teacher played the piano like a technician following instructions from a pamphlet. There was no emotion, no passion. The sound was frigid.
Prior to her parents moving to the Catskills her piano teacher in New York City had been Alisa, a Russian refugee. At the end of every lesson, Alisa would show Grace a picture of a young girl standing on a stage. She would point to the girl in the photo and say. “ That’s me. I was twelve when I played my first solo at a concert. You will be ready when you are ten years old.”
Unlike Mrs. Coutier, Alisa encouraged her student to play music from the heart and soul during her piano lessons.
When the day of her solo public performance at the high school finally arrived, Grace begrudgingly sat down on the bench in front of the studio grand piano in the auditorium. Her feet barely touched the pedals.
When instructed to start playing Grace’s fingers lay motionless on the keys. She could not make them move. Then she heard someone laughing. She turned towards the laughter. It was a boy from her 5th grade class. He was laughing because she couldn’t move.
That did it! She’d show him. Her hands flew over the piano keys. When she finished the piece, her heart was furiously pounding. There was thunder like noise all around her. Suddenly she realized it was the audience applauding. She turned towards them. They stood up. The applause became louder. She wanted to hide.
Then she heard the piano teacher and the school’s band teacher, Mr. Brown talking. He congratulated Ms. Coutier on her student’s performance. Grace’s face turned red with anger. How dare the piano teacher take credit for the training Alisa had provided! She walked up to her teacher and shouted “Liar!” Then ran out of the auditorium.
That summer, her mother informed Grace that Mrs. Coutier had arranged an audition for her with a friend of the famous conductor, Leonard Bernstein.
As Grace’s mind traveled back in time, all she remembered about the audition was her father driving up to a set of large wrought iron gates with a musical clef on each gate. The gates opened. They drove up a long driveway to the pianist’s house. She had no memory of playing for him. A few days later her mother informed Grace he had agreed to take her on as a student. The thought of another performance, terrified her. She refused to play the piano again.
After high school, she attended the engineering school at Princeton University. At the beginning of her sophomore year, Grace rented a room in a private house. The owner of the home was a piano teacher with a studio that housed a grand piano. She gave Grace permission to play the piano whenever the studio was not in use. The shy pianist would play at the crack of dawn or after everyone had gone to bed. The studio was sound proof so the music stayed within the walls.
At first Grace’s hands would shake when she touched the keyboard, but by the end of her second year at Princeton University, her hands were steady. She started composing music. She continued to live in Princeton after graduation.
Today was the final test. Had she overcome the panic of stage fright? The finals for the piano competition were being held at McCarter. Grace had sailed through each level of elimination. She was now one of five finalists left in her category. The stage fright of her youth had left her during the earlier trials. But today?
The image of Grace backstage, waiting her turn was striking. The baby fat had melted and left a slender, curved body. The once wild curls that fell round her face were now long gentle waves, auburn in color, beautifully framing her large amber eyes. The dress she wore was a rich black velvet ankle length gown that seductively skimmed over her waist and hips.
She felt a tap on her shoulder. The tapper directed her to move to the edge of the curtain on the stage. She was next! She looked down at her hands. They had not grown much since her childhood but her fingers could spread wide over the piano keyboard. Then she realized her hands and fingers were steady.
As she walked towards the curtain she heard ….
“Please welcome Ms. Grace Duprey. She will be performing “Stage Fright.” Ms. Duprey composed and arranged the piece.”
Grace was just a few feet from the grand piano when a sense of nausea spread from her stomach up through her throat. She wanted to run, but not off the stage. This time it was to the piano. She looked down at her feet. They were gliding towards the piano. She took a deep breath and gracefully sat on the piano bench.
The lights dimmed. Her hands positioned themselves on the keyboard. Her fingers danced over the keys with the grace of a ballerina.
When she finished playing, Grace looked up from the piano keys, at the judges. They were standing, their hands clapping, their faces smiling. Grace stood up. She gently bowed from her waist. Then she saw her father. He stood up, and blew her kisses. He looked so proud as he walked towards the stage stopping to say, “That’s my little girl. Isn’t she wonderful?” to anyone who would listen.
Piedad Bernikow is a retired lawyer who lives in Monroe Township.