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To be in awe of another is pleasurable for most people, but Zhou had accompanied his pupil to Vienna for the International Beethoven Piano Competition to be of service to her—let the judges be in awe later in the recital hall, not him now in the practice studio. He intended to remain in control of his senses while his pupil, a young woman named Lian, played through part of her repertoire. The senses, however, revel in the folly to contain what nature wants released, and when fingers were laid upon keys, sound upon waves, Zhou responded to the opening of the final movement of Beethoven’s tumultuous sonata, Appassionata.
Reaching out to steady himself, Zhou touched the piano, felt it vibrating under the master of those rumbling chords and withdrew his hands in deference. When at his music conservatory in Hong Kong, he mitigated against deference to Lian by holding her lesson first in the day and imitating the bee, taking from her that rich vitality and carrying it to his other students for inspiration. Here, he had no such recourse and fear another display of deference would expose him as an unworthy teacher ended his reverie.
With his senses regained, Zhou clapped his hands, his customary signal for a student to stop playing so that he could provide a correction, but Lian didn’t comply. Instead, she responded by imbuing the Allegro ma non troppo with defiance, unusual for her, giving angry voice to the two opposing forces within the score and sidelong glances to Zhou until he began to hear those two forces as teacher and student in a counterpoint of accusation and rebuttal. La-la La-la La! La-la La-la La! I signaled you to stop! I didn’t want to stop! La-la La-la La! La-la La-la La! You should listen to me! I’m listening to myself!
Lian then accelerated the presto beyond Zhou’s approved tempo, sending notes back and forth at a pace that made each one indistinguishable but their collective meaning clear in Zhou’s mind: she was mocking him, using the score as a tally sheet for his failings as a teacher and her accomplishments as a pupil. And when she hunched over the keys, fuming under her breath through a short pianissimo reprieve, Zhou believed it was within her power to humiliate him after her performance that evening. Yes, she could announce to the judges and spectators alike that he had never taught her anything at all.
As Lian played the fierce running notes that end the sonata, Zhou knew she was leaving behind his pedagogical approach of respect for tradition, supplanting it with her own interpretation of victory for victory’s sake. Then she struck those two final cutting chords, which didn’t linger in regret and neither did she. Zhou watched Lian rise and leave the practice studio with a new, singular confidence, the type necessary to prevail in a competition as tough as the life of a deaf composer, and tomorrow she would thank him for it.
Sem Megson’s writing explores how people both raise and lower themselves to deal with the ever-changing world and has been published and produced in Britain, Canada, and the United States. For more information, please visit semmegson.com.