My greatest memory of personal music moments hovers with a single note. Every musician plays thousands upon thousands of notes in a lifetime; for me, this note resonates more loudly than all the rest. It sings of discipline, of talent, of tenacity, and of inspiration. A single note defines a lifetime of artistry. This note sprung upon me the summer preceding my senior year in high school. I was a flutist, and following a grueling audition I was chosen for North Carolina’s Governor’s School, a six-week summer program for gifted students. The palpable excitement of being away from home for so extended a period heightened my awareness and lent a sense of adventure to music.
In the auditorium, the environment that would become a familiar and welcome part of my life enveloped me for the first time. I breathed in the slightly musty smell of a public place which was not used everyday, and while my eyes adjusted to the yellow light that played across our music, I thrilled to hear the cacophonous sound of seventy instrumentalists warming up together. How could order come from this writhing, living, feral sound? Then, at the conductor’s bidding, the first notes of unified music drifted upward from our instruments. Having only played in wind bands previously, the rich and resonant sound of strings surrounding me was shocking. The vibrations of the music pulsed through me and changed me fundamentally and permanently.
It was here that the note was etched into my character. While reading a Mahler symphony, I stumbled upon a lengthy tone perched two octaves above middle C. It sprawled across several measures of the page. I eyed it nervously, and as it approached, I realized that it was not supported by the safety of section upon section of foundation. Instead, it rode freely above a passage of music that was sparse, with only flitting woodwind accompaniment reminiscent of tranquil pastoral scenes. I dug in and played the note. Its lifelessness belied the serene and sparkling movement beneath it. The conductor asked for more animation. How could I give more life to a single note whose length tested endurance and whose register challenged intonation?
I worked harder on that single note than on many of the difficult passages I undertook that summer. I defeated the trial of intonation by mastering the subtleties of my instrument. I gained endurance by playing this single note again and again, each time broadening the capacity of my lungs. Most of all, I learned the difference between playing a note and performing it; I discovered the soul of an artist. Happily, that soul was mine.
The evening of performance arrived. People and perfume modified the musty smell of the auditorium. The dark void in front of the stage was filled with light and audience. The adrenaline usually reserved for sports or fear coursed through me. The note haunted me. As it drew nearer, I could feel my stomach tighten.
It arrived. Following a deep breath, I released the note. It hovered there, a living thing, floating gingerly above the wind section before gliding to the ears of the audience. As my lungs began to deflate, I grappled with intonation and won. The note soared to its conclusion. As the rest of the movement unwound around me, I realized that I had accomplished the making of music, and joy bubbled up in me and nearly spilled over in happy laughter. I channeled that energy into a wonderful performance. I treasure the memory of a single note that defined my musicianship.