You've heard the joke, right? Why is a viola better than a violin? It burns longer.
Wait, here's another. You're lost in the woods and meet a pink elephant and a good viola player. Who do you ask for directions? The pink elephant—a good viola player is just a figment of your imagination.
Violists hate it when we violinists crack viola jokes. But my audition for the Connecticut All-State High School Orchestra is in ten minutes, and I'm trying to relax. I raise my bow above the strings, about to practice one last time. And that's when I hear it. This note.
This pure note, with a warm vibrato that could melt ice instantly, flows from a nearby trumpet. It floats across the room. My concentration's broken. That's never happened to me before.
I whirl around, looking for the source of the sound. Which isn't easy, because there are at least fifty trumpet players scattered throughout the lobby, practicing the same fanfare passage from Rimsky-Korsakov's Capriccio Espagnol, op. 34—one of the pieces the All-State Orchestra will perform at the annual concert next April.
It's eleven A.M. on the last Saturday of August, and auditions are being held at the University of Hartford's Hartt School, which is also where I have my violin lessons. Every year, students from all over Connecticut try out for a spot in the All-State Orchestra. Only the best are chosen, because we have to be technically advanced enough to practice the music to perfection on our own between now and April. Then we have an all-day rehearsal followed by a concert that evening. Students pack the lobby and nearby hallways, practicing furiously before their audition times. You've got a flautist doing C major arpeggios next to a cellist playing the first movement of the Boccherini Cello Concerto. And across from the cellist sits my friend Susan Summers, bobbing her head up and down as she runs through a difficult passage from a Vivaldi bassoon concerto. (I could insert a bassoon joke here,1 but I like Susan, and she's a really good musician, even though, well, she plays the bassoon.)
I glance at my sheet music—for the solo part of my audition, I will play the first movement of Mendelssohn's Violin Concerto in E minor. I've won the first chair of All-State Concertmaster three years in a row. Being chosen concertmaster means you're the best violinist in the entire state. I'm hoping to win it again for my senior year. Getting concertmaster for the fourth straight year will look good on my college applications. Plus I know the Mendelssohn like the back of my hand. But the sixteenth notes splayed across the paper blur into a hazy, inky mess because I can't pay attention. Normally I can zone out all this white noise. What's wrong with me?
I duck as a neighboring violinist's bow nearly impales my left ear. She ignores me and keeps practicing . . .the Mendelssohn. I pause and listen as she scrambles to hit all the notes—she rushes the beat and her intonation is sharp. I sigh, relieved she's not as good as me.
And then I spot him. The one who's distracting me from preparing for my audition. He's standing in the far left corner of the lobby. The blinking fluorescent lights sparkle off the bell of his trumpet. His eyes are closed, and he stands perfectly straight at attention, his left hand curled in a C shape around the valves of the trumpet. He's tall and lean, dressed neatly in a pair of faded jeans and a white Oxford shirt, the sleeves rolled up to the elbows. His wavy brown hair curls behind his ears, and long bangs cover his eyes.
For a moment I'm in another world, transfixed by each beautiful note that peals effortlessly from his lips. I'm glad he doesn't play violin, because then we'd have to compete against each other.
He finishes the fanfare. He lowers his trumpet and glances in my direction. He pushes a lock of hair away, and I notice how green his eyes are.
Silence. He's still staring at me. Too late, I realize he's caught me just standing here, gawking at him, my mouth partially open. My thick black-framed Harry Potterstyle glasses slip down my nose. I push them up, wishing for the thousandth time that my nose wasn't so flat and that I didn't have the kind of pudgy Korean face that looks cute at age seven but not at age seventeen, and that I wasn't so short. Guys normally don't smile at me unless they're making fun of me for taking stuff like Star Wars a little too seriously or asking me to help tutor them in math. I look away from him, and I wonder why my heart is suddenly beating so fast.
While I'm thinking these thoughts, the cute trumpet guy walks right over, cradling the trumpet underneath his arm. He towers over me—I have to step back and crane my neck to see his eyes.
"Hi," he says.
All that floats through my brain is a trumpet joke. How many trumpet players does it take to change a light bulb? Just one, but he'll do it too loudly. (Oh my God. Stop it.)
Cute Trumpet Guy just stands there, waiting for me to say something. I'm tongue-tied because I'm mesmerized by his eyes, which are the exact same shade of green as that of pimento-stuffed olives. I don't even like olives.
"What's wrong?" he asks. Suddenly I realize I've been frowning this whole time.
"You're too loud." I wince. I can't believe I just said that. But it is true—he was too loud and I couldn't concentrate.
"Sorry," he says. But he doesn't sound upset. "Are you nervous about your audition?"
What? Excuse me? Did Cute Trumpet Guy just ask if the Three-Times-in-a-Row-All-State-Concertmaster was nervous?
"You have to try and zone everyone out," he continues. "It's hard, but you can do it."