His fingers flutter above the Fazioli grand piano and the Esplanade Concert Hall falls silent, waiting to witness his wizardry.
The spotlight focuses on him, Alexander Pritt, barely fourteen, sitting alone on the stage. His golden blonde hair and crystal blue eyes conjure an image of a delicate porcelain doll. A closer examination of his face reveals the playful glimmer in his eyes. His slender arms sway and there is a balletic fluidity to their movements.
He plays Balakirev’s Islamey – An Oriental Fantasy, considered by many to be one of the hardest classical composition ever composed. Balakirev, the eccentric Russian composer, had a nervous breakdown after completing the piece. I, myself, did not attempt the piece until my twenties.
He plays the frenetic tempo of the second stanza. His finger movements border the divine. He plays it so magnificently that it utterly breaks my heart.
He is my prized pupil, a student I never sought nor wanted. He is my first and only student. I had no desire to waste my time teaching youths, but my wife asked me to teach that young boy and I did. You don’t get to my age without knowing that a happy wife is a happy life. Against my best judgment, I took him under my wings.
He soared so high that I barely managed to catch a glimpse of his shadow. I warned him of the story of Icarus, a boy who flew too high with his fake wings and how the sun scorched him for it. He laughed it off. I keep telling myself he’s just a boy. But with a talent to transform the world, a reminder would ring in my mind and insist that he was more than just an ordinary boy.
The world heralded me a genius, someone whose brilliance can only be seen once a decade. But, when he played his first piece, I instinctively knew that he was a prodigy we would only witness once a century. His greatness surpasses mine and I hated him for it.
He never had to spend days learning a piece and playing it until his fingernails bled from practice. He never had to spend nights doing listening practice to recall musical notes. I worked operosely to get my so-called gift. He barely lifted his fingers. Perfect auditory memory and muscle memory retention ensure that he only needs to hear a piece and plays it at least ten times until he masters it. By the twentieth time, he would be able to inject his transcendental sensibilities into it, just as he’s doing with Islamey.
On stage, Alex pauses for dramatic effect, the same technique that I had taught him, but he had made it his own. The silent interlude makes the audience hungrier for his dazzling spell.
Oh, how I wish I had not taken him to be my student! At least then I won’t be digging my own grave. My wife, Angela, bless her soul, said that I needed to encourage him and how sad it would be if a talent like his is lost to the world. She never once suspected my disdain for the boy nor my reason for not accepting students.
The world’s greatest do not become great by mentoring others, they become great by crushing all opposition. My competitiveness is my edge and Angela had rendered it dull by having me tutor the boy.
The boy was cute when he first started, that I have to admit. But, even a bloodhound is endearing when it’s a pup. I remembered when he first asked me to tutor him. He was so afraid of asking the great and famous pianist of the century to tutor him. He called me mentor and that’s been the designation ever since.
Mentor. It’s funny, really. As musicians, we’ve been trained to break sounds into smaller segments and to play around with them. So, “ment” and “tor” easily become “tor” and “ment.” Every time the boy says mentor, all I hear is torment. Whoever came up with the word is a genius in his own right, adequately defining the torment of the mentor. I want the boy to succeed, he is my prized pupil after all, but I never wanted him to surpass me. Which artist would want to jeopardize his own legacy?
Excerpt from The Mentor, first published in BROKEN WORLDS. Copyright © 2015 S Mickey Lin.